Attempting to analyze the entire Restoration era, historian Tim Harris posits that Charles II is the key to understanding the politics of the period. Indeed, in Restoration: Charles II and his Kingdoms, 1660-1685, Harris argues that Charles was politically active and not paralyzed as Gary S. De Krey suggested. However, Harris accedes that Charles still was unable to exact effective royal control over England, Scotland, and Ireland despite the crown’s best efforts. Explaining this shortcoming, Harris asserts that three factors diminished Charles’ ability to rule. First, Charles inherited a situation fraught with political and religious divisions outside of his control and harkening back to the early 1640s. For example, attempting to unite his kingdoms into one easily manageable entity, Charles sought “to bring the Scottish ecclesiastical settlement into line” with that achieved in England. (p. 133) Ultimately, Charles’ attempted unification of the kingdoms was unsuccessful. Rather than working with the Scottish and Irish to rectify religious issues, Charles attempted to force conformity to a “British agenda” which eroded his credibility, dangerously provoking Dissenters in Scotland and Catholics in Ireland. (p. 133) In short, Charles only succeeded in alienating nonconformists and increasing resistance to his religious reforms and political agenda. (p. 134)
Second, Parliament curtailed Charles’ royal power by limiting his purse, rendering the king unable to finance independent political reforms. Lacking the money to support a professional, independent bureaucracy, Harris writes that Charles was, "Heavily reliant on the cooperation of unpaid agents of the executive (from the lofty Lord Lieutenants to the humble parish constables) to enforce the royal will in localities." (p. 83) Therefore, without effective enforcement of his policies on the ground, Charles found his royal power curtailed. Additionally, to the disadvantage of the crown, when Charles needed funding he was required to call Parliament. This requirement alone meant that “the issues of supply could [not] be kept divorced from redress of grievances,” as the crown had to negotiate with Parliament for funds. (p. 24)
Third, Harris argues that with Charles’ royal prerogative curtailed, the king’s personal prestige suffered. (p. 83) Thus, by 1679-81, the Stuart regime faced a critical situation: the crown could not exact enough political influence to exert effective rule. Despite Charles efforts, the political situation deteriorated in all three kingdoms. In Ireland, Catholics felt dispossessed due to the Parliament of Ireland’s passage of the 1662 Act of Settlement and 1665 Act of Explanation. In Scotland, owing to the Clarendon Code, Presbyterians felt persecuted by the crown for maintaining their faith. (pp. 132-133) Moreover, in England, radical Whigs and Dissenters rallied against the Stuarts, fearing a Catholic future under the duke of York. Thus, Charles inheritance stood in disarray despite his efforts, either suffering from problems outside of the crown’s control or stemming from Charles’ ineptness.
Harris’ monograph is an excellent study which reincorporates Charles into the narrative of the Restoration. For far too long Charles has sat on the side, as historians’ seek to understand the period through radicals, Whigs, Tories, and conspiracies. Thus, by asserting Charles place in the events of the Restoration, Harris has complicated the historiography and granted us a better understanding of the problems facing the Stuart regime.