In A Gambling Man, author Jenny Uglow tells the story of King Charles II’s first ten or so years as the restored king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. His father, King Charles I, had been deposed and executed during a civil war which brought Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers to power and created the Commonwealth. The period of the Commonwealth was a strict time for the English people, who did not agree with the Puritans. After the death of Oliver Cromwell and within a few years of his son’s rule as Lord Protector, various English leaders joined some of the remaining monarchists both in and outside England and worked to restore Charles I’s son to the throne.
In 1660, Charles II and his Stuart family were restored as the monarchs of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Uglow relates that while Charles had a Portuguese Catholic consort, he also had many mistresses. The queen was not able to bring an heir to live birth. Charles’ mistresses did bear live children, but these offspring could not be his heirs unless Parliament had passed a law making it possible. Charles’ brother James, the Duke of York, was instead made his heir and did succeed him as King James II. A Catholic, James was soon deposed by his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange, who were Protestants, in 1688.
Many of Charles’ mistresses were appointed to positions in his wife’s court and actually lived in or near the palace. Charles and his court received a great deal of criticism about these arrangements and how they carried on in public and private. Some of this criticism took the form of sermons, newspapers pieces and plays. Sometimes Charles put a stop to these critiques; at other times he simply ignored it.
After telling the story of the first ten years of Charles’ reign, Uglow rushes forward through the rest of his reign to its end 1685 and the beginnings of James II’s reign. It is thought that Charles converted to Catholicism on his deathbed and was baptized by his queen’s chaplain. His conversion isn’t all that hard to believe since his mother, brother, a sister and his wife were all Catholics. It is perhaps more surprising that he did not convert earlier, but he may have feared that he would be deposed like his brother.
Many black-and-white illustrations from the time period enliven the book. There are also a few maps, endnotes and an index. One of Uglow’s sources is Samuel Pepys’s diaries; she also utilized the diaries and writings of other people from the time period in the composition of this biography. The dust cover designed by Jennifer Carrow is a portrait of King Charles by Sir Peter Lely from the National Maritime Museum in London. Uglow uses the motif of a poker game as her part titles and has illustrations from the back side of cards.
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. A Gambling Man is highly recommended to those interested in King Charles II, British history and the English monarchy.