Is King Charles III a Cursed Name?

Recent photo of King Charles III wearing a blue stripped suit, white and gray striped shirt, and a light blue tie with tiny clouds on it.
King Charles III

Historically, British monarchs named Charles did not fare well

Of the two previous British kings named Charles, one was beheaded and the other ushered in the fall of a dynasty and the decline of the monarchy. In addition, the man who should have been King Charles III died following a humiliating life after he attempted to overthrow the British crown. In all, this is not a legacy to emulate.

Did Queen Elizabeth II royally fail by naming her heir after two of the most disastrous reigns in British history? Maybe Charles should have selected a different name for his reign. After all, he had four names to choose from: Charles, Philip, Arthur, and George.

The Story of the Stuart Dynasty (1603-1714) and the Reigns of Charles I and Charles II

Charles I and Charles II were members of the short-lived, century-long Stuart Dynasty, which began after the death of Queen Elizabeth I – the Virgin Queen. Elizabeth I – daughter of King Henry VIII (known for his six wives) – died in 1603. Unmarried and without a direct heir, after the death of Elizabeth I, the English throne passed to the Stuarts, who were the ruling family of Scotland. They were not skilled in dealing with Parliament and behaved like absolute monarchs, which led to a century of revolution.

Cousin Mary: Queen of Scots

Painting of Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots

Parliament determined that James VI of Scotland was the closest relative to Elizabeth I. His mother – Mary, Queen of Scots – was Elizabeth’s first cousin on her father’s side – the daughter of Henry VIII’s sister. After Elizabeth assumed the throne, her cousin Mary repeatedly attempted to usurp Elizabeth’s position as queen. Mary claimed that Elizabeth was an illegitimate heir, since her father – Henry VIII – had her mother – Anne Boleyn – beheaded and had their marriage annulled. Elizabeth warned her cousin Mary to back off, but when Mary’s conspiracy to overthrow Elizabeth continued, Elizabeth had her beheaded. 

King James I (ruled 1603-1625)

Painting of King James I of England
King James I of England

In 1603, following the death of Elizabeth, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. James believed in the “Divine Right to Rule,” the idea that God had placed him as king, and thus to disobey the monarch was equal to disobeying God. He commissioned an English version of the Bible that became known as the King James Version (KJV). James had disagreements with Parliament over money and foreign policy, and he also had problems with the Puritans. Following his death in 1625, James’ eldest son – Charles – became king. 

King Charles I (ruled 1625-1649)

King Charles I of England

The British public hated Charles I and considered him a tyrant. Like his father, Charles I believed in the Divine Right to Rule, and thus, he should not have to answer to Parliament. As head of the Anglican Church, it did not go over well when he married Henrietta Maria, a Catholic and the sister of King Louis XIII from France. Charles I repeatedly dissolved Parliament – only calling the members back when he needed to raise money. He regularly imprisoned enemies without a trial – mainly they were people who refused to lend him money. In 1628, he summoned Parliament to raise taxes and was forced to sign the “Petition of Right,” which prohibited him from raising taxes without the consent of Parliament or imprisoning people without just cause, Charles I signed the petition, then he immediately dissolved Parliament and ignored the petition – and Parliament – for 11 years. In 1640, Charles I was forced to finally call upon Parliament to help put down a Scottish rebellion over the Scots being forced to accept the Anglican Prayer Book. After that, Parliament continued to meet regularly.

English Civil War

In 1643, Charles I led troops into the House of Commons to arrest the radical leaders, who escaped through a back door and formed their own army. The Cavaliers – supporters of Charles I – were wealthy nobles who wore their hair long and donned plumed hats. Their enemies were the Roundheads – Puritan clergy, country gentry, and town-dwelling manufacturers who wore their hair short. The leader of the Roundheads was Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan of lesser gentry and a skilled general. In 1649, Parliament convicted Charles I of high treason and labeled him “a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy.” While standing on the scaffold, Charles declared himself “a martyr for the people,” before being beheaded. This was the first time a ruling monarch was executed by his own people.

The Commonwealth aka The Kingless Decade

Oliver Cromwell

The House of Commons proceeded to abolish the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the official Church of England. The nation declared itself a republic known as the Commonwealth led by Oliver Cromwell. Charles II – the uncrowned heir – attacked England via Ireland and Scotland. Cromwell sent forces to crush the uprising and to take revenge on Catholics. Extremists – known as Levelers – wanted titles of nobility abolished, equality for the poor, and land reform. This did not come to pass. Cromwell eventually dissolved Parliament and took the title of Lord Protector.

Life in the Commonwealth was a disappointment for most, as it stressed Puritan morality and instituted harsh rules that prohibited “pointless enjoyment,” such as sports and theater. Taverns were closed, and even the celebration of Christmas was banned. Military commanders could enter people’s homes to enforce these new laws. Catholic worship was not openly allowed, but other Protestant groups were accepted. Jews were invited back to Britain after 350 years of exile. Protestants were encouraged to settle in Ireland, which exasperated the tension between the Irish and the English. Education was encouraged so people could learn the Bible. When Cromwell died in 1658, it could not have come too soon. Most British were sick of Puritan rule.

Charles II (ruled 1660-1685)

Painting of Charles II of England
King Charles II of England

In 1660, the newly-elected Parliament invited Charles II to return from his exile in France and rule as king. This became known as the Restoration. Charles II left behind a mixed reputation.

