My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
(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.)
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.
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’.)
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.