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Student Village Academy Forums VILLAGE POLITICS AND CURRENT AFFAIRS King Charles I, II, and III: The history of a controversial name

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      King Charles I, II, and III: The history of a controversial name

      King Philip, Arthur, or George could have been the new monarch of Britain. Charles was the least bad choice, which is why he supported him.

      King Charles I, King Charles II, and the young pretender 'Charles III'.

      Confusion over the new King’s name briefly ruled as he took the throne.

      In the historic tweet from the Royal Family account that announced Queen Elizabeth II’s passing before any newscasts, the royal formerly known as Prince Charles was referred to as simply “the King” for the first time. There was established continuity.

      But what precisely is King? And why did some royal watchers believe Charles wouldn’t be it?

      In his inaugural speech, the new ruler avoided saying his name. It was left to Prime Minister Liz Truss to give us our first introduction to King Charles III. (Well, first time if you exclude Scotland in the 18th century, but we’ll get to that.)

      Truss being new in the role, and a politician who has had strained relationships with the truth and the lawthe matter was in doubt. Not until the BBC confirmed it with Charles’ staff at Clarence House did the world’s media agree. King Charles III it was.

      How could it have been any other way? Let’s take a look back in time to find the solution. First, let’s jump back to 2005 when there was a brief Christmastime media frenzy alleging that Charles was considering succeeding King George VII in the future.

      Name-swapping was now rationally possible. Charles Philip Arthur George is his full name. Any one of those names could have accompanied him to the throne. like his great-uncle David, who made the decision to serve as Edward VIII for a short time. Or his grandfather Bertie, who ascended to the throne as George VI at the time David reverted to his original name.

      Even as Clarence House strenuously denied those conversations had happened in 2005, it issued this statement: “No decision has been made, and it will be made at the time.” The door was left open to a name change many years hence. And to take them at their word, the new King simply decided to become Charles III in Balmoral Castle on the afternoon of Sept. 8, 2022.

      So what of the other contenders: King Philip, King Arthur, or King George? Why did they not get the rose? We do not and may never know the King’s thinking, but based on the royal history drilled into him from birth, we can guess: Charles, the name of the only English king ever to be tried and executed, was a bad option for optics. But it was still the best, barely, of a really bad bunch of optics options.

      Arthur and the Armada

      Philip was unworkable. Philip of Greece was Charles’ father’s name, indeed, but he was merely a prince (and prince consort). The last time a King Philip visited England was in the 16th century, when Queen “Bloody” Mary and Philip II of Spain shared official control of the nation. In addition to leaving Mary behind, Philip made an attempt to seize the country from her sister Elizabeth when she passed away. Charles is planning to replace loving Liz the Second with a King Philip after adored Liz the First defeated Philip’s Armada? Unthinkable.

      Arthur, King! There’s a name to conjure with right there. This is the one you would pick if you believed that the British monarchy was doomed to fail in any case and you might be the last person to rule (in at least 14 Commonwealth realms). Naturally, in the age of social media, you’d have to embrace the memes to make it work: have all meetings take place at round tables, name a court magician, create golden Excaliburs out of rocks and donate them to charity, etc.

      Sadly, Charles is too mature and wise at 73 to play the part of a contemporary myth. (As for the legend, there isn’t much evidence that he actually existed, thus Charles would have to be referred to as the first recognized King Arthur. Discuss the vast boots to fill.)

      So why George not? Even after Buckingham Palace was attacked during the Blitz, George VI remained in London, inspiring the populace and growing to become a national treasure. He battled stuttering. He was portrayed by Colin Firth in the film. Perhaps his grandson can’t fill these enormous legendary voids. Another possibility is that Charles is aware of all the other Georges.

      They can be seen if you take a brief trip in our time machine: George I was an average German prince who did not speak English. George II is primarily renowned for the brutality with which his army treated the Scots (for which God Save the King was composed). George III lost both his faculties and the American colonies. Known as the Prince Regent during his father’s insanity, George IV is noted as a  brainless scion of privilege (as played by Hugh Laurie, above, in Blackadder). He was pretty much treated that way by society at the time.

      “When from the Earth the Fourth descended,” wrote a Victorian poet, “God be praised, the Georges ended.” Except they didn’t. Just a long break for Victoria, a decade’s worth of Edward — and then two more Georges, each one bringing a World War in his wake (with another Edward, who turned out to be a Nazi sympathizer, sandwiched between them.) Let’s not even get started on George V, the consummate Imperial, and owner of what is easily the scariest mustache in royal history.

