Charles II has to be one of my favourite monarchs, I’m sure you’re all aware of that by now. In fact I can even go as far as saying I have a mild historical crush on the man – which I have absolutely no shame in admitting whatsoever. He certainly wasn’t the perfect man, he enjoyed his women a little bit too much, enjoyed his drink and made a heck of a lot of mistakes (THAT foreign policy after all!) but at the same time he was loved by many, he cared about his subjects, strove to make sure that religion wasn’t as issue and he helped his own subjects fight against the Great Fire in 1666. He was a man of the people and why? Because he understood their plight, the plight of the poor. After all, he spent many a year in exile as a poor and penniless King. In simple terms, he got it.
It has been a long time since I have read a good biography of Charles II, and the last one I read was by Antonia Fraser which, although a gallant attempt, just didn’t cut it for me. It started out good, giving a brilliant account of Charles’ years in exile but soon it got very, very dry. That’s the thing with the politics of the era, it can get very dry very quickly and there aren’t many who can write a particularly riveting account of the stuff that Charles and Parliament got up to in those years. That was until I read this book by Jenny Uglow – a biography of Charles II that is slightly different to the majority of the books out there. This one concentrates solely on the first decade of his reign from 1660 and his triumphal return to England, up until 1670 when he said goodbye to his beloved sister Minette for the final time.
Now 10 years may not seem like a very long time in the world of history, but during Charles II’s reign you could write an entire library on his reign and Uglow does a wonderful job of telling the stories of these first ten years mixed in with quotes from the diaries of Pepys and Evelyn as well as letters that Charles wrote to his sister. And more so, Uglow’s writing style flows really very nicely making it an absolute pleasure to read. Now I will admit that it took me a while to read it, despite how well written it is, because not only is it a rather large book but there were a lot of rather complicated ideas and events in there too (as expected) – and whilst the chapters on Charles’ early foreign policy and religious policy were certainly very interesting I did find them a little…dry…at times. That however cannot be helped, as there is only so much politics that a girl can take before she puts a book down due to her head hurting slightly. Despite this, those chapters were a lot more engaging than many I have read in the past and really helped my understanding of Restoration politics – I remember at school being overly confused at the idea of Whigs and Tories and had no idea what it meant – now though I have to say that I’m pleased to have a lot more understanding on these political parties, what they did and what they wanted. Mixed in with this we get to read about life at court, court factions, the mistresses of Charles II and how he spent his down time; but as well we see how Charles earned the respect of his subjects and the chapters on the Plague and the Great Fire moved me to tears – how Charles was out there with his people, ordering houses pulled down to stop the spread of the fire, carrying buckets of water and promising Londoners that he would rebuild the city bigger and better than ever. You can’t help but feel a little proud of this man as he worked alongside his subjects.
This book isn’t perfect, perhaps a bit like Charles himself, but it is certainly one of the best books I have read on him in a very long time. Reading about how he helped his subjects, how he adored his sister Minette, how he endeavoured to tolerate all religion and how he managed difficult political and foreign issues has just made me adore this monarch all the more. But more so I loved how he let his hair down, we know how he loved the theatre, how he reinstated sport after the Interregnum but I honestly did not know that there were times he dressed up in disguise and ran amok with his friends and go to the brothels in London! There was also one line that made me feel very sorry for this King – after dealing with the Plague, the Great Fire and the War with the Dutch Uglow states, “Rochester said of this period that he was completely drunk for five years” – despite his outward appearance of being the “merry monarch”, is it any wonder that after so much worry for his subjects both due to disasters like the Plague and Fire, and a war that threatened his country, he turned to the drink? And it is these moments that show Charles as a human being rather than a King.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Charles II and the Restoration, not only to those who already have a sound knowledge of the period but those who are looking for a good introduction. Uglow’s book is a great read, full of interesting information that will keep the reader hooked even through the parts that may get a little complicated or dry. It’s definitely worth getting through these complicated parts as it provides an important part of Charles’ reign, and after all it wasn’t all fun and games for Charles. A great read and highly recommended!