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Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Gambling Man. Charles II and the Restoration. Jenny Uglow. Faber and Faber (2009)

This superbly written book examines the first decade of the Restoration of the monarchy in England after the Civil Wars and the reign of Cromwell. It was the start of a massive political and social restructuring that was not completed until William of Orange defeated James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, thirty years after Charles returned in triumph. Charles returned to England on a wave of mixed expectations that could never have been satisfied, they were so huge, vague and frequently flatly contradictory, he truly was the "once and future king". He represented a return to an old order whose followers had suffered greatly and wanted both to be restored and to exact retribution, he was also the king of a fundamentally transformed nation and had to deal with political and social reality as it actually existed.
Jenny Uglow places Charles in the wider context of the nation he returned to and was attempting to lead. From the start Charles was constrained by two deeply rooted structural forces that would shape his entire reign,the shortage of money and the excess of religion. One of the major pleasures of the book is the way Jenny Uglow integrates the personalities of the political players within the social, religious and economic context of the times. She shows how Charles was a very private man who hid his calculations from those around him, in effect Charles hid inside his public persona as the accessible King. Charles understood that the nature of monarchy had changed irretrievably, the struggle to reshape it to maximise his advantage was the deepest current of his reign.
The early restoration years were a very tumultuous time, they were an enormous release of energy held down by the rules on the Commonwealth as well as a direct reaction to its restrictions. Charles was the "Merry Monarch" due to his flamboyant lifestyle as much as his affable personality. Jenny Uglow does a tremendous job of revealing the capable and devious politician whose pragmatic calculations drove his actions. This is a wonderful book, it presents a detailed and fascinating panorama of an extraordinary decade and the truly extraordinary man at its centre.

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