Tag Archives: Restoration

‘Rampant hedonism in the Restoration’ – Guest post by Angus Donald, author of Blood’s Game

Blood's Game by Angus DonaldLast week, Zaffre published Blood’s Game by Angus Donald. Angus is one of the finest writers of historical fiction that you can read. I loved every book of his Robin Hood series and was so sorry to see it end last year (you must read it if you haven’t already!). But Angus Donald is back and this time he takes us to another favourite period of mine – the Restoration period of the 1660s and 1670s and the extraordinary court of Charles II.

I am so thrilled to post here a guest post from Angus in which he discusses ‘Rampant hedonism in the Restoration: the politics of pleasure’. I studied this period as part of my degree (Rochester is a favourite poet of mine and I love his depiction – and that of Charles II – in Blood’s Game) and so I’m particularly grateful to Angus for taking the time to write such an in-depth, considered and fun article about such a fascinating subject as the court of King Charles II!

Before the post, here’s a little of what Blood’s Game is about.

London, Winter 1670.

Holcroft Blood has entered the employ of the Duke of Buckingham, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom after the king. It is here that his education really begins. With a gift for numbers and decoding ciphers, Holcroft soon proves invaluable to the Duke, but when he’s pushed into a betrayal he risks everything for revenge.

His father, Colonel Thomas Blood, has fallen on hard times. A man used to fighting, he lives by his wits and survives by whatever means necessary. When he’s asked to commit treason by stealing the crown jewels, he puts himself and his family in a dangerous situation – one that may end at the gallows.

As the machinations of powerful men plot to secure the country’s future, both father and son must learn what it is to survive in a more dangerous battlefield than war – the court of King Charles II.

Rampant hedonism in the Restoration: the politics of pleasure
By Angus Donald

At Edinburgh University in the late 1980s, I founded a club called the Hedonism Society or HedSoc. We met in pubs, drank a lot and . . . that was pretty much it. For obvious reasons, I don’t remember much about what we talked about. But I’ve always had an interest in pleasure, mine, of course, but also the pleasures of others. And I think it was partly this interest that drew me to write Blood’s Game, a novel set in the Restoration period, which concerns the daring attempt by Colonel Blood to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London in 1671. While that is the main plot strand, the novel also explores the court of Charles II, the Merry Monarch, and his outrageous, libidinous, scandalous and frequently drunken friends and followers.

Pleasure was political in those debauched days. If you allowed yourself to be seen to be having fun you were making a statement about yourself, your loyalties, your politics and your religion. You were also saying most emphatically and publicly that you were not a Puritan, not a supporter of the old Cromwellian order, and that you approved of the new monarchy, and the second King Charles, wholeheartedly.

Like most things in life, context is crucial to understanding this age.

In 1660, at the age of thirty, after a long and penniless exile, Charles regained the thrones of the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. He had had a pretty miserable time abroad but the people that he was now ruling had just come out of a dark and terrible period in our history. The bloody civil wars, in which a larger proportion of the population died that in any conflict before or since, were followed by the austere Puritan rule of the Commonwealth and the dictatorship of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. During this cold interregnum period, most sports were banned, drunkenness and even swearing was punished with a fine, non-religious expressions of Christmas were stopped, many drinking establishments were closed, as were all the theatres. Women who were caught working on Sundays were put in the stocks and shamed, bright clothes were banned and sober dress was the order of the day. Make-up was scrubbed off girls’ faces by soldiers who caught them wearing it, right there and then. It is instructive to recognise that armed men stopping and humiliating women in the streets in the name of religious purity does not only happen in other parts of the world. We had our own approximation of the Taliban once.

So, when Charles returned to the throne, he wanted to show his subjects that it was now perfectly all right for people to enjoy themselves. Drinking was OK, sex was OK, fun was back in fashion. Hip hip hooray! The theatres were reopened, and there was a resurgence of bawdy, satirical plays. Public drunkenness, particularly among the aristocracy, became almost a badge of rank – and an expression of loyalty to the King. Pranks and japes abounded – a pair of well-born young men, friends of the King and members of the notorious Merry Gang, scandalised London by appearing on a balcony, completely inebriated, and pretending to sodomise each other. Poets and playwrights could openly criticise the King, his court, his morals and his mistresses. And did so enthusiastically. The chronically alcoholic poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, leader of the Merry Gang, wrote of the King: “Restless he rolls from whore to whore/ A merry monarch, scandalous and poor”.

Because Charles took his sexual pleasures seriously. He had many lovers as a young bachelor, including his nanny Mrs Wyndham, who took his virginity when he was fifteen. And after he married Catherine of Braganza, in 1662, he had at least seven mistresses, and possible as many as thirteen, who bore him a dozen children.

