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on 25 December 2009
An excellent book. Thoroughly researched and written in a manner that brings the characters to life. It gives a whole new insight in King Charles as not just a womaniser but as someone who held the different factions, both at court and in the country,at bay. He struggled to achieve harmony amongst the religious groups. Jenny Uglow makes it all come to life; a real page turner for the history buff and others. Bill Duff
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on 2 October 2010
It seems I am very taken up by the Stuart period in English history these days. It all started when I read Diane Purkiss' The English Civil War: A People's History, followed by Antonia Fraser's King Charles II, and now this. And, largely because Uglow's book is so good, I find that I still have an appetite for more!

Anyway, although the 'bare facts' of Charles' life were already known to me from Fraser's (also excellent) book, it was fascinating to read about the same man from another author's perspective, and concentrating largely on the first decade after the Restoration (1660 - 1670). And what a fascinating, vibrant time that must have been! Wouldn't it be great to have known and mixed with people as different as Samuel Pepys, John Bunyan, Dryden, Hobbes and Milton? To gossip with cronies in the coffee shops about Barbara Castlemaine and Nell Gwyn? To hear about the experiments conducted by the newly founded Royal Society? And perhaps witness the Great Fire of London? I would sign up any day for a trip back to those days (provided I can also get the guarantee I will not be operated for 'the stone' - or anything else for that matter...).

The more I read about Charles II the better I like the man. It is of course a matter of debate to what degree we can ever know the man (or anyone for that matter). After all, he's been dead for over 300 years, and he was as Uglow terms it a gambling man that kept his cards close to his chest. But still, she succeeded brilliantly in writing a very lucid, entertaining and insightful book that made me feel she knows all there is to know about him, and has real empathy with both his public and private self. For someone whose father was beheaded when he (Charles II that is) was just 19, and then spent 11 years in exile, I found that Charles was in fact a surprisingly normal person, approachable to all and sundry, with real wit and (often) a surprising 'joie de vivre'. Did he not have a darker side then? I'm sure he did, the way in which some of his mistresses were dumped, and the way for instance in which he disposed of his Chancellor Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon testifies he could be ruthless when necessary or provoked.

Looking at Charles II as a 'gambling man' is very apt too. In a way, we all need to gamble from time to time in our lives (should I marry this girl? Should I have children with her? Should I change jobs? Move house?) but, in Charles' case, it must have felt often that the stakes were very high indeed. The court was alive with factions and intrigues, international alliances constantly shifted, and betting on the wrong horse could cost you your life: Charles needed only to think of his own father to be reminded of the fact. In these circumstances to stay on the throne for 25 years and die as a popular king must have taken exceptional qualities.

In short, I immensely enjoyed this book, and, last but not least, feel that praise is definitely also due to Uglow for the clarity of her writing. At a certain point Uglow quotes John Wilkins, bishop of Chester in saying 'the greatest learning is to be seen in the greatest plainness.' The very same can be said of Uglow's fabulous book.
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on 7 January 2010
This is a readable, informative and enjoyable survey of a fascinating man and period in British history. Jenny Uglow is brilliant at making history interesting. The book covers just ten years from the Restoration in 1660 to 1670, when Charles was establishing himself in a changing world, and the book covers not just govenrment and politics but developments in science, society, morals and more.
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on 20 July 2010
I knew almost nothing about this period in history (the Restoration of Charles II), but having read Jenny Uglow's detailed account of the first ten years of Charles II's reign will be looking out for a book which covers the rest of his reign, plus the brief reign of his younger brother who became James II. In fact that's my only criticism of this otherwise excellent book -- by compressing the later part of Charles's reign into just a few pages it leaves you wanting more.

Charles come over as a thoroughly likeable man, albeit a serial womanizer, doing his best to balance opposing forces in often difficult circumstances. The large-than-life characters come alive under Janny Uglow's pen, making A GAMBLING MAN read more like a novel than the kind of history most of us were taught in school. Oh and the title is inspired!

