February 28

Burst of Light after Republican Darkness

The restoration of Charles II was a burst of light after a bitter war and Cromwellian darkness, according to a new book by Jenny Uglow, “A Gambling Man, published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 580 pages.  

I came across this book  after reading  an excellent review by Ned Crabb in The Wall Street Journal of 26 November, 2009 republished in print only version of The Australian Review on 27-28 February, 2010.

Readers can buy this 592 page hardback at a special price of AUD$28.56, including air postage from the Book Depositary, London. (Just click on the words Book Depositary)

Ned Crabbe says that when Charles II stepped ashore in Dover on May 27, 1660, and then entered London in a glorious procession two days later, on his 30th birthday, he was greeted with tolling church bells, cries of joy and expressions of hope. He continues:

         …monarchy splendidiferously restored….

More than a decade had passed since his own exile to The Hague, the execution of his father and the rise of Oliver Cromwell's republican Commonwealth—regarded as a dictatorship by the many who chafed under the rule of the "Lord Protector." With the arrival of Charles—a tall, dark-haired man of physical grace—England's monarchy was splendiferously restored. 

Early in "A Gambling Man," a detailed and thoroughly engrossing examination of the Restoration's first decade, Jenny Uglow notes that Charles Stuart, upon his ascension, "wanted passionately to be seen as the healer of his people's woes and the glory of his nation." Cromwell's regime had featured constant war and constant taxes. The population was bitterly divided among Anglicans, Catholics and dissenting Protestants—Presbyterians, Puritans, Quakers, Baptists. A huge standing army had burdened the people financially and frightened them; such an army, it was not unreasonably thought, could be used to impose a tyranny. 

Charles is known to history for his pleasure-loving ways—his love of theater, music, hunting, horse racing, tennis and female company. But Ms. Uglow shows how diligently he worked to navigate the political cross-currents of his time and fashion a fairer society. It was an improbable goal, considering how deeply divided England was at the time. Not everyone cheered the return of the monarchy, of course—parts of the population retained republican sympathies. And though Charles was king, Parliament controlled the purse and could easily derail his best-laid plans.

…a gambler….


As a result of such divisions, Charles became a "gambler," as Ms. Uglow puts it—not at cards or gaming tables but at affairs of state. His biggest gamble was on something he fervently wanted to achieve: religious toleration for all sects and the freedom for Englishmen to follow their own "tender consciences" in individual worship.

…religious toleration thwarted by the politicians…

He forwarded this policy in Parliament only to receive his first major defeat with the passage of the Corporation Act, a law that took the power of corporations (governing towns and businesses) away from Nonconformists and handed it back to the Church of England. Charles had gambled on "the force of reasonable argument," Ms. Uglow says, but was ultimately defeated "by the entrenched interests of the [Anglican] Church" and "the deep-held suspicions" of Parliament, which believed that England's dissenting sects posed a persistent threat. That Charles was willing to go head-to-head with Parliament for such a cause, even in failure, was especially audacious, considering his father's fate. 

….republican army peacefully disbanded…  

A related gamble, with a happier result, was Charles's decision to disband Cromwell's 42,000-strong New Model Army, still republican and Puritan to a man. Amazingly, instead of turning against the throne with violence or becoming dangerous roaming bands of mercenaries, the soldiers, Ms. Uglow says, "melted back into their communities, becoming bakers, tailors and candlestick makers."


When it came to foreign relations, Charles took a gamble by pitting himself against the formidable Dutch leader Johann de Witt in a war for dominance of the sea trade. Though Holland was, like England, a Protestant nation, its religious identity carried scant weight against the huge potential profits from merchant ventures. Charles even sought the support of his cousin Louis XIV, though he failed to get it and found himself facing the Dutch alone. The conflict proved to be disastrous and costly for both countries.


….accessible to the people…

making hIn his desire to be a monarch of the people, Charles was determined to make himself accessible—in the early days of his reign he threw open the palace of Whitehall to all comers. He gambled, with some success, that (in Ms. Uglow's words) "easy access would make people of all views feel they might reach him, preventing conspiracies." During the 1666 Great Fire of London he and his brother, James, duke of York, went out into the streets and put themselves alongside soldiers and workmen. They could be seen "filthy, smoke-blackened and tired," frantically creating a firebreak as the blaze consumed London like a monstrous beast.

…only the regicides punished…

     Not that Charles's reign was all sweetness and light. He pursued the hideous draw-and-quarter executions of the "regicides," those parliamentarians who had signed his father's death warrant. Diarist John Evelyn wrote: "I saw not their execution, but met their quarters, mangled & cutt & reaking as they were brought from the Gallows in baskets." Charles tempered a potential counter-reaction by pointedly not punishing or seeking revenge on Cromwell's supporters in general. ( Mrs Cromwell was even awarded a pension..DF)

 Despite sanctioning such gruesomeness, Charles II was renowned for his affability, openness and courtesy. After one reads Ms. Uglow's chronicle, it is not hard to see why Restoration London comes down to us as a burst of light after bitter war and Cromwellian darkness. Primary sources for the period are bountiful, from Dryden to the ubiquitous Samuel Pepys, a government official and unstoppable diarist.

…a gentleman and a king…

Ms. Uglow's descriptions of Restoration theater, where king and courtiers found themselves routinely satirized, are especially entertaining. After sitting through a play "designed to reproach the King with his mistresses," a nervous Pepys wrote: "I was troubled for it, and expected it should be interrupted; but it ended well, which salved all." 

Two popular beauties of the stage, Nell Gwyn and Moll Davis, had some serious flings with the principal occupant of Whitehall. It should be noted that, according to Ms. Uglow's account, Charles never imposed himself on beautiful women against their will. He romanced them, and, if they responded in kind, he welcomed them to his royal home—as a gentleman and king. 

{Mr. Crabb, a former Journal letters editor, is a writer in New York.}


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