And so to Hampton Court to see the The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned, an exhibition of portraits of Charles II’s principal mistresses, including Nell Gwyn and Barbara Villiers, brought together for the first time.

It’s always a treat to visit Hampton Court, which is so rich in history and atmosphere and happily free of the dreadful atmosphere-sapping notices and health and safety nuisances that clutter other palaces (Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight is ruined by endless bossy boot warnings about uneven steps and low doors, oh please, English Heritage, we are not 5 years old).



Nell Gwynn

On a misty and rainy Autumn Monday morning, the palace was quiet and we were free to wander round the glorious spacious rooms, their heavy 14th century walls hewn from ancient oaks and decorated by portraits of England’s Kings and Queens.


King Charles 2 was Queen Victoria’s favourite king and he was certainly an extraordinary monarch and one of the world’s first environmentalists -before the word was even invented. Although he is more famous for his glamorous mistresses he deserves to be remembered for so much else.

When he acceded to the throne in spring 1660, Charles wore an oak leaf in his jacket. The oak leaf became a symbol for his reign, symbolising spring, regeneration and renewal of life after years of gloomy republican rule.

His skilled, tactical governance brought unprecedented years of peace and prosperity. War is of course, hugely environmentally destructive and this peace allowed for a flourishing of stunning architecture, botany, herbal medicine and glorious gardens and parks which continue to enhance our environment today.

The King loved animals and nature, personally designing gardens and parks, (including St James’ Park), which he opened for the public to enjoy.

I am a benefactor of his foresight, for I walk my dogs every day in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, which he opened to the public in 1682.

He was so fond of spaniels (a breed that was afterwards named Cavalier King Charles after him), that in his time, it was proclaimed that no public building could be designated as “off limits” to a spaniel, including Parliament. I wonder how that would go down with anti-dog jobsworths today!

The statue of Charles 2 that welcomes guests to the Royal Hospital is inscribed "If I forget thee do not forget me”

Charles as a boy, with his favourite spaniels

He was an enthusiastic arborealist, reforesting Greenwich with chestnuts and elm trees. He personally experimented with the latest herbal cures, curing himself of malaria with quinine, a South American bark, a version of which is still used today.

Charles formed the Royal Society which is still renowned for its environmental and scientific research today. Ahead of its time, the society monitored weather conditions in Antarctica and today is busy investigating the effects of GM crops and monitoring global warming.

He was deeply concerned about pollution, frequently debating with John Evelyn the best ways to eliminate the `wearisome smoke’.

The King was also an early believer in Buying British, supporting the British Weavers by insisting on wearing clothes weaved by them and eschewing fashionable foreign cloths.

There were some dreadful crises during Kings Charles’ reign, notably the Plague and the Great Fire of London. King had warned the Lord Mayor of London of the dangers posed by the narrow streets and overhanging timber houses and wanted to tear them down. But no one took much notice.

When the inevitable happened, and the city of London was up in flames, Charles refused to leave London and helped in the fire fighting operations, displaying great courage and bravery which increased his prestige and the love his people had for him.

Beautiful buildings replaced the ones destroyed. Charles had the foresight to employ the supremely talented Sir Christopher Wren to create the timeless edifices that still inspire us today, including St Paul’s Cathedral, The Royal Hospital, numerous churches and the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich (below)

Interestingly, his love of gardens lives on through 2 of the children he sired with his mistress, Barbara Villiers. Today their descendants, The Duke of Northumberland and the Duke of Grafton, are famous for creating world renowned gardens (Alnwick and Wakefield Lodge) which continue to lift the spirits of all who visit them today

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