In Good King Charles’ Golden Days

Here you can explore the contexts of the plays, The Devil’s Disciples and In Good King Charles’ Golden Days, including background notes on the historical characters and the events mentioned in the plays.

In Good King Charles’ Golden Days

Biographical Sketches of Historical Figures

We would like to thank Henry Bakker of Trent University for preparing the Notes on Characters.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth in Lincolnshire, England, on 25 December, 1642. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge University, in 1661 and did not particularly distinguish himself as an undergraduate. He received his degree in 1665, shortly before the university was closed by the Plague outbreak. He returned to Woolsthorpe Manor and spent the next two years in private study, during which time he developed his theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation.

In 1669 Newton returned to Cambridge as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. He continued his work on optics and gravitation, and in 1687 he published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, with the encouragement and financial assistance of Edmond Halley. Considered to be one of the most influential books ever written, the Principia provided the foundation for the science of physics. Newton developed the concepts of mass, momentum, acceleration, and force, three laws of motion, and a mathematical law for the relationship between gravity and distance to account for the movement of planets and stars, as well as objects on earth. Building on the work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, Newton was the first to provide key insights into the structure of the universe, and back it up with hard data.

Newton’s religious views, an interesting mesh of universalism and scriptural literalism, occupied much of his time in the 1690s, during which time he produced copious notes on Biblical hermeneutics and its relationship to a chronology of the world. He became president of the Royal Society in 1703 and was knighted by Queen Anne in 1705. He died in 1727 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. After his death, his body showed the effects of Mercury poisoning, likely related to his alchemical experiments, offering a possible explanation for eccentric behaviour he exhibited towards the end of his life.

King Charles II of England (1630-1685)

Charles was born 29 May 1630, the eldest surviving son of Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France. In the early 1640s he accompanied his father on his campaigns against Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentary forces during the English Civil War, but fled to France in 1646. When Charles I was executed at Whitehall in 1649, the Parliament of Scots proclaimed Charles King of Scots. Charles arrived in Scotland and formed a treaty with the Scots Covenanters, which made the Presbyterian faith the official church of Scotland. Charles was crowned on 1 January 1651 at Scone.

In 1650 and 1651 Charles led his Covenanters army against Cromwell. On 3 September 1651, they were soundly defeated in the Battle of Worcester. Charles fled once again, and spent six weeks hiding and traveling in disguise before he was able to reach France. Cromwell was appointed Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and Charles spent nine years in exile in France and the Netherlands. Upon Cromwell’s death in 1658 his son Richard was appointed Lord Protector, but he did not have the political backing to maintain his father’s military rule and was forced to abdicate. The Protectorate was dissolved and the new Parliament elected to restore the English throne in 1660. Charles was invited to return from the continent, and was crowned King of England and Ireland at Westminster Abbey on 23 April, 1661.

Charles married Catherine of Braganza in 1662 as part of a treaty with Portugal in support of their war of independence with Spain. He and Catherine had no children together, although Charles would eventually acknowledge twelve illegitimate children by various mistresses.

In 1670 Charles signed the Treaty of Dover in secret with his cousin King Louis XIV of France, in which Louis agreed to pay Charles a pension and assist him in fighting the Anglo-Dutch wars, in exchange for a promise from Charles that he would convert to Roman Catholicism at an unspecified future date. In 1672, Charles announced his Royal Declaration of Indulgence, intended to allow freedom of religion for Catholics and Protestant Dissidents, but was forced by parliament to withdraw the declaration. In 1679 he faced the “Popish plot” and the Exclusion crisis, both intended to undermine the ability of Charles’ Catholic brother James, the Duke of York, to inherit the throne.

In 1679 Charles dissolved Parliament and ruled alone until his death on 6 February, 1685. He converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.