Highly recommended.
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on 6 April 2010
Jenny Uglow has painted a vivid picture of what was one of the most amazing and important periods of British history. Her portrait of Charles II communicates a clear vision of what he achieved - including the re-acceptance of the monarchy; a careful balance between conflicting religious beliefs and between the people, the state and the crown; the encouragement of science and the arts (and horse racing); the maintenance of Britain's position in the world - from very shaky financial foundations; and the rebuilding of the City of London after the fire. She shows how Charles finessed brilliantly in his dealings with his people, with the ambitious and schemeing aristocracy, with his cousin Louis XIV and with the ever-threatening Dutch. His relationship with a multitude of beautiful and clever women is dealt with in a matter-of-fact way with no trace of self-righteous commentary. But one never gets up close and personal with Charles - he always appears as a sparkling yet remote character. Uglow is particularly good on the complexity of the family relationships at the very top of the three key European powers of the time, and she has some beautifully-written sections which include Charles's return from exile and - particularly movingly - the part played by Charles's adored, but relatively short-lived sister, Minette, in his clever scheming over the Treaty of Dover. A really good book. Our future Charles III will find it totally fascinating!
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on 13 February 2010
This is one of the most readable credible history books I have ever read, and having studied history at university, I have read quite a few. My knowledge about this particular period of British history was not particularly strong, but by the end of this book I really felt I had a good understanding of what the 1660s were like in Britain. Perhaps a little more information on the lives of ordinary people would have been nice, but to be fair that was not the purpose of this book. This book is a fantastic story of Kingship and the Royal court, and the remarkable women who were such a feature of Charles II's court. The 1660s were clearly an incredible time in Britain's history, well worthy of having an entire book devoted to the decade, and Jenny Uglow transports you to Charles' court so vividly that you feel almost as if you were. If only.
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on 24 June 2010
.. than Charles II.'

On 25 May 1660, Charles II arrived at Dover, disembarking in front of cheering crowds. On his thirtieth birthday, 29 May 1660, he entered London. Charles had been invited home to England by parliament, thus beginning the `restoration' of the monarchy after eleven years of republican rule. In this book, Jenny Uglow focuses on the first ten years of his reign, until the signing of the secret Treaty of Dover in 1670.

Initially, I found it disconcerting to consider only the first ten years of Charles II's 25 year reign. Certainly, the first ten years saw a number of momentous events including the Plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666 which led to the substantial rebuilding of the city of London. Charles was also a patron of science: the Royal Society was founded in November 1660. On the foreign policy front, England was at war with the Dutch (the Second Anglo-Dutch War) between 1665 and 1667. This war ended in a Dutch victory and also, some years later, in Charles's secret treaty with Louis XIV of France. Charles undertook to support the French against the Dutch in return for which he received subsidies from France, thereby providing some room in his relationship with parliament. Charles also undertook to convert to Catholicism at a time of his choosing. More broadly, Charles's reign saw the rise of colonisation and trade in India, the East Indies and America - New York was captured from the Dutch in 1664.

But was he a gambling man? Certainly the stakes were high, especially when his reign is compared with that of his father (Charles I was beheaded in 1649) and his brother (James II was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution in 1688). But Charles was not reckless. He calculated some risks, and was pragmatic in most situations. While much of his private life was public, his ability to play to an audience was unparalleled.

I enjoyed this book, and while I don't fully accept the image of Charles II as a gambling man, I came to like the image of his first decade bracketed by his triumphal public entry into London, and his secret treaty with France. I see Charles as a pragmatic survivor, rather than as a gambler. Regardless of whether a reader accepts Ms Uglow's `gambling man' principle, this book is well worth reading.