The role of mistress was semi-official – a whore or courtesan, or woman with whom the King had a casual encounter, would not be counted among their number – and a man who kept one was obliged to pay for her food, drink, accommodation and servants, as well as making her generous presents from time to time, perhaps when he paid her a visit. Many of the mistresses and their illegitimate children, those whose paternity the King acknowledged, received earldoms and dukedoms from the monarch and many British aristocrats today trace their ancestry back to Charles II.

The Puritans of the previous age would have turned in their graves had they known about this public and permitted acknowledgement of the extra-marital lusts of men. Because society looked to the King for guidance on how to behave, the fact that he had so many mistresses, so openly acknowledged, sent a clear message to everyone.

Adultery, forbidden by God, punished by Puritans, was now normalised.

Two of the the most famous of Charles’s mistresses – the formidable beauty Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, and the famous actress Nell Gywn – make appearances in Blood’s Game. In the period when the book is set, Barbara was about thirty and was being replaced in the royal affections by the feisty and outrageous Nell, who was ten years younger. Gwyn was an actress, and before that an “orange-seller” in the theatres, a profession which some historians take as a euphemism for prostitute. Perhaps because of her lowly origins and dubious trade, she was never ennobled by her royal lover, although her two children were.

Barbara, on the other hand, came from the aristocratic Villiers family. She gave Charles five children and, as a long-time and fecund mistress, she wielded more power at court than childless Catherine. In fact, she was known as the Uncrowned Queen and she used her position ruthlessly to enrich herself and her friends. She persuaded the King to grant her lavish titles and lands and properties – she was given Nonsuch Palace, built by Henry VIII, and the title Baroness Nonsuch, and promptly dismantled the palace and sold off the building materials to pay her gambling debts.

Gambling was another sinful pleasure, long denied, which the gentlemen and ladies of the Restoration court now engaged in with enthusiasm – sometimes to their financial ruin. Indeed, in Blood’s Game, the climax of the book is an epic game of Whist, which was just coming into fashion at the time.

Women as well as men adopted the hedonistic credo of the era. Barbara Villiers was an enthusiastic, if not entirely successful gambler. At one point she was obliged to “borrow” tens of thousands of pounds from the Privy Purse to settle her debts, but when this was discovered by officials, such was her sway over the King that the debt was immediately written off by her indulgent royal lover.

When Charles’s interest in her began to wane, she was not above finding other gentlemen friends to pleasure her. She became the lover of Jack Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, when he was a handsome and penniless young officer at court. She bore Churchill a daughter and tried, unsuccessfully, to claim she was the King’s.

Charles was not exactly delighted that his long-time lover, a woman he had given so much to, had taken a younger man to her bed – Barbara had also given Churchill a gift of £5,000, money she had received from the King, which infuriated Charles – but he was perfectly gentlemanly about the situation. He was, after all, beginning his own new relationship with Nell Gwyn at the time. There is a (probably apocryphal) tale, which I have included in Blood’s Game, that a servant was paid £100 by the Duke of Buckingham to inform His Grace when Churchill and Villiers would next be enjoying a tryst. The mischief-making Duke then persuaded the King to visit Barbara at the same time. The story goes that when the King arrived at her apartments unexpectedly, the naked Churchill had to hide in a cupboard, and was swiftly discovered there by the cuckolded Merry Monarch.

Apparently, the King saw the funny side, and forgave his young rival. He said: “You are a rascal, sir, but I forgive you because you do it to get your [daily] bread.”

A stinging insult – he basically called Churchill a man-whore – followed by forgiveness. And all the while keeping his sense of humour. That’s a class act.

It is little stories like this and many, many others, that made writing Blood’s Game such a sinful pleasure. I can only hope that you find reading it as hedonistic.

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Blood’s Game by Angus Donald

Zaffre | 2017 (5 October) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Blood's Game by Angus DonaldIt is 1670 and the Blood family is still reeling from the aftereffects of the Restoration of the monarchy 10 years before. Colonel Blood unfortunately fought for the Parliamentarians and, as a result, his Irish estates were given to the Duke of Ormande while Blood and his family were consigned to eking out a living in a cottage in Shoreditch, London. Blood is not a man to let such a thing go unavenged and his drive to destroy Ormande is his consuming passion. This means that Blood sees his family little, and supports them even less.