George Fox (1624-1691)

Born in rural Leicestershire in 1624, George Fox left his cobbler’s apprenticeship at the age of nineteen to begin his own very personal search for truth. Rebelling against the prevailing political and religious orthodoxy of his time, Fox set out on a period of wandering and seeking which exposed him to nearly all the Protestant Christian perspectives current in 17th century England, none of which answered his questions. Pursuing at the same time his own intensive study of the Bible, Fox began to preach a unique brand of Christian theology which emphasized personal revelation, simplicity, humility, peace, and a direct relationship with God unmediated by the traditional institutions of Christianity.

Fox expressed radical opinions that ran directly counter to all forms of contemporary Christian practice. He argued that women had souls; that personal faith was mor important than ritual; that inspiration by the Holy Spirit was the only necessary qualification for preaching, and was available to women and children as well as to men; he had a loose approach to scriptural authority, and refused to apply the word “church” to buildings, calling them “steeple houses.” Fox also maintained that the Bible made no clear distinction between the persons of the Trinity, a position he shared with Isaac Newton.

Through the late 1640s and early 1650s Fox’s following grew steadily, and a group of devoted preachers began to share his message as well. Calling themselves the “Friends of Truth,” and later just “Friends” the group often faced violence, oppression, and imprisonment. A judge applied the mocking sobriquet “Quaker” to Fox after the preacher told him he should “tremble at the word of the Lord.” The Friends’ tradition of silent waiting during their meetings also took shape at about this time. The oppression experienced not only by the Friends, but also by ordinary people in general during the Civil War, helped to shape the Friends’ emphasis on social justice and pacifism.

Although Fox had the sympathy and support of both Cromwell and Charles II, the Friends continued to face both official and unofficial hostility, partly through their refusal to swear oaths of any kind, including to the state. In 1669, Fox married Margaret Fell, a wealthy widow of one of his followers, and together the two of them worked until the end of his life to establish and support the Society in North America and Europe. Fox’s journal was edited and published posthumously in 1694.

Eleanor Gwynn (1650-1687)

Charles II licensed the acting companies again in 1663, after they had been driven underground by Cromwell’s puritan government. His favour, as well as the adoption of the French practice of allowing women to take the stage, provided the opportunity for Nell Gwynn, a woman of obscure origin, to become the most famous and beloved actress of her time.

Madame Gwynn, Nell’s mother, is believed to have been the proprietor of a brothel in the Covent Garden section of London, which also housed the theatre in Bridges Street. There was a close, often indistinguishable relationship between prostitution and acting in this time, and the orange-girls working in the audience often relayed messages between gentlemen and the actresses backstage. This work would certainly have served as a theatre apprenticeship for Nell, although whether and to what extent she worked as a prostitute is not clear. Samuel Pepys records the following exchange in a 1667 diary entry:

Here Mrs. Pierce tells me… that Nelly and Beck Marshall, falling out the other day, the latter called the other my Lord Buckhurst’s whore. Nell answered then, “I was but one man’s whore, though I was brought up in a bawdy-house to fill strong waters to the guests; and you are a whore to three or four, though a Presbyter’s praying daughter!” which was very pretty.

By all accounts, Nell’s popularity was entirely justified on the merits of her skill as a comic actress and her sharp wit.

Nell became Charles’ mistress in 1668. In 1670, she bore him a son, who would be named Charles Beauclerk, and whom Charles would make 1st Duke of St Albans in 1684. Nell returned to the stage briefly in 1670, but retired in 1671 at the age of twenty-one, pregnant with James, her second son by Charles. She was given a house on Pall Mall by the crown, and James II carried out a promise to look after her when Charles had died. She suffered a stroke and died in 1687.

Barbara Villiers (1641-1709) Lady Castlemaine, 1st Duchess of Cleveland

The most notorious of Charles’ mistresses was born into a Royalist family that was left impoverished after her father died fighting in the English Civil War. In 1659 she married Roger Palmer, 1st Earl of Castlemaine, who was a Roman Catholic. They separated in 1662, although they remained married until his death in 1705. She had become Charles’ mistress in 1660, while he was still in the Hague, she having traveled there with a group of Royalist supporters.