      A Portrait of King George V wearing military dress uniform with a large mustache.
      King George V in dress uniform and mustache. Credit: The Print Collector Via Getty Images

      TL;DR: British history is still a bit Georged out. Something else that may have changed Charles’ thinking since 2005: there’ll be another George along in a couple of Kings’ time anyway (pending the continuation of the monarchy, Prince George of Cambridge and Cornwall is now second in line). And so the choice turned out to be no choice. Here he is, saddled with the same name as the headless King, the King of many mistresses, and the King who wasn’t one.

      As we exit the Elizabethan era and blink in the dawn of a new Carolinian age (that’s how you call it, get used to it), it’s time to get our knowledge of the Charles prequels up to speed.

      Charles I (1625-1649)

      King Charles I, three times
      Triptych trouble: King Charles I by Anthony Van Dyck. Credit: Universal History Archive / Shutterstock

      Most interesting thing: To quote Monty Python, “the most interesting thing about King Charles the First is that he was 5 foot 6 inches tall at the start of his reign, but only 4 foot 8 inches tall at the end of it.” Charles lost his head at the end of not one but two Civil Wars that upended everything about England in the 1640s.

      His crime? According to a court appointed by Parliament, “tyranny”; believing in the divine right of monarchs to be assholes, basically. Charles thought he could rule without Parliament, or only assemble one when he needed the money. He was also suspected of Catholic sympathies at a time when the country was very Protestant, bustling with Puritans and Quakers and a bunch of new sects and utopian cults.

      But yeah, mainly the tyranny.

      King Charles I under the executioner's axe
      The execution of Charles I: A 19th century view. Credit: Historia / Shutterstock

      The final straw for war: Charles sent his guard into Parliament to arrest MPs. The Speaker of the House had the door barred, and if you’ve ever seen the annual ritual of the Queen’s (soon to be King’s) Speech, where an official known as Black Rod has the door to the House of Commons ceremonially slammed in their face, this is what it signals: Love you, monarch, but we did not come to play.

      How the Civil War was won: Parliament controlled the military. A Cambridgeshire MP named Oliver Cromwell helped build and command a terrifyingly effective New Model Army. The other army that rallied to the King’s banner, mostly Scots and Cavaliers, held plenty of strongholds like Oxford, but wasn’t so great on the battlefield. After Charles was captured and killed, many Cavaliers fled to America, often to the Carolinas, so named for their King. Sorry, America.

      What happened next: Cromwell became a tyrant himself, which is perhaps what you should expect when Parliament gives you the title “Lord Protector”. He’d already purged MPs deemed too loyal to the King, leaving the so-called Rump Parliament. Then, years into a Protectorate that was content to massacre the Scots and Irish, while issuing Puritanical orders like the banning of Christmas, Cromwell dissolved the Rump. After he died his son Richard became Lord Protector, making a mockery of that whole “we’re republicans, really!” thing. But Richard knew he was no leader, and resigned inside six months.

      After all of that, a hurriedly reconstituted Parliament voted to dissolve itself and call elections.  And the resulting Parliament, about half of them royalists, voted to call in the emergency backup Charles.

      Charles II (1660-1685)

      King Charles II is crowned in a room full of onlookers.
      The last time a King Charles was crowned — in 1660. Credit: Universal History Archive / Shutterstock

      Wait, where did he come from? Surprise! Charles I and his wife, the French Catholic Henrietta Maria, had a bunch of kids. Charles II was the strapping young heir. Age 20, he was defeated on the battlefield by Cromwell, disguised himself and hid out in an oak tree, was crowned King of Scotland in exile, decided he didn’t like the Scots after all, and fled again to Europe. After a few more ditched invasions, he made nice noises to Parliament about religious tolerance and a general amnesty for the whole Civil War. That was enough to restore the monarchy.

      Did he follow through? Mostly. There were a few people who’d signed dad’s death warrant who got literally hung, drawn and quartered. Cromwell was exhumed and his head stuck on a pike. Charles didn’t come to play either.

