1649 was the year that Charles II lost a father and gained a son. It had been less than three months since his father had been executed on the orders of a rebel parliament, dominated by Oliver Cromwell, and in the moment that Charles I ceased to exist, in the eyes of millions the dead king's eighteen year-old son became Charles II, By the Grace of God, King of England, King of Scotland and King of Ireland. To them, the republic recently declared in the British Isles was both illegal and blood-stained.
The abolition of the British monarchy at the end of one of the most destructive and brutal civil wars in European history had scattered the surviving Royal Family to the winds. Charles himself was living in the Netherlands, where his eldest sister, Mary, had married the Prince of Orange and provided asylum for Charles when he was forced to flee England and lead the royalist resistance abroad. They had been joined by their second brother, fifteen year-old James, a strikingly handsome blond who was already being eaten up with cancerous hatred for parliament's murder of his father. Two of their siblings, thirteen year-old Elizabeth and eight year-old Henry, both of whom had been with their father on the day of his execution, were still being held in a republican jail in England and the youngest, four year-old Minette, had been smuggled out of England by a loyal palace servant and brought safely to Paris, where she was reunited with her grieving mother, Queen Henrietta-Maria.
To say that Henrietta-Maria was devastated by her husband's murder is something of an understatement. The bright and vivacious French princess who had been Charles I's wife for twenty-four years was now, at the age of thirty-nine, a widow. In her heyday, Henrietta-Maria had been the first lady of a court celebrated for its elegance and its patronage of the arts. She had also been demonised in parliamentarian circles for her Catholicism, her foreign birth and her antipathy towards democracy. She had been unfairly blamed by parliamentarians for leading her husband into a rift with Parliament and thereby causing the civil war. Charles I needed no encouragement to believe in the cause of absolute monarchy and, in any case, Henrietta-Maria had taken absolutely no interest in politics for most of her married life. She had all-but worshipped the ground her husband walked on and Catholic and French envoys had often been frustrated by the Queen's refusal to recommend a policy which she thought her husband might not like to hear.
The news that her beloved husband had been beheaded outside the banqueting hall of the royal family's favourite London home was broken to Henrietta-Maria on a January evening by her Master of the Horse, Henry Jermyn. Whilst her servants collapsed weeping hysterically around her, Henrietta-Maria did not speak or move. It was only when her childhood friend, the Duchesse de Vendôme, came to visit her, hours later, that Henrietta-Maria, now the Queen Mother, collapsed shrieking and moaning with 'her extreme grief.' She sent news to her sister-in-law, the Queen Mother of France, that her husband's death 'had made her the most afflicted woman on the wide earth.' For days and even weeks after Charles's execution, Henrietta-Maria had sat hugging the hands of her ladies-in-waiting, piteously declaring: 'I have lost a king, a husband and a friend, whose loss I can never sufficiently mourn, and this separation must render the rest of my life an endless suffering.'
Under the circumstances, it was understandable that Henrietta-Maria, who was usually so omnipresent (even occasionally overbearing) in her children's lives was apparently unaware that her eldest had just impregnated his most recent mistress. The Queen Mother was in any case uninterested in her son's bed hopping and was instead focussing all her attention on trying to get her children, Elizabeth and Henry, released from Cromwell's prisons. She was also distracted when Paris itself erupted in riots aimed at overthrowing the government, which brought back terrible memories of the days when London too had first been convulsed by protests. It would be months before the indomitable Henrietta-Maria had recovered her fighting spirit and galvanised herself to endure any sacrifice and any pain to ensure that the cause of the monarchy triumphed in the end.
Meanwhile, in Rotterdam, the young and exiled Charles II was forced to confront the fact that he had become a father. Had his father still been alive, it is hard to imagine how the devout and monogamous King would have reacted to his son's womanising. Charles I had never taken a mistress, either before or during his marriage, and he expected his sons to do likewise. Charles II, however, enjoyed sex far too much to adhere to his father's moral code. Furthermore, he enjoyed the company of women, both inside and outside of the bedroom and he was of the cheerful persuasion that God would never damn a man for seeking a little pleasure. The eighteen year-old prince had certainly not been a virgin when he first seduced Lucy Walter, a beautiful Welsh socialite. But then, neither was she.
Lucy Walter, the daughter of a wealthy Welsh landowner, was the same age as Charles II and she had led a similarly adventurous romantic life. Described by the writer John Evelyn as a beautiful, flirtatious but stupid brunette, Lucy had enjoyed several lovers after her family's home had been ransacked and destroyed by Cromwell's armies during the civil war. Her first lover whose name we know for certain was Lord Algernon Sidney, a republican. She later left Algernon's bed for that of his younger brother, Robert, a royalist. Unlike his brother, who had sided with parliament during the Civil War, Robert was a colonel in the royalist army and he was eventually forced to flee abroad to Holland when the monarchy was overthrown. With her family's fortune destroyed and little chance of it being reclaimed under a republican government, Lucy followed Robert into exile and the two lovers were re-united in Rotterdam, quickly picking up where they had left off. It was through Robert that Lucy first met Prince Charles, who became her lover within days of being introduced.