Barbara was appointed Lady of the Bedchamber, and was considered to have more influence at court than Catherine, Charles’ new queen. She gave birth to at least five of Charles’ children, and in 1670 she was made Duchess of Cleveland with a special stipulation that the dukedom would pass to her eldest son, Charles Fitzroy. Accounts of her infamous temper are balanced by tales of her joviality, warmth, and compassion. She feuded constantly with the Queen and Nell Gwynn, and in 1673 was entirely displaced from the king’s favour by Louise de Kéroualle. She retired to Paris in 1676, but returned to England in 1680. On her husband’s death in 1705 she married Major-General Robert Fielding. She died in 1709 of an oedema.

Louise de Kéroualle (1649-1734) Duchess of Portsmouth

The daughter of a noble family of Brittany, Louise was famous for her babyish beauty. In 1670 she accompanied the Duchess of Orléans on a visit to Charles in Dover. She was appointed lady-in-waiting to Catherine by Charles and quickly became his favourite mistress. She bore him a son, Charles, in 1672 and he made her Duchess of Portsmouth in 1675.

Her position enabled her to serve as a liaison between kings, and her favour was courted by the French government. In England she was hated and suspected as a spy, but she managed to maintain her position until the king’s death in 1685. She assisted in his conversion to Roman Catholicism, but after his death she fell out of favour and retired to France. Her wealth and influence diminished, but she was protected from her creditors and given a pension by Louis XIV.

James II of England (1633-1701)

James was the second surviving son of Charles I and was appointed Lord High Admiral at the age of three. This was obviously an honourary title, but it would become important after the Restoration. James was created Duke of York in 1644. After the siege of Oxford by Cromwell’s parliamentary forces in 1646, James was imprisoned in St. James Palace. He escaped to the Hague in 1648.

During the Interregnum period, James distinguished himself as a soldier serving in the French army, in their war against Spain. He was expelled in 1656, however, when his older brother Charles made an alliance with Spain. James was angry with Charles, and critical of his administration-in-exile. He proceeded to join the Spanish army and fight against his former French colleagues. At this time he also began to become friendly with a number of Irish-Catholic Royalists, and increasingly distant from his brother’s Anglican advisors.

James was created Duke of Albany at the Restoration and resumed his position as Lord High Admiral in earnest. He also married Anne Hyde the same year, the daughter of Charles’ chief minister. Only two daughters, Mary, born 1662, and Anne, born 1665, survived to adulthood of eight children born to James and Anne. Anne Hyde died in 1671.

As Lord High Admiral, James commanded the Royal Navy effectively during the Anglo-Dutch Wars. He had secretly converted to Catholicism in the late 1660s, however, and this would soon begin to cause problems for him. Parliament passed the Test Act in 1673, which required all civil and military official to publicly disavow the Catholic church and receive Anglican communion. James refused to perform the “test” and his religious convictions became public. He was forced to relinquish his position as Lord High Admiral, and Charles ordered that Mary and Anne would be raised as Protestants. James married Mary of Modena, an Italian princess, later that year. She would give birth to his son James Frances Edward, the “Old Pretender,” in 1688.

In 1677 Charles arranged the marriage between Mary and William of Orange, to which James grudgingly agreed. At about the same time the Earl of Shaftesbury began to promote a bill in Parliament which would exclude Catholics from the line of succession and Titus Oates began to publicize the “Popish plot” which fuelled anti-Catholic hysteria. These two events together constituted the “Exclusion Bill Crisis” which would paralyze the government for the next several years. In 1679, with the Exclusion Bill in danger of passing, Charles dissolved Parliament. Two more elected parliaments in the next two years were also dissolved for the same reason. Meanwhile, James was appointed Lord High Commissioner of Scotland and took up residence in the Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh. Tension between Charles and the government continued until 1683 when the discovery of the “Rye House Plot” to assassinate both Charles and James swung public opinion back in favour of the king and his heir.

