The “Merry Monarch”, King Charles II, had a strenuous rule. After the execution of his father King Charles I at the end of the English Civil War, Charles II was declared king. However, the Commonwealth of England seized his power, leaving England without a monarch for the first and only time in its history.
The Cromwell Regime ran the Commonwealth from 1653-1659, when Oliver Cromwell was named Lord Protector of England and ended with the overthrow of Cromwell’s son, Richard, in 1659. Though Oliver Cromwell served as leader of a supposed English Republic, he was afforded many of the same luxuries as the royals that predated him, living in the same palaces and holding sole power over the government – even being offered the title of King, which he turned down.
Cromwell’s rule over the Commonwealth brought about many reforms congruent with his Puritan beliefs, which included stricter observances of the Sunday Sabbath. No stores or manufacturers could do business on a Sunday, and even travel was forbidden without a writ from a justice attesting to its necessity. He instigated greater punishments for swearing, and charged adultery as a capital offense. Further acts were passed to punish actors, minstrel performers, fiddlers, gamblers, and other “vagrants” with the severity of rogues and thieves.
Despite the severity of the acts passed, much of the more drastic legislation went heavily ignored. Juries refused to convict adulterers, and it is unlikely any capital punishments for the offense were ever handed down. This resulted in Cromwell’s establishment of the Major-Generals in 1655; police magistrates whose purpose was to suppress crime and immorality in their respective districts. Major-Generals achieved these goals by ending bear-baiting by killing the bears, or cock-fighting by wringing the necks of the roosters. Though the Major-Generals were disassembled two years later, their acts had revitalized the new administration, which acted under Cromwell’s legislature for the rest of the Protectorate.
In 1660, Charles II was reinstated as king, and the Restoration period began. It was under his rule that Charles reopened the theatres that Cromwell had closed, allowing the King’s and Duke’s companies to form, and permitting both companies to hire women for the first time. Nell Gwynne, the young daughter of a brothel madam, sold oranges at performances at the King’s Company theatre. Within the span of a few years, Gwynne became the lead actress and most famous comedic performer in the country. Her fame earned her the attention of the King. Gwynne soon became one of his many mistresses and bore him two illegitimate sons. Gwynne is hailed as a folk heroine. She embodies the rags-to-riches character who was born poor and fatherless under Cromwell’s strict regime, only to rise to fame and money through her talent as an actress, and later by becoming lover to the king himself.