A GAMBLING MAN: CHARLES II’S
By Jenny Uglow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 592 pages
REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN
Cecil B. DeMille, with his love of movie spectaculars, would have relished the reign of King Charles II of England, which was a kaleidoscope of fiery disaster, death and disease.Charles’ life was a 17th-century melodrama launched in tragedy by the beheading of King Charles I, his father. Charles was 19 then, and he lived through the kind of danger and privation that informed his approach to ruling England 11 years later. Given the bloody brutality of the era, Charles’ conduct as a ruler demonstrated what he had learned about the importance of political cynicism and the usefulness of a dry, dark humor that probably dated back to his teens when his father was facing the ax.
Jenny Uglow has woven a vivid tapestry of a book in which Charles is the focus of her attention, yet he is competing with the lurid and often terrifying framework of medieval England. He presided over the Restoration and encouraged a relaxed attitude toward hedonism. He loved the theater and the city parks, and he dreamed of a London free of its gray cloak of fog.
Drawing on copious research, and using Samuel Pepys as one of her characters, Ms. Uglow describes with meticulous detail what was then London with St. Paul’s Cathedral “crouching like a weatherbeaten Gothic lion at the head of Ludgate Hill.” She conjures up the countryside and the narrow city streets of gabled houses with their upper stories hanging out over the cobbles and the Strand with its “golden crowned maypole.” That was the scene of the coronation of a 30-year-old king who was remarkable for the fact that he had grown up at all, let alone transcended the huge political obstacles in his path to the throne.
He was following in the footsteps of a toppled king, his father, and Oliver Cromwell, the “Great Protector” whom the author describes as “men of single-minded principle that contributed in part to the collapse of the regimes they tried to impose.” Charles embodied the Restoration and ruled for 25 years in an atmosphere of challenge and change. His background was his testing ground, taking him from the luxurious court setting of a royal son to exile in France and the terrible day when he learned of his father’s execution.
“In exile he devised a strategy based on charm, outward compliance and private evasion,” writes Ms. Uglow, “He was clever, affable and courtly. Yet he was also a cynic with a reserve and unpredictability fostered by his wandering youth.”
He fitted admirably in the world of the Restoration, playing the role of “a supreme performer,” the author asserts.
A close adviser wrote a verse describing Charles as “a pritty witty king whose word no man relies on. He never said a foolish thing and never did a wise one.”
The king commented sardonically that the rhyme was “very true, for my words are my own and my actions are my ministers.”
He presided over a court permanently awash in scandal that no one relished more than Charles, whose personal life was a procession of mistresses, from the formidable Barbara Villiers Palmer, Lady Castlemaine, to the lively actress Nell Gwyn, “the Cinderella of London,” to whom the king was so attached that on his deathbed he urged, “Don’t let poor Nelly starve.”
His marriage to the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza was little short of a disaster. Although the poor, shy woman eventually managed to cope with Charles’ paramours, she had a series of miscarriages and never gave birth to an heir. Still, the court was full of the king’s illegitimate offspring.
Charles’ addiction to the luxuries of court life may have helped take his mind off the natural catastrophes that beset him. In 1664, the flea-driven bubonic plague struck, causing more than 7,000 deaths a week in London within the next year. Everyone who could leave the city did, and that included the king. But Charles stayed in London a year later when the city was devastated by the Great Fire that consumed the shabbily constructed houses and even burned St. Paul’s and the stacks of books piled there for safety. Charles was there, “handling buckets of water” with his subjects in the hopeless fight against the flames.
He later achieved parliamentary support for strict building codes for Christopher Wren’s redesign of the great cathedral demonstrating a capacity - that was ahead of his time - to accept new ideas.
He was also fascinated by a treatise called “Fumifugium” on the problem of London’s notorious fogs, and envisioned the city cleansed of the soot and smoke that choked it so that it would rival Paris in spacious beauty. Yet Charles was still a king of the Middle Ages, struggling with endless threats of war and relentless savagery in punishment, like the sufferings of the rebel Duke of Monmouth, who was virtually hacked to pieces by five blows of the ax when he was executed.
Charles exercised his gambling skills in secret negotiations with French King Louis XIV, juggling alliances in order to deal with the threat of war with the Dutch while remaining wary of domestic threats.
For all his love of frolic and frivolity, Charles was capable of serious dramatic action, such as dismissing Parliament and coming close to reasserting absolute royal power. But the author notes that while Charles was successful in his gambles to keep his throne, leaning on French subsidies and ruthless use and abuse of his ministers, he underestimated the ambitions of his nephew William of Orange.
The solemn young Dutchman not only disapproved of Charles’ lifestyle but turned out to be the man who would topple the Stuart dynasty. However, by then the ruler they called the merry monarch was dead, and Charles probably would have appreciated the author’s epitaph. “He achieved a supreme balancing act, ruling a divided people for twenty five years.”
His other accomplishment was to die peacefully in his bed in an era when that was unusual, asking only that the curtains be drawn back so that he could see the dawn on the river. Romantic to the end.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.