By 1684 the exclusion threat was safely passed and James was able to peacefully ascend the throne upon Charles’ death in 1685. James had the support of Parliament for the first years of his reign, partially through his willingness to pardon those who had supported the Exclusion Bill, and the Monmouth Rebellion led by Charles’ eldest illegitimate son, James Crofts, was easily defeated. However, James’ uncompromising belief in absolute monarchy, combined with attempts to institute freedom of religion for Catholics, and the prospect of a Catholic heir in the young James, quickly wore out his welcome.

In 1688 Parliament forced James to abdicate by inviting William of Orange and Mary to England with an armed force. Many of James’ military leaders, including Churchill, defected to William, and James fled. Scotland declared his throne forfeit in 1689, but Ireland remained loyal to James. In 1690 James mounted a campaign with Irish support to reclaim the English throne, but was defeated by William’s forces at the Battle of the Boyne. James fled to France, and retired there with a pension provided by King Louis XIV. He died in 1701, having lived the last decade of his life under a code of religious penitence.

Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1st Baronet (1646-1723)

Kneller was the leading portrait painter in England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He was the court painter for every monarch from Charles II to George I. He also painted four portraits of Newton at different times in his life. He was working on a portrait of James II, commissioned by Samuel Pepys, the day James heard of William’s arrival in England.

Born in Lubeck, Germany, Kneller studied in Leiden, in the Netherlands, then apprenticed under Ferdinand Bol and Rembrandt in Amsterdam. He came to England in 1674 at the invitation of the Duke of Monmouth. When Sir Peter Lely died in 1680, Kneller was appointed Principal Painter to the Crown.

Kneller developed an efficient and productive studio system in which a portrait would be assembled with formulaic elements based on a brief sketch of the face. Kneller would paint the face himself, and then his team of specialist assistants would complete the portrait.

He was knighted by William III and made a Baronet by George I. From 1711-1716 he operated the Kneller Academy of Painting and Drawing. He died in 1723 of fever.

Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) Queen Consort of Charles II

Catherine was the second surviving daughter of the Duke of Braganza, later John IV of Portugal, and Luisa de Guzmán. The Portuguese Royal House was restored in 1640, and her father ascended the throne. Her marriage to Charles was precipitated by the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, in which Portugal was abandoned by France in its struggle for independence from Spain. Luisa, acting as regent for her incompetent son, negotiated a marriage treaty with England, and Charles and Catherine were married by proxy in 1662.

Catherine’s dowry was to have a significant impact on the development of the British empire, as it included Bombay, which the British would develop into the business centre of their Indian activities. She is also credited with introducing the drinking of tea, as well as the afternoon ritual of “high tea,” to England.

Catherine was Roman Catholic, and faced serious obstacles in her relationship with Charles, including the language barrier and her husband’s well-publicized infidelities. The couple produced no children, but Charles always insisted she be treated with respect, and usually sided with her in any dispute involving his mistresses. Over time, her calm demeanour, loyalty and affection for Charles won her allies at court.

Along with James, she became a target of the Exclusion Bill Crisis and the Popish plot. Parliament pressured Charles to divorce her and remarry in order to produce a Protestant heir, but he would not consider it. The House of Commons voted for an address that called for the Queen’s household to be banished from Whitehall, but she was defended against all charges by the king.

It was in some measure due to Catherine’s influence that Charles agreed to convert to Catholicism on his deathbed, and she was sincerely grief-stricken at his death. She remained in England as the Queen Dowager until 1692 when she returned to Portugal, where she continued to play an active role in ruling the country until her death in 1705.

Contextual Notes and Background

We would like to thank Gregory Smith for preparing the contextual Notes on The Devil’s Disciple.

