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This is a well-written biography of Charles II, first published in 1979. Like Fraser's other historical works, this is intelligent, sympathetic and absorbing - and gives us a very colourful picture of Charles II. Only partially the `merry monarch', this traces his life from his birth, exile, the execution of his father and the restoration of the monarchy.

Anyone who's a little shaky on seventeenth-century history and politics might want to read this alongside Fraser's Cromwell, as this barely sketches in the civil wars, and then only in terms of the effect they have on Charles and his mother.

This is a long book, but Fraser keeps our attention well, and her character sketches are vivid and memorable. As other reviewers have said, this does take an unquestioning and positive view towards inherited monarchy and is `on the side' of Charles throughout - perhaps it's difficult as a biographer not to be?

So this isn't a scholarly book but for a wonderfully readable account of the life and personality of Charles II, this is hard to beat.
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At the start of this book Antonia Fraser quotes Queen Victoria, who once said of Charles II that for all of his moral failings, she considered him the most attractive of her predecessors. From the evidence in these pages Fraser clearly agrees with that view, and frankly so do I. History has remembered Charles as the 'Merry Monarch' and his Restoration court as a riotous affair, populated with mistresses, actresses, prostitutes and rakes, charlatans, con-artists, ne-er-do-wells and illegitimate offspring. All true, to be fair, in varying degrees, but to remember Charles solely in these terms is to do him a grave injustice. There was far more going on beneath the surface of his bonhomie and goodwill, as Fraser elaborates in this cogent, informative and enjoyable biography.

Fraser acknowledges that Charles was in many ways a man ahead of his time, a very modern monarch - charming, affable, affection, down-to-earth, tolerant and even-handed, cynical and wise to the world, with little taste for pomp or standing on ceremony. His air of goodwill and good-humour wasn't a mask or affectation, but it was definitely a studied posture - in reality Charles was all of these things and more, but he was also an immensely cautious and careful man, defensive of the royal prerogative (one must note, a very different stance from that of his father and the 'divine rights of kings'. And more than anything else, Charles was a man deeply scarred by the experiences of his youth. A modern psychologist could have a field day with Charles - a safe and secure childhood torn apart by the upheavals of the Civil War period; an adolescence marked by weighty and responsibility and military command; the murder of his father; the loss of his home and position and country; growing to manhood in exile; experiencing real penury and deprivation; more than a decade spent begging, cajoling and manoeuvring among the crowned heads of Europe, all reluctant to help Charles regain his throne and his kingdom; and then, that miraculous Restoration. And of course the story doesn't end there, and much of Charles' reign would be marked by ever more rancorous dealings with Parliament.

Charles II is one of those curious figures from history who is perhaps viewed with more affection and sympathy today than he may have been in his own time. Those traits that we would consider most attractive today - his religious tolerance, his ability to forgive past slights, his carelessness about ceremony and ritual, his open-handed nature, even his laziness and relaxed attitude to cares of state - were those viewed with most concern by his countrymen and which gave rise to the most tension. If Charles is to be judged by the state of the country after his death, the verdict of history cannot but be judgemental. Whilst Charles cannot be entirely blamed for the ousting of James II, the Glorious Revolution, the ongoing Jacobite rebellions, he had a hand in laying the groundwork for the unrest that followed his death. As Fraser herself concludes, those traits we most admire in a man are not always those best suited to a monarch.
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on 12 September 2009
I do not profess to have any great all-consuming interest in history, let alone the period of the Restoration; I read solely for pleasure on a wide range of topics and will quickly drop any book that does not sustain my interest.

I did not come close to wishing to put down this excellent work. Unlike other 'scholarly biographies', Fraser's book is anything but dry, or difficult for a non-expert to follow. It paints a very clear picture not only of Charles, but of his family members, court and acolytes such that by the end I really felt that I had an understanding of the man - his personality, his sense of humour, his temperament and the events that shaped him as a king. The events of his reign are consistently presented with humour and verve, with even the internecine events of the Commonwealth and post-restoration Dutch Wars, and Charles' struggles with parliament easy to follow, and made entertaining. The early part of the book, regarding Charles' flight after the battle of Worcester even reads like an adventure story, without losing authenticity, accuracy or scholarship.

