Tuesday 6 February 2007

The Deathbed Conversion of King Charles II

Today is the anniversary of the death of Charles II in 1685. As is well-known, the 'Merry Monarch' personally had friendly sentiments towards Catholics although his reign saw no end to the penal laws and bloody martyrdoms of priests and their supporters. Finally, on his deathbed, he was received into the Church. Better late than never.

On the evening of 5 February 1685 a Benedictine monk, Fr John Huddleston, was smuggled into the King's apartment. They had first met many years previously in 1651 after the disastrous Battle of Worcester. The King, disguised as a peasant, encountered the priest at Moseley, near Wolverhampton, which was the home of the Catholic Whitgreave family (where Fr Huddleston was chaplain). As he hid with the priest, the King read Huddleston's manuscript of A short and Plain Way to the Faith and Church (eventually published in 1688) and had his bleeding feet bathed by the priest. The two of them even shared a hiding hole when Cromwell's troops came to search the house.

In the meantime Charles was restored to the throne (1660) and Huddleston joined the Benedictines and became a chaplain at Somerset House, under the Queen Dowager, Henrietta Maria, and Catherine of Braganza (Charles II's wife).

Then, as the King lay dying of apoplexy, Huddleston was summoned by the Catholic Duke of York (soon to become James II). According to the historian, the Anglican Bishop Gilbert Burnet

When Huddleston was told what was to be done, he was in great confusion, for he had not brought the host. He went, however, to another priest, who lived in the court, who gave him the pix, with an host in it. Everything being prepared, the Duke whispered the King in the ear; upon that the King ordered that all who were in the bedchamber should withdraw, except the Earls of Bath and Feversham; and the door was double-locked. The company was kept out half an hour; only Lord Feversham opened the door once, and called for a glass of water. Cardinal Howard told Bishop Burnet that, in the absence of the company, Huddleston, according to the account he sent to Rome, made the King go through some acts of contrition, and, after obtaining such a confession as he was then able to give, he gave him absolution. The consecrated wafer stuck in the King's throat, and that was the reason of calling for a glass of water. Charles told Huddleston that he had saved his life twice, first his body, then his soul.

When the company were admitted, they found the King had undergone a marvellous alteration. Bishop Ken [the Anglican Bishop of Bath and Wells] then vigorously applied himself to the awaking of the King's conscience, and pronounced many short ejaculations and prayers, of which, however, the King seemed to take no notice, and returned no answer. He pressed the King six or seven times to receive the sacrament; but the King always declined, saying he was very weak. But Ken pronounced over him absolution of his sins. The King suffered much inwardly, and said he was burnt up within. He said once that he hoped he should climb up to heaven's gates, which was the only word savouring of religion that he used.
The King died peacefully at noon the following day, having apologised to those around him for taking an unconscionable time dying. Incidentally, today is also the anniversary of the death of George VI and thus of Her Majesty's accession 55 years ago!

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Blogger Pippo said...

Deo Gratias! Thank you so much Father. You have already done much honourable work in restoring the reputation of James II, but it is also marvellous that you should remind us of this genuinely happy ending. Ad multos annos!

7:24 pm  
Blogger gormally7 said...

Was he not an "unconscionable" rather than an "inconsiderable" time a-dying?

4:07 am  
Blogger Fr Nicholas said...

Thanks - I've corrected the typing error!

8:21 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...and was he not "a-dying" rather than simply "dying"?

10:27 am  
Blogger elena maria vidal said...

Thank you for this wonderful account!

2:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your account. I am tempted to add that the inner portuguese circle of Queen Catherine of Bragan├ža did all they could to this happy ending. Actually it was one of the great ambitions of the poor Queen. I remember I read somewhere one or two interestings portuguese accounts on that.

3:02 pm  

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