Reviewed by: John Miller
Author: Jenny Uglow
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Price (RRP): £25
The personality and personal life of Charles II have fascinated historians: here was
a monarch who, despite his difficulties, seemed really to enjoy life.
There survive a number of character studies by contemporaries – most notably Burnet and Halifax – and a host of anecdotes, many of them recorded by Pepys. At the same time he remained sufficiently enigmatic for historians to come up with very different analyses of his conduct: his religious beliefs were one of the great mysteries of Europe.
In addition, the 1660s were years of exuberant self-indulgence and intellectual speculation after the moral rigour and religious fanaticism of the regimes of the 1650s.
Jenny Uglow is an experienced biographer and an accomplished author. She writes with verve and assurance and she is well informed and generally factually accurate: the claim that John Wildman, postmaster general under William III, was executed in 1683 is a rare slip. Although she does discuss politics, this is a study of ‘life and times’ – not just the life of the court and of London, but also intellectual life (especially the Royal Society) and the burgeoning world of trade and finance.
But while her discussion of the ‘times’ is perceptive and interesting, it is also limited. She focuses heavily on London and the modern. Provincial towns and the countryside, with their more traditional values, barely figure. The strong resurgence of the support for the Church of England is at best hinted at: the focus is on intellectual progress and religious tolerance. Just occasionally her evidence contradicts her assumptions: she says that the regicide destroyed the aura of monarchy and then shows the vast number of people who came to be touched for the king’s evil. (Sometimes the aldermen of traditionally ’puritan’ towns paid their expenses.) Indeed, one could argue that the ‘martyrdom’ of Charles I strengthened popular belief in the divine attributes of kingship, which was to find its most fervent expression in the reign of Anne.
A second problem is the depiction of Charles II as a gambler. He was a master of dissimulation, a useful attribute for a gambler, but that in itself did not make him a gambler. For much of the 1660s he tried to avoid risk, by appeasing those he saw as his enemies – former Parliamentarians and Protestant Nonconformists. The one risk he took – and it was a huge one – was in seeking an alliance with Louis XIV after the French conquest of large parts of the Spanish Netherlands in 1667 had shown how powerful their armed forces had become.
Charles calculated that he would gain from joining with the strongest power in Europe and hoped that he could persuade Louis to divide the tottering Spanish empire between them. This would be a huge prize – but most of his Protestant subjects saw Louis as a threat to the liberties and religion of Protestant Europe. The alliance ruined Charles’s political credibility at home and he spent most of the rest of the reign trying to limit the damage done by this one fatal gamble.
Professor John Miller teaches at Queen Mary, University of London, and is author of A Brief History of the English Civil Wars (Constable and Robinson, 2009)