January 15, 2010
A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game
By Br. Benet S. Exton *

By Br. Benet S. Exton *

Jenny Uglow.  New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, December 2009.  580 pages.  ISBN 978-0-374-28137-3.  $35.00.

Jenny Uglow’s book tells the story of the first ten years of King Charles II as the restored king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  Before Charles II assumed the throne, his father King Charles I had been deposed and executed during the civil war.  The result of that was brought Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers to power. It also created the Commonwealth. 

The period of the Commonwealth was a strict time for those English who did not agree with the Puritans.  Due to the resentment on the part of those prosecuted by the Commonwealth, some of the leading people of England got together with some of the remaining monarchists inside and outside of England after Cromwell’s death. Together, they worked to restore Charles I’s son, Charles II, to the throne.

In 1660, Charles II and his Stuart family were restored to the monarchy of England, Scotland, and Ireland.  Uglow relates that, while Charles II had a Portuguese Catholic consort, he also had many mistresses.  Sadly, the Queen was not able to carry an heir to birth.  On the other hand, Charles’ mistresses gave birth to live children.  Unless Parliament changed a law, these children could not be his heirs to the throne.

Thus, Charles’ brother James, the Duke of York, was made his heir and did succeed him as King James II.  James, however, was a Catholic and was soon deposed by his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange, in 1688.

Uglow’s book describes the immoral lifestyle of Charles’ court.  Many of his mistresses were appointed to positions in his wife’s court. The also lived in the palace or in places nearby.  Because of this, Charles and his court received a great deal of just criticism.  Some of this criticism was took the form of sermons, newspapers, and plays.  At times, Charles took active measures to quiet the critics. At other times he just ignored it.

After telling the story of the first ten years of Charles’ reign, Uglow rushes forward to the end of his reign in 1685. It is thought that Charles converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. He was supposedly baptized by his queen’s chaplain. Due to the fact that his mother, brother, a sister and his wife were all Catholics, it is not surprising to hear of his conversion.  What is surprising is that he had not converted earlier. It is conjectured that he feared that he would be deposed for being Catholic. Demonstratively, his brother was deposed on account of his faith a few years later.

Uglow’s book features many black and white images from the time period. There are also a few maps. One of the most interesting motifs in the book is that of a poker game, which appears in the titles, as well as illustrations of the backsides of different cards.

The book gives a unique perspective because of the extensive use of diaries from the time period as sources. One of these diaries belonged to Samuel Pepys, among others.

This book is highly recommended to those interested in King Charles II, English history, and the English monarchy.

Jenny Uglow is an editor at Chatto & Windus and lives in Cambridge, England.  Her previous books include “Nature’s Engraver,” “A Little History of British Gardening,” “The Lunar Men,” and “Hogarth.”

Br. Benet Exton, O.S.B., St. Gregory's University, Shawnee, Oklahoma.

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