`There is all the reason in the world to join profit with honour, when it may be done honestly.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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on 17 June 2013
A Gambling man is a book that deals with the first 10 years of the reign of Charles 11 and covers the crucial period when the Restoration Settlement was introduced and bedded in with the machinations at court as Charles 11 had to use all his guile and experience to survive haughty courtiers, naughty mistresses and a populace that were yet to be convinced about the new king. Similarly, it takes a European perspective, particularly focusing on France to show how charles had to please a foreign audience as well.Uglow is incapable of writing a bad book and her attention to detail- in particular- the milieu of court and courtiers- is both telling and atmospheric. The gambling metaphor itself is less satisfactory. Charles reigned for 25 years and if he gambled with political or religious options the results could have been catastrophic. Uglow sees him constantly beset by issues and problems both domestic and foreign. The religious settlement evaded his own wishes for toleration and management of parliament seemed unpredictable and frustrating for a king whose Stuart roots erred towards absolutism. Uglows narrative does see short termism as the rule of thumb- Charles hardly got through one crisis before another engulfed him. Uglow doesn't always explain why Charles seemed to be constantly wrong-footed by parliament but does give excellent pen portraits of ministers and advisors- notably Buckingham and other members of the 'Cabal'. His mistresses are dealt with in a non judgemental way despite the fact contemporaries constantly judged him and Uglow chimes in with some scholarship over the last 20-30 years that sees the kings increasingly political role as a product of the more confident parliamentary scene- JR Jones in his book Charles 11- Royal politician(1986) also sees Charles having to adopt a constant short term reactive agenda. He strikes a more heroic figure in crisis such as the fire, where he literally helped to douse the flames and Uglow is good at using theatre as a barometer of the political scene- plays literally played out and commented on courtly intrigue.
Overall Charles is tainted historically by The secret Treaty of Dover where a French pay off in return for his suposed announcement of a conversion to catholicism epitomised (for some) his dissembling nature and life in thrall to the mighty Louis of France. Uglow is sympathetic to Charles and sees him as playing a double game with Louis.
A Gambling Man is certainly racy, readable and informative about all aspects of the Restoration regime. It is not a masterpiece like Claire Tomalin's biography of Pepys but
has a narrative that is sometimes surprising and full of anecdotes and memorable information. It is no gamble. Reading it is a very safe bet.
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on 14 May 2011
Charles II is, in many ways, both too easy and too difficult a subject for a biography. He is one of those great defining characters of the British monarchy - like Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Victoria - whose reigns stand out in our collective memory for one or two well-known events, and about whom most people think they know plenty.

So Jenny Uglow takes a different approach in `A Gambling Man'. The book is indeed a biography of the Merry Monarch, but it focuses on the crucial first ten years of his reign, and on Charles's many gambles to stabilise his three kingdoms during this period.

Her task is helped by the events of the period - restoration, war, plague, fire and constant sexual intrigue - which in themselves make for a rollicking good read. It is further illuminated by Pepys, whose voice, through his diary, offers us a ringside seat. (It's astonishing how much he managed to witness first hand).

Given these ingredients, the greatest risk is that the author will over-simplify for the sake of populism. The greatest strength of `A Gambling Man' is that Mrs. Uglow does not do this. She presents the politics, society, religion and intellectual life of 1660s England as a rich tapestry - complex, often paradoxical, sometimes frayed at the edges. And she is a meticulous chronicler of that complexity, whether it is the political manoeuvring of the King's ministers or mistresses; the fine balancing act that Charles was forced to play between Royalists and former Cromwellian sympathisers; or above all the religious factionalism that threatened to destabilise the Kingdom from the moment Charles landed at Dover.

This last, so crucial to an understanding of the period, yet so often over-simplified or marginalized by historians (the worst example perhaps being Edward Dolnick's The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World), is handled with particular thoroughness and insight. Freedom of religion was, of course, one of the first things offered by Charles on his return to power in 1660; his Declaration of Breda promised `liberty to tender consciences'. It was Parliament, and not the King, who forced religious conformity on the nation, outlawing both Catholics and nonconformist Protestants from worshipping in public and from holding public office. The effects would be felt for another 150 years or more; some would argue they are still in evidence today.

