A Gambling Man, is a scholarly work by Jenny Uglow that covers the first ten years of Charles II’s return to the throne after the interregnum – but don’t let the fact it is rigorous and meticulous in its research put you off. This book is a simply marvellous read. Uglow is a wrier with a light touch and this is written in such a style it’s as if you’re reading an exciting novel. Uglow uses the motif of gambling, of hedging bets, risk-taking and the sort of nature required to succeed as a gambler to explore the impact the return of the king had on English society – specifically London – in the 1660s. It also explores the changes Charles’ return wrought upon English allies and enemies on the continent.
with effusiveness by a repressed populace, who welcomed their thirty-year-old monarch with bonfires and dancing in the streets the day he arrived in London after 12 years absence, the city and, indeed, country (with few exceptions, of course) were filled with hope. Restoring the king meant that, surely, those who were secretly royalists or at least prepared to welcome the king, could be restored to their former lives, wealth, trades etc. Even Catholics and other non-conformists, clung to the promises Charles made while at Breda, that he would tolerate all religions providing it didn’t conflict with loyalty to the throne and so too welcomed him with prayers and blessings.
Ready to embrace his new life, gamble with the hearts and souls of his people, Charles’ good intentions were swiftly put to the test.
While Charles’ desire to welcome different religions in the realm was no doubt sincere (in his mind at least, just because one was Catholic or Quaker, these beliefs didn’t exclude loyalty to him), his parliament and the Commons had other ideas. Toleration was swiftly replaced by prejudice and non-conformists suffered.
Though the parliament were initially generous to the king, even before he stepped upon English shores they lavished him with the sort of things he’d been denied in exile: beautiful clothes, objects, food and anything his heart desired, it quickly became apparent that the treasury was broke. This didn’t stop Charles luxuriating in his new status. Women, jewels, ships, furniture, object d’ art, courtiers, games, sexual licence, debauchery, all of these became the hallmark of Charles and the Restoration court.
But this was also a time for fresh ideas in the sciences, innovations in the arts, with music and the theatre (and women players being permitted upon the stage) as well as painting all being patronised and enjoyed by the king. Trade was opened up, new lands discovered and conquered and exotic foodstuffs and people poured into London, bringing ideas that challenged the status quo.
Striding daily among his subjects in St James’ Park, bestowing his touch and “curing” scrofula, dining before them in the Banqueting House, Charles never seemed to forget what he owed his people and how quickly his status could alter. The people loved him for that at the same time they loathed him and those he surrounded himself with for “playing” while the country and city of London suffered: through wars, financial depression, plague and the Great Fire.
It was really the latter that went some way to salvaging Charles’ rapidly diminishing reputation as he worked side by side, along with his brother, James, the Duke of York, and the exhausted citizens of London, to contain the fire that threatened to level the entire city.
Unfortunately, the restored love of the people didn’t last long. All too soon gossip about the king and his reckless spending on his many mistresses and bastard children (whom he gifted titles like one does flowers) dominated, at the same time, the Dutch declared war and even sailed into the Thames, sailors were being suborned to serve and people were going hungry, wages unpaid. And all the while, the religious balance and the power the king held over those he governed hung in the balance.
But, as Uglow argues, for all that Charles is remembered as a bit of a wastrel, he was also a clever and astute man who managed those around him carefully. While attention was focussed on his sexual escapades and his spending, and the gossip in the coffee houses and on the streets was about this, his power remained mostly in tact. Gambling on his ability to control his people, Charles’ managed to continually prorogue parliament and (mostly) any attempts to seriously curtail his power. The face he presented to the world was one of loyalty and assuredness, yet behind the scenes, he negotiated with England’s enemy and his cousin, Louis XIV in France, making promises in exchange for much-needed coin, removing the dependency he had on parliament to extend him cash.
Alternately bold and sneaky, loving and cold, rash and contained, succumbing to his base desires, refusing to acknowledge them, Charles was, according to Uglow (and her argument is persuasive) a gambler par excellence, able to conceal his hand and play, despite what people thought, with a poker face, one that left very few prepared when he finally played his cards.
This is a simply marvellous book, full of wonderful and quirky facts, splendid descriptions of the leading and colourful figures of the time, from General Monck and the Earl of Clarendon, to Barbara Castlemaine, Frances Stuart and of course, the tall, swarthy skin, dark-eyed and lustful king himself, Charles II.
For lovers of history, the royal families of Britain, politics, and insights into what make people tick, this is the book for you.