TBT: The Last King (2003) Episode 4

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I loved The Last King (2003), also known as Charles II: The Power and The Passion, when I saw it way back when. It’s one I’ve always meant to rewatch, both because it was entertaining, but also because I know so much more about late 17th century costume now than I did back in the day. It’s got a great cast — Rufus Sewell as Charles IIRupert Graves as the Duke of Buckingham, Helen McCrory as Barbara Villiers, Shirley Henderson as Catherine of Braganza — and who doesn’t love the story of the merry monarch and all his wimmin?

The costumes were designed by Mike O’Neill (Daniel DerondaNorth and SouthElizabeth I with Helen Mirren). Sadly the series is old enough that there’s only a teeny bit of press to be found about it, and very little about the costumes. I’m guessing the budget was small, because there are some costumes that are great and others that leave a lot to be desired … and everything is filmed in close-up, which I always think is a way to avoid showing the costumes and/or the lack of extras!

 

I’ve been doing an occasional deep dive into the costumes of each episode, this final one inspired by Trystan giving me shit about how long it was taking me to write these. Check out my recap/reviews of episode one, two, and three.

This episode is VERY politics heavy, so most of it was boys and bad teeth and hard to get excited about visually, but I’ll do my best.

In 1678, Titus Oates accuses every Catholic under the sun of eating babies (shades of QAnon, much?) and plotting to kill the king. Charles is having none of it, but his political rivals — including longtime friend the Duke of Buckingham — decide to use it to their advantage.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Charles looking fly in black and gold.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Oates claims he overheard plotting in this latrine, which, wait, I thought they just shit on the floor?

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Loved this blue-y purple on Charles.

Here’s what the real older Charles II looked like. Near the end of this episode, they give Rufus Sewell a double chin, but that’s the most they do in terms of aging.

King Charles II, attributed to Thomas Harker, c. 1680, National Portrait Gallery

King Charles II, attributed to Thomas Harker, c. 1680, National Portrait Gallery

Oates’s accusations include the queen, but Charles knows she’s loyal to him. I admit, I love the portrayal of their relationship in this miniseries, where you can tell they’re real friends despite all their marital woes (Charles’s mistresses, her inability to have children).

It made me happy that they’ve updated some of the hairstyles:

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

It’s not the best angle, but these higher curl bunches are exactly what you see in images from the 1670s.

Compare it with the hair here | Portrait of a lady (Hortense Mancini) by Pierre Mignard, 17th century, The Royal Hospital Chelsea

The core of all the plotting and politics is Charles’s insistence that his younger brother, the future James II, inherit the throne. James is Catholic, so most of the English are very much against this. Plotting frequently returns to Charles’s eldest (illegitimate) son, the Duke of Monmouth, who continues to be way too pretty.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Seriously, if there’s a hair metal band in need of a frontman, call Monmouth.

The “Popish Plot” leads to all kinds of executions and popular unrest. As really happened, Nell Gwyn‘s carriage is accosted by angry masses under the mistaken apprehension that it’s French Catholic mistress Louise de Keroualle’s. Nell calms them by declaring, as she supposedly did, “Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore.” I LOVE this green color!

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

The problem, however, is that none of the ladies’ dresses are moving with the times. Nell, along with the rest, is still very much in the fitted “robe” of the 1660s.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

By the 1670s, the mantua is coming into fashion, and there should be at least some of them interspersed… but there isn’t, although there were in earlier episodes (see my recap of episode one for a fuller explanation).

The mantua was a draped overgown, tied with a sash, with overskirt looped up and back | Nicolas Arnoult, “Dame de qualité en habit d’Esté,” Recueil des modes de la cour de France, 1682-1683. LACMA.

Mantua, British, late 17th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mantua, British, late 17th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

We only see a glimpse of the back of Nell’s dress, but it looks suggestive of the back pleats seen on the mantua:

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Or maybe that’s just complicated seaming?

Mantua, British, late 17th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Those are stitched down pleats on the back of the bodice | Mantua, British, late 17th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Louise de Keroualle is mistress #1 these days; she mostly cries, first because she’s racked up gambling debts and then because the English populace is calling her a whore.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Some kind of drapey gown? Hard to tell.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

We don’t see much of this pearl-embellished gown now, but you’ll see it again in full in the last scene. Apparently no one gets new dresses in this series!

Here’s what the real Louise looked like — dark hair and all:

Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth by Pierre Mignard, 1682, National Portrait Gallery

Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth by Pierre Mignard, 1682, National Portrait Gallery

Buckingham (Rupert Graves) continues to plot with the pro-Protestant parliament faction led by Lord Shaftesbury (Martin Freeman).

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Buckingham (right) briefly gets a not-shitty wig, but returns to his Farrah Fawcett special pretty quickly.

This pro-Protestant parliament faction is trying to force Charles to sign an act excluding his Catholic brother from the throne. Queen Catherine is supportive.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Here you can see better how Catherine’s curls have gotten smaller and higher on the face.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Here’s what Queen Catherine of Braganza was looking like these days:

Portrait of Catherine of Braganza, Queen Consort of Charles II (1638-1705) by Benedetto Gennari II, 1678, Government Art Collection

Portrait of Catherine of Braganza, Queen Consort of Charles II (1638-1705) by Benedetto Gennari II, 1678, Government Art Collection

Charles knows that Buckingham is plotting behind his back. Charles lets him know, and basically tells him goodbye.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Lots of great shoe shapes in this, and I love a man “making a leg.”

Charles calls parliament. Everyone thinks he’s going to announce that he’s giving in on the succession.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

It’s at least the next day, but Catherine hasn’t changed.