Also very much in evidence today, not just in Britain but throughout western democracy, is another and more profound legacy of Charles's reign. Uglow reveals the very foundation of the relationship between government, parliament and private enterprise. (She even traces the origins of the two-party system, which crystallised in the later part of Charles's reign.)

Government in the seventeenth century was still in the King's personal control, but this King had been invited to rule by Parliament - by the common consent of the governed - and Parliament was his paymaster. The idea of monarchical rule by the explicit consent of the governed would, of course, be dramatically underscored by the events of 1688 - the enforced abdication of James II, the accession of William and Mary, the Glorious Revolution. It's hereditary monarchy, Jim, but not as we know it - or not as we'd known it up to that point.

We see too the birth of commerce as a political force. The wars with the Dutch and the French were not fundamentally about political or dynastic control, nor about religion and ideology, but about control over trade routes. The City and her merchants, the generators of the nation's wealth and prosperity, emerge as a political force in their own right.

(Niall Ferguson, in his recent book Civilization: The West and the Rest, identifies private property rights as one of the six `killer apps' which have allowed the West to dominate global civilisation for the last 500 years. 1660s London was that `killer app' in action; the City would dominate world trade for the best part of the next three centuries.)

The book is structured broadly chronologically, but with a sensible thematic sub-structure. Thus politics, economics, foreign affairs, society and scientific innovation are depicted as separate, parallel strands of the tapestry, making for a whole that is coherent and digestible. Wisely, Uglow does not over-reach: it is a biography of Charles II, not a study of 1660s society. Equally wisely, she focuses on England, although she regularly refers to domestic events in Charles's other kingdoms of Scotland and Ireland.

This is serious history, full of names and events and facts, but it is by no means po-faced. We get to have a lot of fun. The intrigues of Charles's various mistresses make today's headline-chasing celebrities look like unimaginative amateurs. It is amusing, too, to discover that the property speculator Nicholas Barbon, who rebuilt areas of London after the Great Fire, was in fact christened If-Jesus-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Had'st-Been-Damned Barebones. (His father, the preacher Praise-God Barebones, had a walk-on part in Neal Stephenson's novel Quicksilver: The Baroque Cycle (Baroque Cycle 1).)

But towering above all the ministers and mistresses and merchants, above the scientists and the architects and the playwrights and poets, his loyal subjects and strident critics, is the character of Charles himself - the dazzling monarch with the popular touch, the man who gambled everything to hold his nation together at this time of tumult.
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on 5 February 2013
Jenny Uglow has here produced a very good account of the Restoration and the facade Charles II presented to his own reign and to his more intimate acquaintances.
The book is thoroughly enjoyable and streams away effortlessly through such events as Monck's march on London, the Great Fire of London, the establishment of the Royal Society and Dutch Wars.
As it should be Charles II is main protagonist, a gigantic figure and a son of his own time, split between the divine nature of kingship (well represented by his larger than life cousin, Louis XIV) and the awareness the ancient order was passing and the new situation required the monarch to work together with Parliament.
As Charles discusses with his chief ministers, haggles with Parliament, squabbles with his many lovers, sails his yachts and directs rescue efforts during the Great Fire, a host of other figures dances around him: the old General Monck, the immensely powerful Lord Lauderdale, the valiant Prince Rupert, the lonely Portuguese Queen Caterina, the Duke of Monmouth, Charles' beloved and rebellious son, and of course the formidable Barbara Villiers, Charles' most (in)famous mistress.
However, Charles is always at the center of the scene: factions at court clash over his favor, MP's wrangle with him over his court's lifestyle and his lovers entertain him.
The book has only one fatal flaw: given the large number of figures entering and exiting the stage, a biographical section giving a few facts about all these persons would have helped immensely making this a masterpiece.
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