The Bear’s Lair: Charles II’s Platinum Jubilee

Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, celebrating 70 years on the throne, set me to wondering in what ways history would have changed if one of her predecessors had reigned for 70 years. Modern constitutional monarchs have little historical effect, with one exception which I will deal with below, while most of their predecessors, who ascended to the throne at 40 or 50, could not plausibly have lived long enough. (George III, who could have, was terminally mad from 1810 onwards.) Mediaeval monarchs, even living long enough, would have changed only foreign policy (for example, I have seen an alternate history with an aged and triumphant Richard I, oppressing France for half a century). There is however one contender, who could have reigned for 70 years and would have changed even world history by doing so: Charles II.

Before we get on to Charles II, the one constitutional monarch for whom a Platinum Jubilee might have made a difference was Queen Victoria. Had she outlasted Edward VII (who died in 1910) living to 91 to do so, Victoria might well have prevented the Entente Cordiale with France, signed in 1904 with massive “personal diplomacy” by the Francophile Edward VII. Had Victoria’s pro-German and anti-Third Republic France proclivities prevailed, then there would have been no Entente Cordiale – and therefore no World War I, at least not with British participation and almost certainly no World War II. Now THAT is a truly alternate “alternate history”!

To return to Charles II, he would not have needed to live to 100 (70 years from the Restoration) to celebrate his Platinum Jubilee; since he counted his reign from his father Charles I’s death, he would have celebrated a Platinum Jubilee in January 1719, aged only 88. That is actuarially perfectly plausible. (Sir Christopher Wren, an almost exact contemporary, lived to be 90).

The long-term constitutional change from Charles’ longevity is that with it, there would have been no 1688 Revolution. As the 1685 election demonstrated, through producing an overwhelmingly Tory Parliament, public opinion in the last years of Charles’ reign had become strongly “Church and King” Tory and, without James foolishly trying to impose Catholicism, would have remained so. James, Duke of York, would have produced a son in 1688, as he did in reality, but that son, the “Old Pretender” in our timeline would have been brought up Protestant on Charles’ command, as were his two half-sisters Mary II and Queen Anne.

Consequently, after James, Duke of York’s death in 1701 Charles II would have been succeeded by his nephew, now a good Anglican, who would have become James II in 1719 (yes, I know that’s confusing, but you can see why it’s the case!) and reigned until his death in 1766. His son, a presumably less drunken “Bonnie Prince Charlie” with a suitable wife and heirs, would have succeeded as Charles III in 1766, at the age of 45. Alas, there would have been no George III – even Utopia has a downside!

Even without a 1688 Revolution, there would still have been some constitutional change in Charles II’s long reign. The Whig demand for a “Bill of Rights” would still have existed, as would their wish for a minimum frequency of Parliaments, while the need to establish English long-term borrowing on a sound basis would have forced a transition to a “King-in-Parliament” obligation on public debts even without the 1690s wars. Possibly Whig first ministers would have alternated with the Tories, but even without purely Whig ministers Sidney Godolphin, a cross-party figure, could have presided over a government that introduced these changes. The confused political period of 1689-1714 would still have been confused, albeit more Tory, though after 1714 it is likely that a long Tory “Patriot King” government under Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke would have replaced Walpole’s Whig domination of our world.

The biggest changes from our world would have come in foreign affairs and economics. Since William III would not have become King of England, it is most unlikely that Britain would have joined in the Nine Years’ War of 1689-97, although Charles would probably have drawn back somewhat from France after the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which caused revulsion among English Protestants. It is also unlikely that Britain would have joined in the War of the Spanish Succession, since Louis XIV would not have provided a casus belli in 1701 by recognizing the Old Pretender as King of England. With Charles a determined advocate of the Royal Navy, and Samuel Pepys continuing in administrative control until his death in 1703, a Tory “blue water strategy” would probably have been followed, building the Royal Navy’s strength at the beginning of the 18th century, rather than in the middle, as with us. After Charles’ death, “James II” might have seized on French weakness to pursue an attack on French Canada, using primarily Naval forces.

This would have made up for one likely loss, the independence of New England, which would have been repelled by the Tory governments and the continued rule until 1714 of Sir Edward Andros as Governor of the Dominion of New England, but would have found little support from the middle and southern colonies. Equally, with the British Army much smaller than in our 1776, Britain would probably have allowed them to go, possibly after a Naval blockade of a few years. New England would then have become an impoverished and isolated left-wing independent state, burning witches well into the 19th century, a sort of North Korea-on-the-Charles.

The foreign policy differences would have had economic implications. With no high spending Whig “funny money” regime in the 1690s, and no Land Tax, the gentry and provincial tradesmen would have become far more prosperous, as they were already doing in our 1680s, while there would have been no big cosmopolitan City of London — and no South Sea Bubble, because no South Sea Company (no Bank of England either). The country banks, not suppressed by the 1694-1721 speculative bubble, would have come into existence in the 1690s rather than the 1750s, as the scrivener-banker Clayton, Morris & Co. sprouted imitators rather than dying off. With provincial capital abundant, the canal boom of the 1760s might have happened half a century earlier in the 1710s, although a different James Brindley would have been needed to devise his “Grand Cross” scheme, which might have been sponsored by the 1st Earl Gower rather than the 2nd.

With canals appearing by 1720, a national market developing and cheap coal universally available, the development of steam engines and the iron industry would have been speeded. The Crowley Iron Works, located in Sunderland rather than at Winlaton, since Royal protection of its Belgian Catholic specialist workers would not have been withdrawn, would still have focused on the needs of the growing Navy, and might at the end of Sir Ambrose Crowley’s life, before 1713 have developed John Wilkinson’s cannon-boring machine, the key invention for steam engine development (Crowley would have been paid in cash by the well-funded Navy, not in South Sea shares as in our world, so would not have been distracted from his primary business).

A Crowley cylinder-borer, allowing steam engines to have far tighter tolerances and higher steam pressures, would have allowed Newcomen or some contemporary to develop the condenser and truly efficient steam engines. You would have seen steam powered textile mills by 1740 and steam railways by 1770 – in other words, the entire Industrial Revolution would have happened roughly half a century earlier, without the “Whig nap” of 1714-60. It would quickly have been imitated in the prosperous American middle colonies of New York and Pennsylvania, now without their recalcitrant New England neighbors.

Inevitably the mists draw in around 1766 – would “Charles III” really have sobered up, would the industrial American middle colonies have remained loyal, and would a France less impoverished by war and Scottish speculators have suffered the French Revolution? But at least initially, a Platinum Jubilee for Charles II would have produced a better world, without the social suppression and high taxes of the Whig Supremacy, and very probably with an earlier Industrial Revolution in a richer and less overpopulated island, more Henry Fielding than Charles Dickens.

Charles II himself, the founder of the Royal Society, would have found it fascinating. From his Winchester palace, completed in 1687, he would have observed that the joy of watching his country industrialize almost compensated for old age having deprived him of the joy of sex!

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)