A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game, by Jenny Uglow
This book almost made me feel sympathetic with Charles II. Perhaps the most politically successful for the Stuart rulers, he was able to recover the thrones of England and Scotland after his father had lost both them and his head in obstinate resistance against the importance of Parliament in his own futile attempts at establishing an absolutist regime similar to what was going on in various continental regimes at the time (like France in particular) but in doing so he paid a price. This book explores that price, written by someone who would likely have had a view that focused more on commoners given her introduction but also someone who was able to grasp the strategy of survival that Charles II engaged in, a strategy that his relatives might have been well to imitate themselves, although they did not much to their later regret as the Stuart dynasty found itself overwhelmed by first political and then demographic problems. This particular book does not focus on the later Stuarts, only on Charles II, but it does implicitly contrast Charles II’s ability to hide his attempts at achieving financial independence from Parliament through French alliances as well as his own Roman Catholic sympathies while simultaneously ensuring working majorities in Parliament with the more stubborn and less successful efforts of his father and younger brother in achieving the same ends.
This book is more than 500 pages long and is mostly chronologically organized with a focus on the first ten years or so of Charles II’s reign, but also thematically according to the suits of a card deck. The author begins with a note on the text and then discusses various maps and the death of the English republic. After that the author discusses the deal for Charles II’s return, discussed in two chapters about his sailing from the continent (1) and landing in England (2). After that the author discusses clubs and a look at how to be king (3), the three crowns and more that Charles II ruled over (4), family matters (6), violence (7), the palace (8), court life (9), and the coming of the queen (10). The next section on diamonds discusses the king’s effort to promote freedom of conscience (12), discontents (13), absolutism (15), the Royal society (17), and the king’s relationship with various beauties (19). After that comes hearts, where the author discusses moneymen (21), the problem of honor (23), the Second Anglo-Dutch War (25), the great Fire of 1666 (27), and the blame that resulted from England’s troubles (28) in the 1660’s. The fifth part of the book then discusses the Dutch in the Medway (31), the fall of Clarendon (32), France’s efforts at bringing Charles II in a triple alliance (33), and the relationship between Charles and Louis (38). Finally the last part of the book looks at the Clearance, with a discussion of Dover and beyond (39) and sailing (40), after which there are acknowledgements, abbreviations and sources, notes, a list of illustrations, and an index.
What did Charles II gain and lose by playing it up as as a playful and frivolous king? He gained some measure of security on the throne that survived at least as long as he did, but he lost a lot too. His underhanded treaty with France demonstrated that he was untrustworthy and that he was willing to undertake action that was contrary to the expressed wishes of the English people and their elected representatives and that he sought to ensure a source of income that was not tied to his loyalty to the English system of constitutional monarchy set up after the Restoration. His fondness for mistresses and his inability to marry a wife who could bear children despite obviously being pretty fertile himself let his dynasty go into the hands of someone who completely lacked his ability to cope with England’s political realities, and his own personal corruption only delayed the inevitable political reckoning that resulted from his recovery of a throne without having resolved the tensions that led to the English Civil War in the first place. That said, this is a compelling story and the author does a great job with it.