But the severance of the two kingdoms from England was in itself a gain to the royal authority; and Charles turned quietly to the building up of a royal army at home. A standing army had become so hateful a thing to the body of the nation, and above all to the royalists whom the New Model had trodden under foot, that it was impossible to propose its establishment. But in the mind of Charles and his brother James, their father's downfall had been owing to the want of a disciplined force which would have trampled out the first efforts of national resistance; and while disbanding the New Model, Charles availed himself of the alarm created by a mad rising of some Fifth-Monarchy men in London under an old soldier called Venner to retain five thousand horse and foot in his service under the name of his guards. A body of "gentlemen of quality and veteran soldiers, excellently clad, mounted, and ordered," was thus kept ready for service near the royal person; and in spite of the scandal which it aroused the King persisted, steadily but cautiously, in gradually increasing its numbers.
Twenty years later it had grown to a force of seven thousand foot and one thousand seven hundred horse and dragoons at home, with a reserve of six fine regiments abroad in the service of the United Provinces.
But Charles was too quick-witted a man to believe, as his brother James believed, that it was possible to break down English freedom by the royal power or by a few thousand men in arms. It was still less possible by such means to break down, as he wished to break down, English Protestantism. In heart, whether the story of his renunciation of Protestantism during his exile be true or no, he had long ceased to be a Protestant. Whatever religious feeling he had was on the side of Catholicism; he encouraged conversions among his courtiers, and the last act of his life was to seek formal admission into the Roman Church. But his feelings were rather political than religious. The English Roman Catholics formed a far larger part of the population then than now; their wealth and local influence gave them a political importance which they have long since lost, and every motive of gratitude as well as self-interest led him to redeem his pledge to procure toleration for their worship. But he was already looking, however vaguely, to something more than Catholic toleration.
He saw that despotism in the State could hardly co-exist with free inquiry and free action in matters of the conscience, and that government, in his own words, "was a safer and easier thing where the authority was believed infallible and the faith and submission of the people were implicit." The difficulties in the way of such a religious change probably seemed the less to him from his long residence in Roman Catholic countries, and from his own religious scepticism. Two years indeed after his restoration he had already despatched an agent to Rome to arrange the terms of a reconciliation between the Anglican Church and the Papacy. But though he counted much for the success of his project of toleration on taking advantage of the dissensions between Protestant Churchmen and Protestant Dissenters he soon discovered that for any real success in his political or religious aims he must seek resources elsewhere than at home. At this moment France was the dominant power in Europe. Its young King, Lewis the Fourteenth, was the champion of Catholicism and despotism against civil and religious liberty throughout the world.
France was the wealthiest of European powers, and her subsidies could free Charles from dependence on his Parliament. Her army was the finest in the world, and French soldiers could put down, it was thought, any resistance from English patriots. The aid of Lewis could alone realize the aims of Charles, and Charles was willing to pay the price which Lewis demanded for his aid, the price of concurrence in his designs on Spain. Spain at this moment had not only ceased to threaten Europe but herself trembled at the threats of France; and the aim of Lewis was to complete her ruin, to win the Spanish provinces in the Netherlands, and ultimately to secure the succession to the Spanish throne for a French prince. But the presence of the French in Flanders was equally distasteful to England and to Holland, and in such a contest Spain might hope for the aid of these states and of the Empire. For some years Lewis contented himself with perfecting his army and preparing by skilful negotiations to make such a league of the great powers against him impossible.
His first success in England was in the marriage of the King. Portugal, which had only just shaken off the rule of Spain, was really dependent upon France; and in accepting the hand of Catharine of Braganza in spite of the protests of Spain, Charles announced his adhesion to the alliance of Lewis. Already English opinion saw the danger of such a course, and veered round to the Spanish side. As early as 1661 the London mob backed the Spanish ambassador in a street squabble for precedence with the ambassador of France. "We do all naturally love the Spanish," says Pepys, "and hate the French." The marriage of Catharine, the sale of Dunkirk, the one result of Cromwell's victories, to France, aroused the national jealousy and suspicion of French influence; and the war with Holland seemed at one time likely to end in a war with Lewis. The Dutch war was in itself a serious stumblingblock in the way of French projects. To aid either side was to throw the other on the aid of the House of Austria, and to build up a league which would check France in its aim.
Only peace could keep the European states disunited, and enable Lewis by their disunion to carry out his design of seizing Flanders. His attempt at mediation was fruitless; the defeat of Lowestoft forced him to give aid to Holland, and the news of his purpose at once roused England to a hope of war. When Charles announced it to the Houses, " there was a great noise," says Louvois, " in the Parliament to show the joy of the two Houses at the prospect of a fight with us." Lewis, however, cautiously limited his efforts to narrowing the contest to a struggle at sea, while England, vexed with disasters at home and abroad, could scarcely maintain the war. The appearance of the Dutch fleet in the Thames was followed by the sudden conclusion of peace which again left the ground clear for the diplomatic intrigues of Lewis.