A Gambling Man Jenny Uglow

Faber, pp.580, 25

In historical writing the Restoration era has been the poor relation of the Puritan one before it. It is true that we all have graphic images, many of them supplied by Samuel Pepys, of the years from the return of the monarchy in 1660: of the rakish court and the mistresses of the merry monarch; of the Restoration playhouses and the newly-founded Royal Society; of the disasters of the great plague and the fire of London and the Anglo-Dutch naval war. Yet until very recently there has been no equivalent to the scholarly foundations which were laid by Victorian narratives of the civil wars and the republic, and on which the successive controversies about the Puritan revolt, from the ‘gentry controversy’ of the 1950s onwards, have been erected.

For the Victorians, who admired Puritan earnestness and parliamentary progress, looked askance both at the immorality of the Restoration years and at the renewed assertions of the royal prerogative. Instead of moving forward towards the balanced constitution of the 18th century, they complained, the country had gone backwards to absolute or arbitrary rule, a deviation from historical logic that would require, in 1688, a second revolution, this time thankfully a successful one.

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Contemporaries had a different perception. To them the deviation was the Puritan revolt itself, which had taken so unexpectedly radical and destructive a course. In restoring the institutions of Crown and Church, 1660 was a return to normality. Yet it was not, unless fleetingly, a return to harmony. Not only had the Puritan Revolution failed to solve the problems of 17th-century government that had caused it. It had added to them by the divisions and hatreds it bequeathed. The restored regime was caught between competing pressures: on one side for the suppression and punishment of Puritans and Roundheads; on the other for compromise and conciliation. By 1667 the regime was helplessly split and, at least in its own eyes, struggling for survival.

Jenny Uglow’s subject is the politics and society of the decade following the Restoration, which she approaches through the character of the king. She has written an absorbing and memorable book, but I am not sure that it bears out her title. By A Gambling Man she means not that Charles II was addicted to dice or cards, for on that front ‘he left the big stakes to his courtiers’, but that he liked to gamble in politics. ‘He took risks, judged odds and staked all.’ He ‘kept his cards close to his chest, and made it hard to guess his hand.’ It is true that he made some hazardous and unexpected moves, chief among them the secret Treaty of Dover with France in 1670. Yet his risks may have arisen less from inclination than from instincts of self-preservation. Once the brief honeymoon of his reign was past, he was beset and confined by the factions of his ministers. Normally prone to yield to them, he resorted, in emergencies, to the independent initiatives — Uglow’s ‘risks’ — through which alone he might wriggle free.

As for keeping his cards close, inscrutability came with the territory of 17th-century princely rule. It would be hard to think of three successive rulers more unlike each other than Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, and Charles II, and yet all of them had reputations for dissimulation. The first two of them wanted, in contrasting ways, to change the world. Charles II aimed to survive in it. Always he preferred sense to ideology. He preferred charity too. Uglow brings out not only his kindness but his restless energy and curiosity. 

If the king is at the centre of her extensively researched book, it ranges far beyond him. Its achievement is to bring together the analytical insights of recent studies of the politics of the period with the re-creation of mood and atmosphere through vivid (just occasionally over-vivid) descriptive writing. Even to the set-piece events — the plague, the fire, and so on — she brings freshness of detail and perception. Especially enjoyable is her evocation of the sense of expectation and wonder which spread through the fleet sent to Holland in the late spring of 1660 to bring Charles back to England. Pepys was there, as he was at many of Uglow’s most atmospheric moments. Caught up in the euphoria, he nonetheless observed, as he sat alongside a royal footman in one of the smaller boats, that ‘a dog that the King loved . . . shit in the boat, which made us laugh and me think that a king and all that belong to him are but just as others are.’ It was an apt prelude to the reign of a monarch whose father had striven for the divine aura of kingship, but whose own blunt and licentious manner dissolved it. Uglow shows how his candid realism caught the intellectual mood of the Restoration era and set its social and political tone. 

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: History, Non-fiction, Religion, Restoration