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 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, 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, in which the risks the king took forged the fate of the nation, on the brink of the modern world.
The restoration period is well documented; the diaries of Pepys and John Evelyn cover much of book’s span, and the nobility’s love of court gossip provides even more juicy information for the author. Charles Stuart is at the heart of everything, as it is his character and decisions that navigate the monarchy through the rocky shoals of a changing England. Though Cromwell’s time is past, his legacy truly remains intact in the aggressive and questioning nature of restoration society. considerable religion minority exists, who are unwilling to compromise with the flexible consciousness of their king. Uglow wants us to see Charles II as “a gambling man”, who played for very high stakes. This is a motif that runs through her book, which is divided into sections with playing-card titles, illustrated with examples of contemporary cards. His greatest gambles, she thinks, were that he could get away with keeping mistresses as well as maintaining a queen, and that he could survive his eventual disclosure of his Catholic conversion.
Charles lacked the vision and skills to avoid the religious intolerance that came to characterise his reign. Perhaps the fear and mistrust of the Anglican dominated parliament, coupled with the intransigence of the Dissenters, made any compromise impossible. The years of plague, fire and war proved to be very difficult, but he survived them, and in so doing ensured the survival of his line. Charles II learned how to be a king in a time of great extremes and change; the splendor and recklessness of court life contrasted sharply with the secular philosophy of the Royal Society, and the religious zeal of the Dissenter minority. Greater change was to follow, and soon, and Charles in his own flamboyant and inconsistent manner, facilitated that revolutionary change.
For those of you who enjoy historical biography, the restoration period, or just good writing; this is a book I would highly recommend. Pick up a copy in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop – only €6, and there are a few copies left!