Blood’s young son Holcroft has few options. With no pleasure to be had at home he welcomes the opportunity to become a page of the Duke of Buckingham, Ormande’s great enemy. Holcroft might be little more than a bargaining chip in his father’s games but Holcroft accidentally discovers something he excels at – decoding ciphers. Promoted to confidential clerk, Holcroft finds himself in a position to observe the court of Charles II. And what a place it is. Ruled by sin and greed, here is a place for a young man to succeed, regardless of his past. His father the Colonel, however, has plans of his own and they could get them all killed.

Blood’s Game is the first in a new series by Angus Donald, whose Robin Hood and Alan Dale books have held me enthralled for years. With that series now complete, I’ve been waiting for what would come next. And it takes us to an entirely different period of history – the 17th century of the Restoration. But, as before, the line between wickedness and goodness is blurred and finding a path between the two is no easy thing to do. As with the Robin Hood books we here follow a character who could have been left to exist happily in the sidelines – in that case it was Alan Dale and here it is Colonel Blood’s young son Holcroft.

Holcroft is a fascinating character and not at all typical. As the afterword tells us, Holcroft has Asperger’s syndrome and this makes him stand out from those around him, including those he really should be trying to impress in order to get on in life. His attention to detail, his incredible recall and his inability to jest or to lie gets him into all kinds of trouble while also giving him opportunities to shine in the service of the thoroughly unappealing Duke of Buckingham. Unfortunately for Holcroft, he finds himself in a court ruled by sin, fierce rivalries and corruption. Watching Holcroft cope with that while also learning to play its game is a big part of the novel’s enjoyment.

The title is intentionally misleading. Colonel Blood’s plotting and his most infamous sting – his famous and historically true stealing of the crown jewels – do play an important role in the book but the games that give the novel its added edge and intrigue are those played out by Holcroft Blood.

Blood’s Game is a thoroughly entertaining historical romp, packed full of some brilliantly colourful characters. And chief among them is Charles II himself – I loved Charles in this novel! This is a man intent on enjoying himself but his run ins with his famous mistress Barbara Villiers are scene stealers. Wigged scoundrels abound in this novel – the Earl of Rochester doesn’t come out of this very well – but I particularly liked its women – Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwyn and also the playwright Aphra Behn. The fact that these extraordinary men and women existed in real life make it all the more wonderful to read about them here. No quarter is given. We get them warts and all. Especially with warts.

The only downside of the novel for me is Colonel Blood. I really disliked him and did not like spending the time with him, or the whole crown jewels escapade. But I do understand that this was an important part of setting up Holcroft for Blood’s Game and future books to come in the series. I hope we’ve seen the last of him. I could also have done without some of the swearing but I know that this is a thing of mine, that I’m particularly squeamish with certain words.

Angus Donald is a favourite novelist of mine (you only have to look at my list of reviews below!). I love the way that he fills history with colour, character and adventure. He writes so well and he creates people I want to read about and spend time with. Following the Alan Dale books was never going to be easy – how could it be? They’re spectacularly good – but I think he’s done a fine job with Blood’s Game, which has all the signs of developing into a future favourite series. Holcroft Blood is such a strong character and his future is an exciting one and I can’t wait to follow it as he takes us away from the court of Charles II and onto the battlefield.

Other reviews
Holy Warrior
King’s Man
Grail Knight
The Iron Castle
The King’s Assassin
The Death of Robin Hood

Birthright by David Hingley

Birthright | David Hingley | 2016 (21 July) | Allison & Busby | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Birthright by David HingleyIt is 1664 and King Charles II is on the throne but the years of Civil War and Commonwealth rule continue to leave their mark. Mercia Blakewood, already a young widow, is about to lose everything else. Her father is to be executed as a Parliamentarian traitor, exempt from the King’s amnesty for reasons she cannot fathom, while her husband’s parents are intent on stealing her son away. Her father’s treachery means that her house and lands are also forfeit, to be given to her unkind uncle, while Mercia’s poor mother, a victim of the Civil War in so many ways, is to be banished. But Mercia will not give up. She is determined to fight for her son’s inheritance and to do that she must win the King’s favour. An opportunity comes when her father leaves Mercia a cryptic message, hinting at a mystery that the King would be grateful indeed to see solved.

This secret plunges Mercia into danger as mysterious figures emerge from the shadows to threaten and harm. She’s not above fighting her own corner and Mercia uses disguise to hunt out clues through London’s roughest alleys and stinking marshes. But Mercia’s courage, honour and beauty win others over to her cause and two men in particular are willing to follow her wherever she leads, even if her hunt takes her across the Atlantic to the Americas and the birth of New York.