      Meanwhile, religious tolerance turned out to work both ways, with Charles pushing pro-Catholic policies and secretly promising to convert to Catholicism. When his brother James turned out to have secretly converted himself, it kicked off a constitutional crisis and an explosion of conspiracy theories. Parliament kept trying to pass an act that would exclude Catholics from the throne, but Charles wouldn’t sign. He ended up dissolving Parliament and ruling on his own, but was more popular and charismatic than his dad, so made it to his grave (age 54, thanks to kidney disease) without being beheaded.

      Most interesting thing: The second Carolinian was packed with high drama such as the plague and Great Fire of London, but also new heights of human achievement. Charles freaking loved science and founded the Royal Society, featuring a young Isaac Newton. Christopher Wren built St. Paul’s Cathedral and many more stunning buildings. No longer held back by puritanism, plays (now with women on the stage!), music and the arts flourished.

      And yet! It isn’t for this that Charles II is remembered so much as his 12-plus illegitimate children spawned with at least seven mistresses. His Queen, Catherine, who suffered three miscarriages, had to watch Charles shower the mistresses and their kids with wealth and titles, and was even forced to have one work in her bedchamber. (To add horror to insult, the Catholic Catherine was repeatedly threatened and targeted by those conspiracy theorists.)

      In the past, this has earned Charles II knowing winks from historians who called him the “merry monarch” and “playboy King.” These days, we’re much more likely to see things from Catherine’s perspective. So if Charles III seeks reflected glory from Charles II, he’d best be careful about standing too close.

      Unless we’re talking about the King Charles Spaniels made famous by Charles II. He’s welcome to stand too close to those cuties.

      A man dressed as Charles II in front of a portrait of Charles II with two King Charles Spaniels
      Former politician Michael Portillo cosplaying as Charles II in 2008, complete with King Charles Spaniels. Credit: Nils Jorgensen / Shutterstock


      What happened next: James, Duke of York (the one who took New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renamed it New York) took over from his brother as James II. His being a Catholic freaked everyone out, and when one of Charles II’s illegitimate kids (the Duke of Monmouth) launched a rebellion, James had Monmouth and 250 rebels executed, and thousands more sent to penal colonies in the West Indies. So much for amnesty.

      When James and his Queen Mary had a son and heir three years into his reign, Protestant nobles freaked out some more and invited power couple William and Mary — James’ nephew and son in law plus James’ daughter — to seize the throne. James’ army dissolved and he fled to France. Parliament ruled that he’d abdicated, and in what was called the Glorious Revolution created the constitutional monarchy we know today. Power flowed through Parliament first.

      James was still king in Ireland until he lost the Battle of the Boyne.

      You think that’s the end of the story? Oh, you sweet summer child. It was just the beginning. The Boyne is still very much celebrated and cursed in Northern Ireland today. James wasted away in exile. His son, whom the French King and the Pope both recognized as James III of England, tried his hand at a couple of Scottish rebellions and failed. Then it was up to his son …

      “Charles III” (1766-1788)

      If you’re familiar with Outlander, the book series and TV show, you know something about what came next. Charles Edward Stuart or the young pretender or Bonnie Prince Charlie, as he wasn’t really known in his lifetime, traveled to Scotland and set up court on behalf of his dad, the old pretender James III. Charles marched into England with 6,000 men. Worried that wasn’t enough, he turned back, and the English finally caught up with him in 1746 at one of history’s most consequential battles: Culloden.

      It was a rout. As many as 2,000 of Charles’ men were killed or wounded in one hour, versus 300 British troops. Brutal government crackdowns on highland Clans that had supported Charles began, and would not quit for decades. Charles himself, the “lad born to be King,” was disguised as a serving maid and carried “over the sea to Skye” – which is why he’s mostly remembered today in one of Scotland’s greatest earworms, the Skye Boat Song.

      Exiled again to France, then Italy, Charles passed his days in a blur of drink and a miserable marriage to a German princess. When his father died, Charles styled himself Charles III, but neither the kings of France or Spain, nor the Pope, would recognize him. Nevertheless, Charles III he would be to the remnants of the Jacobite (Latin for James-ish) rebellion in Scotland and Ireland. He died in 1788, exactly 139 years to the day after his great-grandfather Charles I was executed.

      Now we have an actual Charles III, who would probably prefer we forget the pretend one, not to mention the beheaded ancestor. But bearing the same name as these tragic Charleses can at least provide this comfort to the new King: by comparison, his reign has nowhere to go but up.

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