A Gambling Man : Charles II and The Restoration, Paperback

A Gambling Man : Charles II and The Restoration Paperback

5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


Charles II was thirty when he crossed the Channel in fine May weather in 1660.

His Restoration was greeted with maypoles and bonfires, like spring after long years of Cromwell's rule.

But there was no going back, no way he could 'restore' the old.

Certainty had vanished. The divinity of kingship fled with his father's beheading. 'Honour' was now a word tossed around in duels. 'Providence' could no longer be trusted. As the country was rocked by plague, fire and war, people searched for new ideas by which to live.

Exactly ten years later Charles II would stand again on the shore at Dover, laying the greatest bet of his life in a secret deal with his cousin, Louis XIV. The Restoration decade was one of experiment: from the science of the Royal Society to the startling role of credit and risk, from the shocking licence of the court to the failed attempts at toleration of different beliefs.

Negotiating all these, Charles II, the 'slippery sovereign', played odds and took chances, dissembling and manipulating his followers.

The theatres were restored, but the king was the supreme actor. Yet while his grandeur, his court and his colourful sex life were on display, his true intentions lay hidden.

A Gambling Man is a portrait of Charles II, exploring his elusive nature through the lens of these ten vital years - and a portrait of a vibrant, violent, pulsing world, racked with plague, fire and war, in which the risks the king took forged the fate of the nation, on the brink of the modern world.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 608 pages, Illustrations (some col.), maps, ports. (some col.)
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Biography: royalty
  • ISBN: 9780571217342



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Posterity has been hard on Charles II portraying him as an immoral but likeable man whose name will forever be linked to the actress Nell Gwyn. But, as this book demonstrates, Charles was a born survivor, unlike his father and brother he completed a full reign. The title is misleading as Charles was not a gambler, nature and circumstance meant that he was ably equipped to rise above the machinations of the court and the sectarianism which still plagued society following the Interregnum. The book covers the first ten crucial years of his reign, these are epic years as the country was still in turmoil after the upheavals of the English Revolutions and the Interregnum and under threat from both the Dutch and the French, the population decimated by disease and poverty, its capital destroyed by fire. But these were also years of great accomplishment, the foundation of the Royal Society, the publication of the great English epic poem Paradise Lost, the development of a new form of philosophical thought, great strides in architectural design, but most of all this was a decade of political debate which really laid the foundations of the parliamentary democracy that still exists (although it does sometime feel only just) in Britain today.

Review by

Charles II is, in many ways, both too easy and too difficult a subject for a biography. He is one of those great defining characters of the British monarchy - like Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Victoria - whose reigns stand out in our collective memory for one or two well-known events, and about whom most people think they know plenty.<p>So Jenny Uglow takes a different approach in ‘A Gambling Man’. The book is indeed a biography of the Merry Monarch, but it focuses on the crucial first ten years of his reign, and on Charles’s many gambles to stabilise his three kingdoms during this period.<p>Her task is helped by the events of the period – restoration, war, plague, fire and constant sexual intrigue – which in themselves make for a rollicking good read. It is further illuminated by Pepys, whose voice, through his diary, offers us a ringside seat. (It’s astonishing how much he managed to witness first hand).<p>Given these ingredients, the greatest risk is that the author will over-simplify for the sake of populism. The greatest strength of ‘A Gambling Man’ is that Mrs. Uglow does not do this. She presents the politics, society, religion and intellectual life of 1660s England as a rich tapestry - complex, often paradoxical, sometimes frayed at the edges. And she is a meticulous chronicler of that complexity, whether it is the political manoeuvring of the King’s ministers or mistresses; the fine balancing act that Charles was forced to play between Royalists and former Cromwellian sympathisers; or above all the religious factionalism that threatened to destabilise the Kingdom from the moment Charles landed at Dover. <p>This last, so crucial to an understanding of the period, yet so often over-simplified or marginalized by historians (perhaps the worst example being Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Clockwork Universe’), is handled with particular thoroughness and insight. Freedom of religion was, of course, one of the first things offered by Charles on his return to power in 1660; his Declaration of Breda promised ‘liberty to tender consciences’. It was Parliament, and not the King, who forced religious conformity on the nation, outlawing both Catholics and nonconformist Protestants from worshipping in public and from holding public office. The effects would be felt for another 150 years or more; some would argue they are still in evidence today.<p>Also very much in evidence today, not just in Britain but throughout western democracy, is another and more profound legacy of Charles’s reign. Uglow reveals the very foundation of the relationship between government, parliament and private enterprise. (She even traces the origins of the two-party system, which crystallised in the later part of Charles’s reign.) <p>Government in the seventeenth century was still in the King’s personal control, but this King had been invited to rule by Parliament – by the common consent of the governed – and Parliament was his paymaster. The idea of monarchical rule by the explicit consent of the governed would, of course, be dramatically underscored by the events of 1688 - the enforced abdication of James II, the accession of William and Mary, the Glorious Revolution. It’s hereditary monarchy, Jim, but not as we know it – or not as we’d known it up to that point.<p>We see too the birth of commerce as a political force. The wars with the Dutch and the French were not fundamentally about political or dynastic control, nor about religion and ideology, but about control over trade routes. The City and her merchants, the generators of the nation’s wealth and prosperity, emerge as a political force in their own right. <p>(Niall Ferguson, in his recent book ‘Civilisation – The West and the Rest’, identifies private property rights as one of the six ‘killer apps’ which have allowed the West to dominate global civilisation for the last 500 years. 1660s London was that ‘killer app’ in action; the City would dominate world trade for the best part of the next three centuries.) <p>The book is structured broadly chronologically, but with a sensible thematic sub-structure. Thus politics, economics, foreign affairs, society and scientific innovation are depicted as separate, parallel strands of the tapestry, making for a whole that is coherent and digestible. Wisely, Uglow does not over-reach: it is a biography of Charles II, not a study of 1660s society. Equally wisely, she focuses on England, although she regularly refers to domestic events in Charles’s other kingdoms of Scotland and Ireland.<p>This is serious history, full of names and events and facts, but it is by no means po-faced. We get to have a lot of fun. The intrigues of Charles’s various mistresses make today’s headline-chasing celebrities look like unimaginative amateurs. It is amusing, too, to discover that the property speculator Nicholas Barbon, who rebuilt areas of London after the Great Fire, was in fact christened If-Jesus-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Had’st-Been-Damned Barebones. (His father, the preacher Praise-God Barebones, had a walk-on part in Neal Stephenson’s novel ‘Quicksilver’.) <p>But towering above all the ministers and mistresses and merchants, above the scientists and the architects and the playwrights and poets, his loyal subjects and strident critics, is the character of Charles himself – the dazzling monarch with the popular touch, the man who gambled everything to hold his nation together at this time of tumult.

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