Charles II: Art and Power

Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until May 13

Charles II was fun-loving. Not only personally, with his many mistresses, but also publicly: he opened up the theatres again after the dark decade of Cromwell’s Protectorate, when even Christmas celebrations had been banned. And he loved a big spectacle.

Charles knew, at the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, that he had to make his mark, to put on a show. Royal regalia, including a medieval crown, had been sold or melted down for cash during the Protectorate; Charles replaced them – and not just the crown jewels. A large cabinet at the start of a glorious new exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, holds a gilded silver altar dish a yard across, a pure gold chalice and paten, and a stunningly ornate mace.

Charles understood the popular mind: he became the People’s King by opening himself up to them for the King’s Touch. During his reign he touched nearly 100,000 people to heal them from the King’s Evil, or scrofula. This was highly regulated: the exhibition includes an admission token, and a gold touch-piece, hung around the sufferer’s neck.

Charles’s mistresses are there aplenty. His longtime favourite, Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), features in several paintings and engravings. So does the woman who supplanted her in his affections in the 1670s, Louise de Kérouaille, whose descendants, from her son with Charles, include both wives of the present Prince of Wales.

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