Known as the “Merry Monarch,” Charles II was a playboy who enjoyed a good time. Upon assuming the throne, one of his first acts was reopening the theaters and taverns and lifting the ban on horse racing – a sport he thoroughly enjoyed. His court was criticized for its unabashed hedonism. Charles II had at least 12 children from various mistresses that he publicly acknowledged. Sadly, Charles II had no children with his wife – Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza.

His reign was marked by challenges that some would interpret as a bad sign from the heavens: the Great Plague of London (1665), the Great Fire of London (1666), and the Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667). Poor financial management hurt the treasury, and Charles II’s financial dependence and cozy relationship with his cousin Louis XIV of France made his subjects lose confidence in him.

Considered highly intelligent, Charles II was a patron of the arts and science. He was a founder of the Royal Society and is respected for advancing Britain’s naval capacity. He restored the official Church of England, but favored religious toleration. Like his father, Charles II repeatedly dissolved Parliament, and thus had a difficult relationship with the legislative body. John Wilmot – the 2nd Earl of Rochester – famously said, “We have a pretty, witty king, whose word no man relies on, he never said a foolish thing and never did a wise one.” To which Charles II allegedly replied, “that the matter was easily accounted for: For that his discourse was his own, his actions were the ministry’s.” Without a legitimate heir, upon his death in 1685, the throne was passed to Charles II’s brother – James – who became known as James II.

James II (ruled 1685-1688)

Painting of James II of England
King James II of England

The new king was a true Catholic and an autocrat. He suspended laws at whim and appointed many Catholics to high offices. James II had two daughters, Mary and Anne, from his first marriage to commoner Anne Hyde. After Anne’s death, James II married Mary of Modena. She gave birth to a son, James Francis Edward, who they baptized Catholic. With the prospect of a Catholic king, Parliament invited James II’s eldest daughter – Mary – and her Dutch husband – William of Orange – to come to England and rule jointly. William had a unique claim to the British throne. His mother Mary was the daughter of Charles I, and sister to Charles II and James II. Hence, his wife Mary was William’s first cousin.

The Glorious Revolution (1688-1689)

Painting of Queen Mary II and William of Orange
William and Mary

When William and Mary arrived in Britain, they were crowned King and Queen, and James II fled to France. Parliament required the couple to sign the English Bill of Rights, a document that placed limits on royal power, required the monarch to regularly summon Parliament, forbid the monarch from suspending laws, and gave the House of Commons the “power of the purse” aka control over spending. Catholics were barred from the throne, and the traditional rights of English citizens were restored, such as trial by jury, the prohibition of excessive fines and cruel or unusual punishment, and the right of habeas corpus (a person cannot be held in prison without being charged with a crime). The Glorious Revolution created a limited monarchy, wherein the balance of power shifted from the monarch to Parliament. Historians consider the Glorious Revolution as a key event in Britain becoming a constitutional monarchy. Afterwards, British monarchs would forever share power with Parliament.

The End of a Dynasty

Painting of Queen Anne of England
Queen Anne

William and Mary remained childless. After the passing of Queen Mary II in 1694 and William III in 1702, the throne passed to Marty’s sister Anne. Despite a reported 18 pregnancies, only one of Anne’s children survived infancy, only to die of smallpox at age 11. Never healthy, in her later days, Anne was quite ill and extremely overweight; she received the unfortunate nickname of “Brandy Nan.” In 1714, when Anne died without any surviving children, Parliament decided her closest heir was George of Hanover, a German state. Since King George I did not even speak English, Parliament further increased their power.

Bonnie Prince Charlie aka Charles Edward Stuart

Painting of Bonnie Prince Charlie
Bonnie Prince Charlie

James II and the Stuarts still had many supporters in England and Scotland who became known as the Jacobites. James Francis Edward Stuart, the Catholic son of James II, made some attempts to retake the British throne, despite living his life in exile. For that, he was dubbed the “old Pretender.” His eldest son, Charles Edward Stuart aka Bonnie Prince Charlie, was born in 1720, when his family was living in exile in Rome. He was known as the “Young Pretender” and the “Young Chevalier.”

Bonnie Prince Charlie spearheaded the Jacobite rising of 1745, wherein Scottish Catholics attempted to restore the Stuarts to the British throne. Despite a couple of early victories, the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie were defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. This may sound vaguely familiar to those who have watched the TV series Outlander. Following some excursions in Scotland and France, Charles Edward Stuart, the man who would have been King Charles III, spent his final years back in Rome, dying an alcoholic.

Charles III: The New King

King Charles III, formerly known as the royal Prince Charles and the Prince of Wales, was christened Charles Philip Arthur George. There is no clear insight as to why Queen Elizabeth II chose this sequence of names for her son. Her father – King George VI – was named Albert Frederick Arthur George and was called Bertie by his friends. Some speculate that the name Charles was selected to reinforce the family’s connection to Scotland. There are rumors that Prince Charles considered adopting the title King George VII to honor his grandfather.

Given the challenges facing the new king – potential fracturing of the United Kingdom, losing Head of State status in more Commonwealth nations, and the desire of many British citizens to finally do away with the monarchy as an institution – he should have considered taking any name other than Charles, as history has not been kind to the other British monarchs named Charles.

NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, the content in this article was derived from the author’s lecture notes during her career as a World History teacher.

(C) Joyce O’Day 2023. All Rights Reserved.

AI was NOT used in the creation of this article.

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