My sole criticism is that in writing the book Fraser seems to have become rather attached to the figure of Charles (who does admittedly seem, on the whole, an attractive and witty personality) to the point where she appears to make excuses for his mistakes, and perhaps defends his corner a little too vigorously. Nonetheless, I would thoroughly recommend this as an entertaining and enlightening book for the general reader.
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on 24 October 2011
The authoress sets out to inform and entertain, she never bores. She clearly had great sympathy for her subject and treats him in a humane way. The book gripped me from start to finish. She explains much of the second half of his life by reference to the first half, the war years and years of exile. I am convinced that this particular biography will still be in print for decades to come. I recommend it.
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on 20 February 2013
One of the best historical biographies I have read. Antonia Fraser somehow manages to get to the heart of the matter and makes you think you really know Charles 11. You have the gradual build up from just before the execution of his father , through his wilderness years of exile on the continent , through the joy of his restoration and then his genuine efforts to be a good king. Somehow, despite his extravagances , his string of mistresses and his sometimes misguided policies he is revealed to us as an affable man. He is open, accessible to his subjects and very humane. The author portrays him as someone you would really like to get to know!
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VINE VOICEon 25 February 2004
Antonia Fraser' s King Charles II. is one of the best ever books written on this King.
This king went down in history as the merry monarch with all this mistresses and bastards children, a barren but not discarded Queen, a fast live with many entertainments.
Well, if one would stop here, one would never understand Charles II..
Antonia Fraser unfolds the life to Charles step by step, guides the reader through the ups and downs, the nightmares of the civil war, the lonely and poor days of a king-in-exile, the restoration and his actual reign. She looks behind the facade: the reader will discover a man following his way, his principles, a man who learned to survive, a man who believed in himself, a man who never gave up, a man with a great zest for life, a very clever man. But there are dark sides too: it was very hard to trust him. There was a very ruthless streak in him.
Antonia Fraser' s fascinating and elegantly written book makes the reader to understand the merry monarch. This book is one of my all time favourite biographies.
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on 16 December 2016
Lots of details but this is closer to celebrity watch than history. Yes kings in general make a few decisions, marry a few wifes and start a few war. But all of this is taking place in a land which has agriculture that supports people - or not -, transport, technology, trade, etc. In my world, agriculture makes a surplus or not, People are able to grow or not, good are transported or not, there is a monetary mass or not to fluidify Commercial Exchanges, there is a rising Bourgeoisie and craftmen which also generate a Surplus, and thus become a ready market for any agriculural Surplus, etc. None of this mentioned, so in Antonia's teenager-like view of world, Charles II has no money and gets things somehow.
This is a turgid read and closer to retrospective celebrity watch than actual history. My definition of history is what happened, how and why. This is not it. After reading Richard Pipes on Russian history, I can no longer abide by this vapid type of historical celebrity watch.
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VINE VOICEon 17 December 2008
A colourful, well written and comprehensive biography. However, the author comes across as very pro-Charles and pro-Royalist, sometimes to the point of sycophancy. That said, I understand that she is also quite sympathetic to Cromwell in her biography of him (though not here), so maybe in part at least her attitude reflects a close identification with a subject she must spend a lot of time focusing on, given the length and thoroughness of her works.
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on 6 January 2016
Excellent informative and thoroughly readable. I wish History had been fought to me by Antonia Fraser. Instead I had fusty old men who took the life out of history and made it all 'dates and more dates'.

Ms Fraser brings the characters to life and her narrative allows an empathy to form with the reader. Important details are presented within a readable framework of story, characters and period.
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on 7 August 2006
I greatly enjoyed Antonia Fraser's The Gunpowder Plot, The Six Wives of Henry VIII and The Weaker Vessel, but this biography of Charles II is slightly disappointing. First of all, no explanation of the civil war is offered at all; the reader is only told a bit about Charles II's childhood and his escape from England - but the background to the civil war is so scant that if I had not read a general history of England some weeks before, I would never have found out from this biography what were the social and political forces that caused the royal family to run away. And yes, this is a biography of Charles II, and perhaps to explain the civil war Ms Fraser would have to write a whole book, but I think some basic background should have been provided. Secondly, while Charles is in exile, the focus on the biography is on him alone; the events in England are ignored and the reader is left unaware of what Cromwell is causing in the country, and why slowly but surely, the English people start wanting Charles back. Again, background knowledge that may be too extensive in a biography of the king, but some minimal information, a summary of the state of the Protectorate, should be included; I was completely lost as to why, after running away from England, a few years later everyone wanted Charles back. Thirdly, the king's relationship with the Queen is glossed over. True, it is pretty detailed to begin with, but then the Queen suddenly falls out of the picture for about 10 years, and reappears when the King's councillors suggest he obtains a divorce because she is Catholic. And you learn no more than that - surely 17th century politics were more complicated than this. So much information has been left out, that after having finished this book I just feel that there is so much that I HAVEN'T learnt about Charles's life, whether in exile or back home in England.

The one part of this book that DID I enjoy was the very vivid and intense narrative of Charles II's escape from England, the chase, the danger, the misery which Charles had to endure in exile, are all very moving, as well as Charles' courage in his tribulations. Sadly, only these first 150 pages are so absorbing.
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