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King Charles III and the Long Shadow of a Name

The passing of the United Kingdom’s longest serving monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, sparks reflections on English history and former British kings named Charles. By George, the House of Windsor may have missed the mark on this one.

King Charles III.
On the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, her son Charles, the former Prince of Wales, was proclaimed King Charles III. There was speculation that he might, once king, choose the name George due to the contentious legacies of Kings Charles I and Charles II. (AP)
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Queen Elizabeth’s death on Sept. 8, 2022, hit me harder than I expected. As an American small “r” republican, I usually find America’s obsession with the British royals perplexing. But Elizabeth was much more than a monarch. She was the embodiment of Britain’s unique place in the world through a tumultuous century. The queen’s death after the longest reign in British history, 70 years and 214 days, is not just the passing of a well-loved monarch, but the end of an era. What comes next and whether the monarchy survives are not yet clear.

King Charles III addresses Parliament for first time - BBC News

When the news broke on Sept. 8, a commentator mentioned that the new king would be called Charles III. I had never thought about that before. Charles the Third. Of course. But I immediately felt a surge of historical anxiety.

This Charles belongs to the House of Windsor, but each of the other kings named Charles belonged to the vexed House of Stuart. The Stuarts (James I, Charles I, Charles II, James II, and Anne) all had rough reigns. When historian Robert Adams spoke of “the troubled story of the house of Stuart in England,” he was understating the case.

Why Elizabeth and Philip chose to name their eldest son and heir Charles is not clear. George would have seemed to be the appropriate name, as their firstborn was the grandson of King George VI, who reigned from 1936 to 1952. That would have made him George VII. The name Charles would not seem to have been a propitious choice. The two previous King Charleses were Stuarts, from a Scottish line that found its way to the English throne after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, the “virgin queen,” who died childless in 1603. The first Stuart, James VI of Scotland, James I of England, was the son of the notorious Mary, Queen of Scots.

Enter the Stuarts

James I had a moderately successful reign from 1603 to 1625. He was a serious protestant who nevertheless might have been content to leave the large Catholic population of Britain alone, but the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which Catholic terrorists tried to blow up Westminster and “decapitate” the entire English establishment at the ceremonial opening of Parliament, hardened his heart and his religious policies. He was, however, more frequently beset by radical protestants (the Puritans), who regarded his moderate church reforms as still stinking of popery. James thought of himself as a scholar and a theologian. He wrote one treatise on demonology and another denouncing the social and physical effects of tobacco, which had recently been introduced from the New World. Two of the greatest achievements of his reign were appointing the metaphysical poet John Donne the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and commissioning a new English translation of the Bible (the King James Bible), one of the greatest works of prose in the English language. All that can be said is that James died before his relations with Parliament fell apart entirely, but his successor Charles I reaped the harvest of deep Parliamentary distrust of the monarchy.

Killing a King at the Banquet House

Portraits of King Charles I on the left and King Charles II on the right.
As Charles III ascends the throne, he faces the colorful legacy of his regnal name — from Charles I who was tried for treason and beheaded (left) to “Merry Monarch” Charles II who fathered 12 illegitimate children (right). (
James’ son, the first Charles Stuart, Charles I, who reigned from 1625 to 1649, had his head lopped off on Jan. 30, 1649. It’s a long and complicated story, but here is what you need to know. First, he made the mistake of marrying a French Catholic woman, Henrietta Maria, who felt contempt for English protestants and did everything in her power to press for a return of England to the Catholic fold.

Second, the Stuarts’ conception of Parliament was that it would meet seldom and do two things: pass only legislation favored by the king and provide him the funds to support the dazzling portfolio of the monarchy. Whenever Parliament showed independence or made it clear that they would only vote him supplies if he agreed to address their grievances, the Stuart king flew into a rage and adjourned Parliament. As the 17th century unfolded, Parliament pushed back with greater intensity.

A bloody nine-year civil war between the royalists (the Cavaliers) and the republicans (often called Roundheads) might not itself have brought the defeated Charles I to the chopping block, but when he attempted to lead a foreign military invasion of Britain, his execution became inevitable.

The Larger Dynamics

These intense historical dramas played out in the foreground of a series of historical developments that inaugurated the centuries’ long secularization of European culture. At the beginning of the 17th century, the majority of people still believed literally in angels, ghosts, witches, fairies and dragons. By the end of the century “things that go bump in the night” were being retired. Europe’s intellectuals had graduated from what has been called the comfortable “closed world” into a more perplexing and challenging “infinite universe.” When the republicans executed Charles I in 1649, England was only 40 years from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, with its carefully articulated “right to revolution,” and a century from the great blossoming of human liberty in Massachusetts and Virginia.

Hereditary monarchy is based on a paradoxical idea: that someone can be born royal. By the accident of birth alone, a person coming into the world can be set apart for life at the apex of the social, political and religious hierarchy. But the Stuarts took it much farther than that. They argued that God had explicitly chosen them to rule England, not only above the law, but in fact the law.

Charles II — A Form of Restoration Comedy

Great Britain had no king between 1649 and 1660, when the Stuart monarchy was restored to power by a weary and grateful public, who had found the militant Puritan regimen oppressive. A generation of republican government, such as it was, had failed to create satisfaction in Britain. Most people were happy to scamper back to the pomp and comfort of monarchy.