Not long after they first slept together, Lucy discovered that she was pregnant and both she and Charles seemed fairly insistent that he was the father. However, some of Charles's court-in-exile were less convinced. In the first place, what had been a minor royal love affair when Lucy first announced her pregnancy had suddenly become something much more significant when the act of regicide in London turned Lucy's lover from a prince into a king. The eyes of the world were now fixed upon the exiled House of Stuart to see what they would do next and it was not exactly ideal for them to see the young king parading around town with his disreputable mistress proudly flaunting her swollen belly.
Secondly, there were many in Charles's entourage who were by no means certain that he was the father of Lucy's baby. There is little to suggest that Lucy broke off her fling with Robert Sidney once she began sleeping with Prince Charles; Charles himself hadn't minded sharing. He had no intention of being faithful to her; why should he demand the same of her? Whatever his faults, Charles II did not preach a sexual double standard to his mistresses and in the seventeenth century, that is surely to his credit.
This controversial baby, born in a private house Lucy was renting in Rotterdam, was a boy, which made the debate about his paternity even more important. He was christened James, a good Stuart family name, and, at Charles's insistence, christened a Protestant too. In time, when his throne was restored to him, Charles II showered lands and titles on the boy he affectionately called "my Jimmy" - he became Duke of Monmouth, Earl of Doncaster, Earl of Dalkeith and Baron Scott. He was also to marry Anne, Duchess of Buccleuch, one of the great society heiresses of the 1660s, thereby acquiring a second ducal title.
Given all that, it seems clear that Charles II believed himself to be baby James's father. But was he? Many in the court-in-exile quite simply didn't believe Lucy and believed she had been able to get away with it because everybody else was too busy with other things to investigate her claims properly. Had Charles's mother Henrietta-Maria been in a more observant emotional state, it's highly unlikely that the out-spoken and refreshingly frank queen would not have queried the various holes in Lucy's story. For instance, the baby had been born only seven months after Charles's arrival in the Netherlands. Yes, premature babies then and now were possible, but considering the fact that Lucy had also been sleeping with Robert Sidney for months before Charles reached The Hague, wasn't it far more likely that he was the father? Years later, when his most notorious mistress, Barbara Villiers, presented him with a string of bastard children, Charles chivalrously acknowledged two of them - Anne and Benedicta - as his own, even though it is almost certain that he was not their biological father. Charles II was too moved by the sting that bastardy left on a child in the seventeenth century and he knew it was a sting which only a royal father might alleviate that he put his name to at least two children that were not his out of kindness. Might James Crofts have been the first?
We shall never know if Charles II was really the father of James Crofts. Many at the time believed he wasn't and several of those who insisted that Robert Sidney was the baby's sire were perfectly well-placed to know the truth. Against that, however, must be weighed the fact that Charles himself gave every appearance of believing the baby was his. Chivalrous he may have been, but if he had really thought that James was not his child, it is difficult to believe he would have given him so many aristocratic titles in the years after the restoration of the monarchy. Equally, of course, it is quite possible that both theories are correct - Charles believed he was the father but those around him who believed Sidney was were correct in their suspicions.
The love affair between Charles II and Lucy Walter soon fizzled out and both moved on to other conquests. In Lucy's case, more men and in Charles's, the attempted liberation of Scotland from the republican armies. Lucy later moved to Paris, where she enjoyed a string of lovers, but died at the age of twenty-eight, possibly from tuberculosis. Years later, some of her acquaintances would claim that she had once told them that during her stay in Rotterdam, she and Charles had secretly been married. By the time the story surfaced in England, Charles II was back on the throne and actually married to a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. Charles and Catherine had not married until 1662, four years after Lucy's death, which meant that even if the stories of a clandestine marriage were true, it did not affect the legality of Catherine's marriage. However, as the years passed and Queen Catherine failed, time and time again, to produce a living child and King Charles gallantly refused to divorce her, the rumours that he had once been Lucy Walter's husband took on a more sinister significance. Because of the Queen's childlessness, the King had no other legitimate children and if he had married Lucy Walters at the end of the civil war, didn't that mean that their child was now the rightful heir to the throne?
Tragically and stupidly, the young duke (above) seemed to believe this story and he grew more and more obsessed with the idea that he was his father's heir. The fact that he might not even have been King Charles's biological son, let alone his legitimate one, was conveniently forgotten. When Charles II died of kidney failure in 1685, the throne passed to his brother James, a convert to Catholicism who now inherited the throne as King James II. Buoyed along by his deluded (or feigned) belief that his parents had been married, despite the fact that neither he nor anybody else could find any documentation to prove his theory, Monmouth rose in rebellion against his uncle. Many supported him - eager to see a Protestant king instead of a Catholic one. The rebellion failed and on July 15th, four months after his alleged father's death, James, Duke of Monmouth was gruesomely and incompetently beheaded in the Tower of London. It took over five blows to severe the head of a man who may, or may not, have been the first-born son of the "Merry Monarch."