Charles II came to the throne in 1660 after the period of Commonwealth when England, and particularly its entertainments, had been suppressed by Puritan authority. The security of the new reign was precarious and there were many in the country opposed to a return of the monarchy. The king needed good PR and he began by restoring those entertainments the English had enjoyed before the Civil War, which had been suppressed by the Puritans. The Restored theatres were immediately used to promote Court propaganda and would do so for most of the reign. Theatre had been banned under Cromwell and anyone performing as a player would be thrown into prison. Similar penalties were applied to those who might be in the audience at a performance.
The first playhouse to be constructed in the new reign was The Theatre Royal, at Drury Lane, which opened in 1663. This theatre, though unaffected by the Great Fire of London in 1666, burned down in 1672 as the result of an internal combustion. Because of the demand for entertainment, a new theatre was financed and built on the site of the old one. Thought by some to have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the second theatre opened to the public on March 26th 1674; the alleged bones of the Princes in the Tower were discovered just four months later, in July.
Upon the restoration of Charles II, old plays were, at first, resurrected for performance at the new venue. Many of these were rewritten and used as pure propaganda to promote the court of the restored monarch. Shakespeare’s language was out-of-date and soon his plays were being rewritten to suit the tastes of the modern audience. Charles was a devotee of the theatre and we find one of his most famous courtesans, Nell Gwynne as an actress at Drury Lane.
The playhouse at Drury lane was not the only one in Restoration London. There was another: Dorset Garden, also known as the Duke’s Theatre. The duke in question was the duke of York, Charles’ brother and destined to become James II. It was home to the Duke’s Company of players and renowned for its technical innovations, moving scenery and lavish productions. Later, in 1782, the Duke’s Company would merge with the King’s Company and move to Drury Lane, but in 1674 it was vibrant and in open competition for audiences with the Theatre Royal.
Villainy was not long becoming, in the popular public mind, synonymous with Shakespeare’s Richard III due mainly to the supposed murder of his nephews, popularly known as The Princes in the Tower. Sometime in 1661 there was a performance of Shakespeare’s play, the details of which are now lost. The prologue survives and it shows us King Richard presented as a dictator, (metaphorically Oliver Cromwell) set against one Henry Richmond who defeats him to become a benign monarch (King Charles II). It seems that this was propaganda used to promote the new reign. In the year 1667 the Duke’s Company performed a similar play, written by John Caryll. Its title was “The English Princess: or the Death of Richard the Third.” The author was a diplomatist and later became secretary to Mary of Modena, the second wife of James II. This particular play was printed in 1667, 1673 and pertinently, in 1674. Clearly the story of Richard III and the murder of the two Princes in the Tower had much currency throughout the period of the “discovery” of the Westminster bones and was current in the year they were found.
Throughout the reign of Charles II we find the villainous character of Richard III in a variety of plays, none of them Shakespeare’s and with a deliberate political bias. Of course, the character could also be used against the monarchy. In 1680, John Crowne adapted Shakespeare’s Henry the Sixth, Part Two converting it into an anti-catholic rant. It was sub-titled: the Misery of Civil War, performed at the Duke’s Theatre (Dorset Garden) and printed in the same year. In this version of Shakespeare’s play the malign character of the duke of Gloucester (Richard III) is enhanced, his crookback is emphasised and his brothers’ philandering in the play becomes a comment on the current Court. John Crowne, although said to be a favourite of Charles II, was known to have a moral repugnance for his Court. This was politically sensitive as the Exclusion Crisis, an attempt by parliament to prevent the accession of a Catholic monarch, was in full cry in this year.
Almost as if he was deliberately flouting the concerns of his people, his mistress, Louise de Kerouaille was a Catholic and a French spy to boot. She had replaced Barbara Villiers, (Lady Castlemaine) as Charles’ principal mistress. He ran her more or less currently with the actress Nell Gwynne. Bad luck had also brought about the Great Plague of 1665, which only came to an end due to the Great Fire of 1666 when much of the old City of London was consumed in the flames. Charles had also provoked war with the Dutch. The first war had been something of a success, but the second war had gone badly. In the year following the Great Fire, a Dutch fleet had sailed up the Medway and destroyed the British fleet supposed to be safe at anchor at Chatham docks. Ignominiously for the English navy, the Dutch boarded and captured the fleet flagship, the Royal Charles. This was the very vessel that had brought Charles to England from exile. They towed it back to the Netherlands as a trophy where the ship’s coat-of-arms can be seen on display to this day at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It was England’s greatest naval defeat. The Dutch destroyed fifteen ships while the English scuttled others to block the river. The biggest ships, the Royal Oak, the Loyal London, a new ship, and the Royal James were burned. Afterwards, this misfortune, on top of the Catholic question and the scandals of his personal life meant King Charles and his government feared a backlash from the people of England who were becoming increasingly critical of his rule.
By the year 1674 then, we can see that Charles and his government had become highly unpopular and desperately needed to turn the mood of the people towards that which he had enjoyed at the beginning of his reign. We must remember that the Court establishment feared a resurgence of republicanism. At the same time there was the real threat, that Charles’ brother James would succeed him, provoking a Catholic revival and religious conflict. (This did indeed occur and James II’s persecution of Protestants led to his eventual removal and exile – the Glorious Revolution of 1688).
Charles’ strategy at the beginning of his reign had been to use the printed word and public performance in the restored theatres as propaganda to promote his monarchy. Perhaps what had worked in the heady days of the early 1660’s could work in 1674 too? The “chance” discovery of royal bones in the Tower of London, accompanied by a series of plays where the villain was understood metaphorically to be the dictatorial Oliver Cromwell and the possibilities for promoting the monarchy would be obvious to Charles II. Unfortunately what worked in 1660 seems to have failed in 1674. Charles II managed to cling on to his throne until his death in 1685. His brother would be the one to lose it.