I seem to have read this book at the perfect time. I mean, is it just me or does Charles II appear to be everywhere at the moment?! He’s currently the focus of a new exhibition – Charles II: Art & Power – which is held at none other than The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Alongside that, Charles was also thrust centre-stage as part of a fascinating BBC documentary Art, Passion & Power, which centred around his amazing additions to the Royal Collection.
All this was going on after I picked up Jenny Uglow’s ‘A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration’. I literally couldn’t be happier, because not only was I able to immerse myself in Charles’ life through objects and media, but I was also able to read about it as well! (And what an incredible read it was too)!
Charles is renowned for many things, especially his likeable character. However, I don’t think many people are aware of just how much he overcame, endured and achieved during his reign.
Well, Jenny Uglow aims to convey just that! She proves that Charles II was more than just the ‘King Who Brought Back Partying’. He actually brought about momentous change within British history, because he was the monarch who restored the British monarchy after the chaos of the English Civil War.
‘A Gambling Man’ begins by delving into Charles’ tumultuous childhood. Charles’ childhood was marked by conflict, division, exile and death. He was witness to many of the dramatic events which plagued the civil war. The bitter disputes between his father Charles I and the Parliamentarians would not only divide the country and bring much bloodshed – it would also bring much uncertainty to Charles’ future. Before he was even 18, he experienced the execution of his father’s cause, the separation of his family and faced the daunting prospect of lifelong exile abroad. By exploring this episode of Charles’ life, Jenny does an applaudable job in explaining some of Charles’ personality traits, and how his childhood may have influenced his future reign.
Therefore, when Charles was eventually invited to regain his father’s lost throne in 1660, you are already aware of just how daunting a task this young king had ahead of him. It was therefore a stroke of genius on Jenny’s part, to focus purely on the first decade after the Restoration, because this was the time when Charles had to prove his worth to the people, which would in turn determine the future of the British monarchy. No pressure right?!
Could Charles bring unity, peace and prosperity to this divided country which had suffered from momentous changes? Of course through hindsight we know that Charles was able to die peacefully in his sleep, without facing a bloody death upon the scaffold. However, Charles and his contemporaries would not have known that. Jenny therefore endeavours to show how Charles proved his enemies wrong, despite his various flaws and failings.
Jenny Uglow does an awesome job in recreating the vividness of Restoration Britain. Readers will encounter kings, queens, noblemen, mistresses, actors, scientists, MPs, bishops, servants, criminals and rebels. By highlighting the divisions which still marked 17th century Britain, Jenny is able to demonstrate to her readers just how remarkable it was that Charles was able to keep his throne. He had to balance arguments regarding religious, political, military, financial and social issues. Great developments also occurred during his reign, whether they be mechanical, technological, cultural or scientific. The modern-age was being unearthed, and Charles had to struggle through all of it whilst also maintaining the mystic of majesty.
By bringing the Restoration period to life, Jenny introduces her readers to various historical characters. Their beliefs, personalities and actions are so brilliantly retold, that like Charles you feel as if you have known them for years! The blunders of the Duke of Buckingham would be an endless frustration and fascination. Samuel Pepys would also be an insightful source for the period.
It was the women however, who proved to be the most interesting aspect of this book for me. Charles obviously adored many women during his lifetime, whether they be his relations or mistresses. I loved exploring their lives and how they managed to captivate this mysterious man’s attention. His wife Queen Catherine you cannot help but admire and sympathise with. Barbara Villiers would provide an endless supply of surprises, drama and ambition. Nell Gwyn shines forth with her down-to-earth sense of humour and rather modern opinions, whilst the lovely Frances Stuart brings a breath of fresh air to the Restoration court with her honour, loyalty and popularity. ‘A Gambling Man’ has certainly succeeded in sparking my interest with 17th century women from all walks of life, so thank you Jenny Uglow for that!
What I particularly adored however, was Charles’ beautiful relationship with his youngest sister Henriette Anne. His correspondence with his delightful sister across the Channel, provides a glimpse into Charles’ intriguing and often contradictory character. He trusted ‘Minette’ with his true feelings and ambitions. Her involvement with Charles cunningly secret treaty with Louis XIV, reads just like a modern-day spy novel with Minette acting the part of a top-secret agent! The relationship between those siblings is undoubtedly endearing, and causes readers to share Charles devastating grief when Henriette Anne’s tragic death occurs.
The life and reign of Charles II – especially the first decade of his kingship – plays such a momentous part in British history! ‘A Gambling Man’ by Jenny Uglow is a must-read for all history lovers out there… (or even if you just want to get the behind-the-scenes gossip surrounding this alluring man, his licentious court and his many diverse subjects)!
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