We mostly associate the Restoration (1660) with the reopening of the theaters, closed by the Puritans during the period between 1641-1659, which began as a republic and ended as a military dictatorship led by Oliver Cromwell. When he was recalled by Parliament from exile, Charles II restored a lavish and often licentious court life to Britain.

The great religious struggles of Puritans, Catholics, and Anglicans were still roiling Britain during his reign, but Charles II managed to avoid being drawn into them, and his tenure was relatively free of fierce controversy. And unlike his two predecessors, who were absolutists about their monarchical sovereignty, he was content to yield a significant amount of his authority to the House of Commons.

The Bonnie Prince

The third Charles Stuart, best known to history as the Young Pretender or Bonnie Prince Charlie, was the last serious Stuart claimant to the English throne. He was born in Rome in 1720 and after a life of hectic wandering, he died there too, on Jan. 31, 1788. He made several attempts to take back the British throne by military invasion. Each one either collapsed prematurely or was easily repelled. His most famous and romantic foray came in 1745 when he landed with a tiny force on the coast of Scotland and attempted to touch off a revolt of the Scottish Highlanders. He was decisively defeated at the Battle of Culloden Moor on April 16, 1746. After the Jacobite Rebellion collapsed, the Young Pretender was hunted for more than five months before he made his escape to the European continent.

He would have been King Charles IV if he had prevailed.

This King Charles

The British royal family in the procession of Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall, London, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022.
The Royal Family. From left, Prince William, King Charles III, Princess Anne, Prince Harry, Tim Laurence, Prince Andrew and Peter Phillips follow the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it is carried on a horse-drawn gun carriage during the ceremonial procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall, London, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022.
(Stefan Rousseau/Pool Photo via AP)
By naming the heir apparent Charles, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip linked him to problematic and unfortunate Stuarts, about whom most British citizens say, good riddance. Perhaps back then they assumed that when he became king, he would change his name to something with less historical baggage, like Arthur, George or William; but by now he has been Prince Charles for so long that the public would probably not accept the name change of a 73-year-old man.

This Charles has been preparing for his kingship all his life. As his mother’s life pushed well beyond the Biblical threescore and ten, he must at times have wondered if he would ever become king. Assuming Charles lives another 20 years, his son William will become king in his 60s. The greatly increased longevity of our times means that any heir apparent is likely to be an old man or woman when the crown is finally placed on his or her head. The argument can be made that Charles would have been a better king had he ascended the throne 30 years ago.

In his first speech, Charles III made clear that he understands his new role. He assured the British people that he will be more restrained as king than he has been as Prince of Wales, that he will have to be more careful in his public interventions and understands the limited constitutional role a modern British monarch plays. But Theodore Roosevelt said the same thing when he ascended to the American presidency in September 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley: “In this hour of deep and terrible bereavement, I wish to state that it shall be my aim to continue absolutely unbroken the policy of President McKinley for the peace and prosperity of our beloved country.” These words were scarcely out of Roosevelt’s mouth before he charted his own heroic course as the 26th president.

It is quite possible that one of two things happens in the next five or 10 years. The first would be that the British people abolish the monarchy altogether as an expensive anachronism out of keeping with modern principles of democracy, diversity and post-colonialism. The abolition of the monarchy might be the rational course, but it is unlikely. The Brits like the monarchy, warts and all.

The second possibility is that King Charles III might veer from his mother’s famous reserve and do some actual leading of the British people. If a British monarch does little more than cut ribbons at new opera houses, take tea with foreign heads of state, read a prepared script at the opening of a new Parliament, and deliver a Christmas greeting to the “empire” on the wireless, what really is the point? What if Charles III moved carefully but boldly in the direction of his great-great-great grandmother Victoria, who had considerable kingly function in her 63-year reign? Charles III may not be God’s anointed representative on earth, but he’s a hereditary monarch with genealogical roots that date back to Henry VIII, Richard the Lionheart, and George III. His leadership at a time when British Prime Ministers are not quite of the stature of Winston Churchill might be valuable.
Princess Diana.

The marriage between then Prince Charles and Princess Diana was contentious, and their divorce, messy—Diana died a mere year after the official papers were signed. (flickr/tommy476)

He’s an intelligent man. He understands that the planet is in peril. (See the essay by Governing Senior Editor Alan Ehrenhalt on Charles’ long-standing advocacy around urban planning.) He has strong opinions about British architecture, gardens, heritage and culture. A percentage of the British people regard Charles as a bit of a loon, a kind of royal answer to California’s early Jerry Brown (Governor Moonbeam), and the sordid Princess Diana saga besmudged everyone involved, Charles especially. But a fair-minded assessment reveals an extraordinary man who has been, I believe, an extraordinary prince.

Charles’ principal duty is to lay the foundation for the next King of England, his son William, who is so far unsullied by the usual royal scandals. Before the death of Elizabeth II, William, the Duke of Cambridge, now the Prince of Wales, was planning to travel to the United States at the same time as the opening of the United Nations to appeal to the family of nations to address the problem of global climate change. Prince William appears to have a perfect wife for the burdens that will at some point be placed upon them.

And an heir apparent named George!

You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. He is also a frequent contributor to the Governing podcast, The Future in Context. Clay’s most recent book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.
Clay S. Jenkinson is a historian and humanities scholar based in North Dakota. He is founder of both the Theodore Roosevelt Center and Listening to America. He can be reached at
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