The strength of the Country party had been broken by its own dissensions over the Exclusion Bill, and by the flight or death of its more prominent leaders. Whatever strength it retained lay chiefly in the towns, and these were now attacked by writs of "quo warranto," which called on them to show cause why their charters should not be declared forfeited on the ground of abuse of their privileges. A few verdicts on the side of the Crown brought about a general surrender of municipal liberties; and the grant of fresh charters, in which all but ultra-loyalists were carefully excluded from their corporations, placed the representation of the boroughs in the hands of the Crown. Against active discontent Charles had long been quietly providing by the gradual increase of his Guards. The withdrawal of its garrison from Tangier enabled him to raise their force to nine thousand well-equipped soldiers, and to supplement this force, the nucleus of our present standing army, by a reserve of six regiments, which were maintained till they should be needed at home in the service of the United Provinces. But great as the danger really was, it lay not so much in isolated acts of tyranny as in the character and purpose of Charles himself. His death at the very moment of his triumph saved English freedom.
He had regained his old popularity, and at the news of his sickness crowds thronged the churches, praying that God would raise him up again to be a father to his people. But the one anxiety of the King was to die reconciled to the Catholic Church. His chamber was cleared and a priest named Huddleston, who had saved his life after the battle of Worcester, received his confession and administered the last sacraments. Not a word of this ceremony was whispered when the nobles and bishops were recalled into the royal presence. All the children of his mistresses save Monmouth were gathered round the bed. Charles "blessed all his children one by one, pulling them on to his bed; and then the bishops moved him, as he was the Lord's anointed and the father of his country, to bless them also and all that were there present, and in them the general body of his subjects. Whereupon, the room being full, all fell down upon their knees, and he raised himself in his bed and very solemnly blessed them all." The strange comedy was at last over. Charles died as he had lived: brave, witty, cynical, even in the presence of death. Tortured as he was with pain, he begged the bystanders to forgive him for being so unconscionable a time in dying.
One mistress, the Duchess of Portsmouth, hung weeping over his bed. His last thought was of another mistress, Nell Gwynn. "Do not," he whispered to his successor ere he sank into a fatal stupor, "do not let poor Nelly starve! "
The first words of James on his accession in February 1685, his promise "to preserve the Government both in Church and State as it is now by law established," were welcomed by the whole country with enthusiasm. All the suspicions of a Catholic sovereign seemed to have disappeared. "We have the word of a King! " ran the general cry, "and of a King who was never worse than his word." The conviction of his brother's faithlessness stood James in good stead. He was looked upon as narrow, impetuous, stubborn, and despotic in heart, but even his enemies did not accuse him of being false. Above all he was believed to be keenly alive to the honour of his country, and resolute to free it from foreign dependence. It was necessary to summon a Parliament, for the royal revenue ceased with the death of Charles; but the elections, swayed at once by the tide of loyalty and by the command of the boroughs which the surrender of their charters had given to the Crown, sent up a House of Commons in which James found few members who were not to his mind. The question of religious security was waived at a hint of the royal displeasure. A revenue of nearly two millions was granted to the King for life.
All that was wanted to rouse the loyalty of the country into fanaticism was supplied by a rebellion in the North, and by another under Monmouth in the West. The hopes of Scotch freedom had clung ever since the Restoration to the house of Argyll. The great Marquis, indeed, had been brought to the block at the King's return. His son, the Earl of Argyll, had been unable to save himself even by a life of singular caution and obedience from the ill-will of the vile politicians who governed Scotland. He was at last convicted of treason in 1682 on grounds at which every English statesman stood aghast. "We should not hang a dog here," Halifax protested, "on the grounds on which my lord Argyll has been sentenced to death." The Earl escaped however to Holland, and lived peacefully there during the last years of the reign of Charles.
Monmouth had found the same refuge at the Hague, where a belief in the King's purpose to recall him secured him a kindly reception from William of Orange. But the accession of James was a deathblow to the hopes of the Duke, while it stirred the fanaticism of Argyll to a resolve of wresting Scotland from the rule of a Catholic king. The two leaders determined to appear in arms in England and the North, and the two expeditions sailed within a few days of each other. Argyll's attempt was soon over. His clan of the Campbells rose on his landing in Cantyre, but the country had been occupied for the King, and quarrels among the exiles who accompanied him robbed his effort of every chance of success. His force scattered without a fight; and Argyll, arrested in an attempt to escape, was hurried to a traitor's death. Monmouth for a time found brighter fortune. His popularity in the West was great, and though the gentry held aloof when he landed at Lyme, and demanded effective parliamentary government and freedom of worship for Protestant Nonconformists, the farmers and traders of Devonshire and Dorset flocked to his standard.
The clothier-towns of Somerset were true to the Whig cause, and on the entrance of the Duke into Taunton the popular enthusiasm showed itself in flowers which wreathed every door, as well as in a train of young girls who presented Monmouth with a Bible and a flag. His forces now amounted to six thousand men, but whatever chance of success he might have had was lost by his assumption of the title of king. The Houses supported James, and passed a bill of attainder against the Duke. The gentry, still true to the cause of Mary and of William, held stubbornly aloof; while the Guards hurried to the scene of the revolt, and the militia gathered to the royal standard. Foiled in an attempt on Bristol and Bath, Monmouth fell back on Bridge-water, and flung himself in the night of the sixth of July, 1685, on the King's forces, which lay encamped on Sedgemoor. The surprise failed; and the brave peasants and miners who followed the Duke, checked in their advance by a deep drain which crossed the moor, were broken after a short resistance by the royal horse.