In her introduction to A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration, Jenny Uglow admits that this is a surprising choice for her latest book, as her natural "sympathy lies with the radicals and the artisans protesting against abuse of power". Yet, as her account makes clear, she is captivated by her risk-taking subject.
The book begins in 1660, with Charles's joyous return to England after the 11-year Republican Interregnum which began with the regicide of his father, Charles I. One of the features of this portrait is the subtle depiction of Charles's psychology, in which a deep if unstated familial loyalty was paramount. From the age of 12, he had fought for the Royalist cause.
The brutal loss of his father, and the subsequent separation from his mother and his beloved sister Minette, marked him indelibly. For all his cool-headedness, after he came to the throne Charles often allowed family ties to outweigh political judgment.
But to begin with he proved an adept ruler. The years of exile, prefaced by hardships – when he escaped capture variously disguised as a servant, by walking miles filthy and poorly shod and, most famously, by hiding in an oak – fostered tolerance and resourcefulness rather than bitterness.
While he played fast and loose with his own conscience, his avowed intention as a monarch was to embrace religious diversity, promising "liberty to tender consciences". The country which had suffered in the sectarianism of the civil wars was grateful. The grim latter days of Cromwell's republic ensured popular support for the returning king, together with a level of expectation which, with the best will in the world, it would prove impossible for him to realise.
However, he embarked on his reign with the cards stacked on his side: dashing looks, a liberal disposition, a proven courage and, perhaps most valuably, the common touch that his father and his brother, the future James II, lacked so disastrously. Although Uglow is meticulous in her account of the political complexities of the reign – and they are legion – she is at her best with the social detail where her own lively sympathies are most keenly engaged.
Charles was intellectually curious. He was an amateur scientist, making experiments in chemistry and fascinated by clocks. Under his patronage the Royal Society was formed. He was a passionate devotee of the theatre and patron of the arts.
Uglow deftly weaves through her narrative the observations of contemporaries, the poets Dryden and Marvell and most notably the diarist Pepys, who was with Charles on his voyage to receive the crown and whose distinctive voice wanders through the book, ogling Charles's mistresses and missing the coronation while taking "a piss". The prim Evelyn, whose copious diaries give a less indulgent account of the king's doings, also provides tit-bits of gossip as well as soberer accounts of the political shenanigans.
It was an age in which, among those able to afford them, mistresses were the norm - but Charles's affairs were particularly vivid. He loved women and was adored by them; and while his sexual appetite was hearty it was not vicious, and was often touchingly domestic in expression. He habitually tucked his bastard children up in bed at night and his accounts numbered rattles and toys. His time of rough living freed him of the habitual hauteur of princes and he flouted custom, allowing his favourites a licence which appalled poor Evelyn. On one occasion, two of his cronies stripped off and enacted scenes of buggery in public, earning no rebuke from Charles.
He was lucky, too, in his queen, Catherine, whom for all her plainness and inability to bear him an heir he seemed genuinely to love. And the love was mutual. She allowed him his mistresses, even defending one, Frances Stuart, of the lovely legs, by making her a maid of her bed chamber.
Bright comet among the mistresses was Barbara Palmer, later Lady Castlemaine, whose beauty made Pepys weep. But there were always others, including the feisty actress Nell Gwyn, who unusually among Charles's lovers cornered no title. Nell seems to have been a sympathetic soul. She died young leaving money to release debtors from prison.
But Charles's liberal philosophy was increasingly corralled by his parliament on which he depended to grant the vast sums required to run his court and, later, his wars. Under the dictate of parliament, the promise of religious tolerance was replaced by persecution.
Unsentimental to a fault when it suited him, Charles discarded old political allies mercilessly. Only in his family life was he truly constant. His first-born bastard, James, Duke of Monmouth broke his heart with his treachery; his brother, James, who succeeded him briefly as king, never merited his support.
For the two most tragic events of the reign he could not be held to account – the plague in 1665 and the great fire in 1666. Together they devastated London and left its people demoralised. To add insult to injury, the enemy Dutch coolly sailed up the Medway and captured the naval flagship.
Charles's last gamble involved his sister, Minette, to whom he wrote constantly and to whom of all humankind he was probably the most sincerely attached. With Minette's help, he forged the secret Dover Treaty with Louis XIV of France. In return for cash, which allowed him to avoid appealing to parliament, Charles promised to convert to Catholicism. His brother, James, had already converted but Charles, ever equivocal, held off till his death bed.
This is a terrific book, sparklingly written. Even the most ingrained republican ought to be enthralled.
Salley Vickers's latest book, 'Dancing Backwards', is published by Fourth EstateReuse content