Charles II (1630 -1685)

Charles II was the king of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1660 to 1685. Charles was known as the “Merrie Monarch” for his charm, his wit, and his love of culture and leisure, but he is also remembered as an irresponsible ruler prone to striking secret deals and taking short-sighted risks without the future interests of his kingdom in mind. King Charles was famous for the excesses of his court, and for his love of idle pleasure. He was also well known as a patron of the arts and a great supporter of the sciences. He helped found the Royal Society, a world-renowned scientific academy, and he allowed women to perform for the first time on the English stage. The years leading up to Charles’s coronation were not easy, and many of his subjects saw his relaxed style of rule as a welcome change after years of puritan government and, before that, Civil War. Not everything was merry while Charles was on the throne, however. During his reign, England was still a deeply divided country. At home, religious conflicts constantly threatened to tear the kingdom apart. Abroad, England was involved in military battles and trade disputes that frequently left Charles without the financial resources he needed to be an effective ruler. English puritans also worried that he was a secret agent of the Roman Catholic Church, and that many of his more lenient policies reflected a desire to see Catholicism return as England’s official religion. These suspicions were not entirely without cause: among other things, Charles made a secret pact with Louis XIV of France that he would announce his conversion to Catholicism in exchange for financial support. In 1662, Charles married Catherine of Braganza, a member of the Portuguese royal family. He and Catherine had no children, and as a result, Charles had no direct heir. Throughout his life, Charles had many mistresses, and he fathered many illegitimate children. There was considerable debate as to whether Charles’s brother James, a Catholic, should be his successor as king, or whether the crown should instead be given over to the Duke of Monmouth, his bastard son. James would eventually become king after Charles died in 1685, but not without opposition, and not for long.

Charles I 

Although In Good King Charles’s Golden Days is set in 1680, twenty years after Charles II became king, the play makes many references to the events that preceded his coronation. In order to better understand the play, it is important to understand some of the history of Charles’s family and the various conflicts that led to his father’s beheading. Charles II’s father, Charles I, was king from 1625 to 1649. His reign was one of the most troubled in English history, most of all because he advocated what is known as the “Divine Right of Kings.” According to this belief, a monarch’s authority comes directly from God, and he therefore has the right to rule his subjects with absolute authority. Informed by this belief, Charles I tried repeatedly to govern without the consent of parliament. He engaged in costly wars and collected taxes as he saw fit, often in spite of public opposition. After a particularly heated confrontation in 1629, he decided to dissolve parliament. For the next eleven years, Charles ruled the kingdom on his own. These years are called the “Eleven Years Tyranny,” or the period of “Personal Rule.” Charles eventually chose to reconvene parliament in 1640, primarily because he needed money to support his ongoing conflict with Scotland. Things did not improve once parliament was restored, however, and the tension between the loyalists (those who supported the monarchy) and the parliamentarians (those who supported parliament) eventually escalated to the point of Civil War. After five long years of war, Charles and the loyalists were defeated, and he was forced to flee his kingdom. In 1649, Charles was brought back to England and tried on charges of treason. He was found guilty and publicly executed by beheading outside a banquet hall in front of the Palace of Whitehall.

The Interregnum

For eleven years after Charles I’s execution, England was without a monarch. Instead, the country was governed by a republican government known as the Commonwealth of England, and after that, the Protectorate. These years featured a series conflicts with Ireland, Scotland, the Dutch Republic, and Spain. With so many battles being fought, and so many citizens serving as soldiers, it was as though the English had traded an absolute monarchy for a military dictatorship. A new constitution was established in 1653 and Oliver Cromwell, a prominent member of parliament and one of the most celebrated of the parliamentarian military leaders, was named “Lord Protector” of England. Ironically, Cromwell would come to rule the country with the same kind of absolute power that had proven so disastrous for Charles I. At one point, it was even proposed that Cromwell should be named the new king, but he turned down the offer of the crown out of religious principle. Cromwell’s son Richard became Lord Protector after his father’s death in 1658, but he would prove to be a much less effective ruler. Richard lost the confidence of the military, and before long it became apparent that the best thing for England’s stability would be to reinstate the monarchy. The Protectorate period thus ended in 1660, at which point Charles II was named king and the English monarchy was restored. This period between the reigns of Charles I and Charles II is known as the interregnum, which literally means “between reigns.”