There’s a great scene shot in close-up of Charles putting on his coronation robes.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Parliament walks in to find Charles decked out in full coronation gear. He tells them that the succession will stay as is, and he dissolved parliament, vowing from here on out to govern on his own. (Note: the monarch has — or at least had — the right to call and dissolve parliament; the main issue is that only parliament can approve new taxes etc., so this is Charles deciding to forgo that money [or just new money?] and, as we later find out, live on money given to him by Louis XIV who is pro-Catholic).

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Full Gear.

They are clearly referencing this famous portrait, although there are some slight differences (the knee floofies, for example):

Charles II of England in Coronation robes by John Michael Wright, c. 1661-62, Royal Art Collection

Charles II of England in Coronation robes by John Michael Wright, c. 1661-62, Royal Art Collection

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4 2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

There’s lots of dire predictions, but parliament has to accept things. Charles had sent Monmouth away to the Netherlands, but he shows back up to be pretty and get in trouble with his dad.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Life is winding down for Charles. Nell Gwyn goes to Louise de Keroualle, all casual like, and encourages her to be there for Charles.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Nell’s dress is a little more drapey than Louise’s, but that’s all I can tell.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Actress Mélanie Thierry is gorgeous, and I love those perfect curls.

The Last King: The Power and the Passion of Charles II (2003)

Nell’s still my girl, tho.

Charles is tired. He’s fought parliament for the right of kings, but he knows that once he’s gone, his brother James will fuck it up (and he’s right). He has some funny, wry lines about how he’ll be dead, so he doesn’t care. There’s a final scene where a reflective Charles is out in the gardens with his mistresses, children, and various courtiers.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

This extra (right) is so pro-skirt hiking that at first I thought she was wearing paniers.

Nell Gwyn comforts Charles, making him laugh.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Still in the 1660s style of gown.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4 2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Queen Catherine advises Louise to stop crying and to be what Charles has always craved: a mother.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Catherine’s hair has gotten even higher on the temples, which I like. The fabric is pretty drab, but at least it has that trim on the (kind of lumpy) bodice front?

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Here’s that pearl-trimmed dress Louise has been wearing for years, apparently.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

They actually did the back lacing overlap right — except the gown isn’t laced closed enough, so the lacing shows.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Louise cossets Charles, who is tired.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Charles has a final reckoning with his father’s portrait, then collapses, while Queen Catherine wears some kind of Victorian nightgown.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

Charles dies (1685); there’s a nice little coda where the actor playing each key part tells us what happened to their character accompanied by a shot of them. We’re informed how James is deposed in favor of Protestant William and Mary; we see William, but no Mary.

2003 Charles II aka The Last King ep 4

William of Orange, now King William III.

And, we’re out!

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

11 Responses

  1. susan l eiffert

    The costumes aside, I have a hard time believing that that ornately carved and gilded coronation throne is period accurate. I’ve been around 17thc. British furniture and I don’t recall anything that OTT. It looks like a Disney fantasy chair for some production like Beauty and the Beast.

    Reply
  2. Colleen

    I think those garter floofies are a nod to the portrait, which has some kind of ruffles behind the real Charles’ knees, which might be part of his robe.

    Reply
  3. Roxana

    By all accounts Louise de Keroualle was on the whiney side. Charles seems to have had a weakness for high maintenance women.
    I don’t know but I doubt the women had much to say to each other. Louise was under the delusion that Catherine liked her rather than merely tolerating her but she and Nell were always at daggers drawn.
    Charles’loyal defense of his queen against the anti-Catholics makes up for a lot. At least Catherine thought so.
    Charles made no secret that his sole goal was to remain king but he was probably doing his best to secure the succession of his brother who he regarded as his rightful heir even though he knew James would muck it up. How catholic Charles was is questionable. He may have been more pro France and royalist.

    Reply
  4. Susan Pola Staples

    And Charles died a Catholic, something he probably realised he couldn’t have espoused and ruled England. Or maybe in 1660 hecould have, but im 99.9% sure he couldn’t have. And was the portrait of Catherine of Braganza you included was the only one showing a slightly P.O.C. descent or were they others? Considering how Charlotte of Mecklenburg Strelitz is her descendant. What happened to Barbara Cleveland in episode?

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Sadly no Helen McCrory/Barbara Villiers in this episode, other than a quick “here’s what happened to her at the end of her life” at the very end.

      I haven’t seen any other images of Catherine of Braganza that make her look anything other than white, but I noticed that on this image too!

      Reply
      • Susan Pola Staples

        Thanks for the prompt response. I’m going to have to re-watch this. But I keep on remembering the line in THE FIRST CHURCHILLS, Charles: ‘Jamie, you have the soul of a Medieval pope.’ James looks proud. Missing the point.

        Reply
    • hsc

      “And was the portrait of Catherine of Braganza you included was the only one showing a slightly P.O.C. descent or were they others? Considering how Charlotte of Mecklenburg Strelitz is her descendant.”

      Okay, I’m not following this. How could Charlotte be Catherine’s “descendant” when Catherine had no living offspring?

      Are they actually related to each other, beyond Charlotte having distant ancestry in Portugal?

      Reply
      • Susan Pola Staples

        They have a common ancestor. Charlotte of Mecklenburg Strelitz wasn’t a descendant – your right there.

        Reply
    • Roxana

      Catherine of Braganza was olive skinned with very dark hair and eyes. So for that matter was Charles. That’s a common coloring of mediterranean europeans and far from unknown north of the Alps.

      Reply
      • hsc

        Hair curl, nose shape and lip shape also vary greatly among Europeans as well. Some Europeans have broad noses and broad, full lips.

        And on top of it all, there’s the whole issue of how accurately a portrait actually captures features in the era before photography.

        Reply
  5. Kathryn MacLennan

    I think about that carriage scene with Nell Gwynn a lot. Especially now the people originally cursing Louise cheer for Nell.

    Reply

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