THE king, Charles II. (The Merry Monarch, or, less delicately, Old Rowley), was intelligent and tolerant, but his life of excesses was not compatible with energetic administration. His was, however, a very prosperous reign. Trade with the East grew fast, and many features of modern England go back to Charles's day-the regular army, newspapers, the Royal Mail, horse racing at Newmarket, The Royal Society, Wren's buildings, the Tory party, and the existence of a leisured literary class in London.
Charles and his brother James, with Pepys in the background, maintained the navy of the Puritan republic, and fought Holland twice. Their guiding principle seems to have been a hope of becoming real unparliamentary kings like their cousin Louis, and restoring the Roman Catholic religion to which the one secretly and the other more openly was attached. But an explosion of Anglican anti-Catholic feeling produced the Test Act of 1673, which shut all non-Anglicans out of public offices and emolument. The realist Charles closed down his tentative intrigues, not in time, however, to prevent the anti-Catholic pogrom of 1678-80. He caught public opinion on the rebound, dispensed at last with parliament, and died suddenly in the plenitude of power.
His brother James, who succeeded him (1685-88), assumed the right to tolerate Roman Catholicism, and promote Roman Catholics to office, even in Anglican strongholds. He was for some time childless and the heiress-presumptive was a Protestant, married to William of Orange. A son was born to James and this meant a Catholic succession. The Whigs worked on the Tory anti-Catholic feeling and brought William over to turn James out.
King and Parliament then agreed on the Bill of Rights of 1689: there was to be no taxation and no standing army without the consent of Parliament, which must therefore meet annually; the King might not suspend or dispense with laws; other acts freed Nonconformists from persecution (not from political disqualification), required the King and Queen to support the English church, and allowed judges to hold office without fear of dismissal by the King or by government. This legislation concluded the struggle that had gone on openly since 1603, in veiled forms since 1215: the monarchy was now limited, and its power divided with the great landowners who filled the Upper House, and whose relations, dependents, and allies among the merchant princes filled the extremely unrepresentative Lower House.
There was nothing necessarily permanent about the settlement, but fortune sent Marlborough to vindicate the parliamentary governments of England and Holland against the French pattern of all despotisms. Fortune then sent England George I. of Hanover, whose inability to speak English caused him to leave power to a " Prime Minister." Walpole's cautious tenure of this office (1721-42) gave time for the Parliamentary system to consolidate. Had he hurried ahead with desirable reforms he might have strained the system beyond what it would bear. The theory long continued to be that the King was the head of the administration, and it was two hundred years before the Prime Minister's existence was officially recognised. Had an Elizabeth or a Charles II. succeeded to the throne, the monarch might have regained power. However, George II. was almost as unattractive as George I. and the Tory party sulkily tolerated the Hanoverians as a disagreeable alternative to the Catholic Stuart claimants.
George III. tried to regain the old position, but the results of his policy did not bring credit to his system: partly to his blundering administration we owe the loss of the American colonies; moreover, he made a great mistake in not presiding at Cabinet meetings. So the Parliamentary system was established firmly, against all the strongest tendencies of the age; to continental observers it was a thing of wonder.