Growing up in mid-17th century England was not easy for the boy who would become the Prince of Wales at age eight and would later be known as Charles II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland. His father, Charles I, was caught up in the English Civil War (1642~1651), which was not going well at all. The prince was forced to flee to France, where he lived with his mother in exile under the protection of his cousin, King Louis XIV, from the age of 16.
Charles I was eventually defeated and beheaded in 1649. At the time, young Charles was residing in The Hague with his sister Mary and his brother-in-law William II, Prince of Orange. Determined to avenge his father’s death, in 1650 the teen prince took a small fleet to Scotland, where he was named King the following January. However, the insurgent forces of Oliver Cromwell were too powerful, and by October 1951, Charles II once again found himself hiding in continental Europe.
The Father of British Gambling
Starting in London in 1649, all forms of gaming were shut down under Cromwell’s dictatorial rule. Then, when the usurper was named “Lord Protector” of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1653, throughout all the territories he banned horse racing, cockfights and gambling dens that were common sights under Charles I.
After Cromwell died in 1658, his son Richard took control and continued to lord over the British “Protectorate” for the better part of a year. However, Richard’s sway among members of Parliament was weak and he was forced to abdicate in 1659, paving the way for the return of Charles II and the restoration of the monarchy. His coronation took place at Westminster Abbey on April 23, 1661.
In stark contrast to the Cromwells, the new king was light-hearted and tolerant. Theatres that had long been closed were allowed to reopen. Women were permitted to act on stage in roles previously reserved for young men. Charles II also legalized cards and dice games under license, supplanting the notorious, illegal gambling dens of London with respectable gaming clubs.
The court life of Charles II was a rich mix of socializing, dice and cards that gained him a reputation as the “Merrie Monarch.” To this day, he is still referred to as the “father of modern gambling,” as his love of gaming, especially slot machine, spread throughout England and on to the colonies of North America.
The Sport of Kings
As a pet project, Charles II also took a strong interest in horse racing. He set about reestablishing the historic “Home of Horseracing” at Newmarket and in 1665 took it upon himself to create the written rules for British horse racing. Thereafter, racing would be nicknamed “the Sport of Kings,” and the Royals would play a major role in its development.
At court, Charles II had a personal croupier, Sir Thomas Neale, whom he assigned to oversee gambling throughout the city of London. Neale was charged with issuing licenses to legal entities and shutting down any noncompliant gambling dens. So well did Neale manage his work that London’s King Street was renamed Neal Street in his honor in 1870, as was a part of Covent Garden—Neal’s Yard.
In many ways, Charles II followed in the footsteps of one of his predecessors, Henry VIII. Both were men of stature, Henry being large-boned and athletic and Charles being six-feet tall. Both found amusement in games of chance. And both enjoyed the company of women, fathering several illegitimate children. However, Charles II sired no legitimate heirs, so upon his death in 1685, he was succeeded by his younger brother, James II.