The Restoration

With Charles II’s coronation in 1660, the monarchy was restored. The event of Charles’s ascent to the throne is called the Restoration, and so too is the period of his kingship. For many English people, the Restoration represented a much needed return to the way of life they had enjoyed before Charles I’s disastrous reign. Members of parliament were elected as they were before the Civil War, and the will of the government was no longer enacted with military force. Taxes also fell when Charles became king, as much of the army was disbanded and there was no longer the need to pay for soldiers and supplies. Although religious tensions continued to create conflicts between the new king and the parliament, culture and science flourished during the Restoration, and many English people welcomed the change. Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727)

Isaac Newton was a physicist and mathematician, and one of the most influential figures in the history of modern science. He formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, and his work helped form the basic principles of modern physics. In the realm of mathematics, Newton developed theories of “fluxion” that led to the establishment of what we now call calculus. He also built the first reflecting telescope, and made important discoveries in the study of light and physical optics. His famous book, “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,” is one of most important scientific works in modern history. Although he is now most famous for his scientific writings, or what was referred to in his day as “natural philosophy,” Newton actually produced more writing about religion and the bible during his lifetime than he did about science. Scholars still debate about the nature of his unorthodox beliefs. We see these interests reflected in his interactions with George Fox in In Good King Charles’s Golden Days.

The Royal Society

The Royal Society was established in November of 1660, just after the restoration of Charles II, as “a College for the promoting of physico-mathematical experimental learning.” It is the oldest national scientific society in the world, and it still exists as the leading scientific organization in Britain. From its earliest days, the Royal Society enjoyed the patronage of Charles II. From 1703 to 1727, Isaac Newton served as president and helped to build the international reputation the society still enjoys.

James II (1633 – 1701)

James II, who also appears in Shaw’s play, was Charles II’s brother. After his brother’s death in 1685, James became king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. James was a devout Catholic, and like his father he believed in the divine right of kings. Many of his policies, especially those concerning religion, turned parliament and the English people against him. James appointed Roman Catholics to many of the most important offices in his kingdom, and he used his royal authority to revoke parliamentary laws that punished Catholics and dissenters. He was a very unpopular king. James ruled until 1688, when his protestant opponents forced him to flee to France and the protection of his Catholic ally, Louis XIV. The conflict that led to James’s abdication is known as the “Glorious Revolution.”

Nell Gwyn (1650 – 1687)

Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn was perhaps the most famous actress on the Restoration stage. Before Charles II’s reign, women were not allowed to perform in English theatres, and female parts were typically played by boys or young men. With the Restoration, everything changed. Nell Gwyn was a celebrity in this new, more liberal England, and people loved to watch her perform in plays by John Dryden and other popular Restoration playwrights. She was famous as an actress, but also as a great personality and a witty conversationalist. Just as notably, she was King Charles’s mistress for many years.

Godfrey Kneller (1646 – 1723)

Godfrey Kneller was one of the most famous painters of his day. He was born in Germany and educated in Amsterdam by the Dutch master Rembrandt. Kneller first came to England in 1674 at the request of the Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s illegitimate son. In England, he produced an amazing number of portraits Among his best known works are a portraits of Charles II and Louis XIV, as well as a series of four portraits of Sir Isaac Newton that he completed over the course of many years.


George Fox (1624 – 1691)

George Fox was an English preacher and missionary. He is best known as the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. Fox’s faith in God was based on his own personal religious experience, and he was hostile to church conventions throughout his life. He walked across England preaching in public to whoever would listen, spreading a message of personal belief and faith based on the Inner Light of God.


Titus Oates (1649 – 1705)

Titus Oates was an otherwise unremarkable Anglican priest best remembered for fabricating the “Popish Plot.” Oates claimed, falsely, that there was a vast Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and leave the throne to his brother James, an alleged Catholic. Among his various allegations, Oates suggested that the Queen herself was involved in a plan to poison Charles. Oates’s accusations led to the execution of at least 15 innocent men. Anti-Catholic sentiment was very strong in England, and people at first believed in the plot. By 1681, however, Oates’s perjury was exposed and public opinion turned against him. He was eventually arrested for sedition and sent to prison.

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