The Restoration is one of my favourite periods in history to read about and so I was delighted to receive David Hingley’s debut novel Birthright. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The character of Mercia Blakewood dominates while still remaining believable and grounded in her time. I grew to care for her very much, not least because she fights to retain her independence against almost insurmountable odds. In a way the mystery is almost secondary. Mercia’s determined to solve it whatever the cost (you sense that nothing would make her give it up) but what really matters is protecting her son and her own future, possibly even finding love again along the way.

The other great strength of Birthright is its depiction of the long and eventful voyage across the Atlantic as well as the scenes in the settlement of New Amsterdam on the American coast. The structure of the novel works so well, showing us the old ways of England, so rocked by war and death, and the potential and promise of this new continent. I enjoyed both equally.

David Hingley writes very well, moving both story and character along very effectively, interspersed with some wonderful cameos, not least King Charles and his brother the Duke of York. The adventure itself is such a good one, full of baddies and goodies and others who could be either but it’s so hard to guess. The only certainty in this fine debut novel is Mercia and her love for her son. I can only hope that this is not the last we see of this intriguing young woman.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

The Ashes of London | Andrew Taylor | 2016, Pb 2017 | HarperCollins | 482p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ashes of London by Andrew TaylorOn 4 September 1666 London had been burning for two days, the progress of the flames unstoppable, the rainless hot days unrelenting. And now the unimaginable is happening. The great cathedral of St Paul’s, which has dominated London for centuries, is on fire and all that the shocked inhabitants can do is stand and watch. But there is even more to the loss. As the roof falls and the floor collapses the treasures in the vault, books and papers hidden away for safe keeping from the fire, go up in flames. James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer and now a government agent with a great deal to prove, is among the witnesses. When a boy runs towards the cathedral, it’s only Marwood’s quick thinking that saves his life. As he wraps his cloak around the boy, Marwood is given a shock. The boy is no boy but a young woman and she tears away into the crowd, taking Marwood’s cloak with her.

A body is found in the smouldering remains of the cathedral, killed not by fire but a knife, his thumbs tied behind his back. Marwood has to wonder if there’s a connection between the corpse and the mysterious young woman. Fortunately, or other wise, Marwood’s master at the Palace of Whitehall, Williamson, tasks Marwood with discovering the body’s identity.

The Ashes of London gives us the story of Marwood’s investigation, in Marwood’s own words, but it isn’t the only tale. Half of the novel focuses on Cat, a young woman with dreams of designing a new London with grand buildings and regal avenues, but who, in reality, must deal with being the poor ward of her rich uncle Master Alderley and all that this entails. It isn’t long before Cat is on the run for her life, taking us with her across a London devastated by fire.

This is a novel that builds slowly following its hugely striking and evocative opening chapter set outside the burning St Paul’s. For a short while I found it a little hard to follow all the threads and keep track of the names. But this is because London has become a place in which almost everyone has something to hide. The legacy of the Civil War, Cromwell’s rule and, most particularly, the execution of Charles I and his son’s determined pursuit of his killers, divides families. Both Marwood and Cat must pay the consequences for the actions of their fathers. Once this becomes clearer, The Ashes of London becomes a thoroughly immersive read. There are so many layers of feeling here. The similarities between Cat and Marwood are striking, although the fact that Cat is a woman makes all the difference to her story. Marwood is able to work for a living. There are few options open to Cat. But she is no passive victim. There are moments when she made my jaw drop with her ferocity and determination. I really liked Cat.

Andrew Taylor’s portrait of this poor, suffering London is brilliantly done and we move around the city freely. Equally well done is the dark mood that overhangs the novel. This is not just the result of the murder hunt but also because of the weight of the past. This is not a city at peace, despite the glory of the Restoration, and the fire is almost a physical reflection of the city’s inner torment, endured by people such as Marwood and Cat. And at times there is something of the melodramatic and gothic about the novel’s events, notably in its fantastic final section. My one complaint is that occasionally I was thrown out of the book by phrases being repeated on the same page. But this is a very minor point.

The Ashes of London is such an enjoyable, elegant novel, richly evocative of the time and place. There is hope to confront the despair of the past, represented by London’s rebuild. It’s so good to see characters such as Christopher Wren come and go. The mystery is a really good one but I also liked the way in which Andrew Taylor slowly delves into the lives of his characters, revealing more and more as the novel goes on. It’s a fascinating investigation into an extraordinary time in English history. The Civil War and the Restoration are among my favourite periods of history and this book made me think about them in a whole way. It also made me wonder about what the fire itself would have been like for such a large proportion of London’s population. I love it when historical fiction makes me want to explore further, on foot as well as through books, and The Ashes of London did just that.