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The first Charles lost his life defying Parliament; the second restored the monarchy but ceded many of its powers. Each was critical in creating the world Charles III now inhabits

Britain's current King has had two predecessors with the same regal name: Charles I, painted in 1633 by Anthony van Dyck, and Charles II, painted circa 1676 by John Michael Wright.VCG Wilson/Corbis and Fine Art Images/Heritage Images, via Getty Images

King Charles III has chosen to be known by his first name (and not by his middle ones, Philip, Arthur and George), as is his royal prerogative. Presumably “King Arthur” – the leader of Britain’s Celts who defeated the Saxons in the sixth century – carried too much baggage, what with the Round Table and all.

But the name Charles has plenty of its own luggage in the long and ornate history of the English monarchy.

The first two Charlies were arguably the most hated and loved English kings, respectively.

Charles I is known as the bad king. Charles II was not so bad. But the first two Charleses were fundamentally responsible for creating the weird role the third Charles has this week assumed, following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth – that is, the ceremonial head of the world’s oldest constitutional monarchy, a king with immense symbolic power and lots of great jackets, but almost zero political clout.

Charles I is the reason Parliament began to seize power from the king. Charles II is the constitutional (and genetic) reason there is still an heir to that throne today. But if poking into the history of the British monarchy teaches you anything, it is that things can, and do, change unexpectedly.

The late Queen Elizabeth II looks at a painting of Charles I in 2018 with curator Per Rumberg at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.ALASTAIR GRANT/AFP/Getty Images

The first Charles (1600 - 1649) was crowned in 1625. He was the last British monarch to believe, absolutely, in the divine right of kings – that, as he once said, “princes are not bound to give account of their actions but to God alone.” Because he was enacting the will of God, he could therefore follow his own conscience, and he often didn’t have one.

Unlike our King Charles, Charles I’s claim to the throne had its soft spots. He was the son of James VI of Scotland who later became James I of England because he was the first cousin twice removed of Queen Elizabeth I, who died childless. It’s all extremely complicated.

Nor – like our own shy, awkward, jug-eared former Prince of Wales – did he seem like much of a leader at first. Charles I was a sickly child: he had a stammer, and probably rickets to boot. He only became the heir apparent after his older brother died, in 1612.

He was crowned in Westminster Abbey, by which time one of the central challenges of his reign had emerged: his Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria, the youngest daughter of the king of France, whom Charles married when she was 15, refused to take part in what she considered to be the heathen Protestant ceremony. This in turn irritated Parliament, which wanted Charles to marry a Protestant in the first place. That Catholic-Protestant animosity beset his entire reign, and eventually erupted in the Thirty Years’ War. This was a time in history, after all, when Britain tried to populate its colonies with all the religions it wanted to get rid of.

Paying for his wars and his alliances forced Charles I to turn to Parliament, which he treated as his personal chequing account. He made a habit of marching into Parliament and arresting members who didn’t agree with his wishes or his demands for funds, which he levied via an amazing array of new and always creative taxes and fines. If Parliament didn’t comply, he prorogued it and did as God allegedly wanted. At one stretch – the period of so-called Personal Rule – Charles I ruled for 11 years without convening Parliament once.

Oliver Cromwell, played by Richard Harris in a 1970 biopic, urges fellow parliamentarians to sign Charles I’s death warrant for high treason.

No surprise, then, that by 1642, England was engulfed in civil war between the parliamentarians (the Roundheads) of Oliver Cromwell and the Royalists (the Cavaliers) of Charles I. “The difference,” according to John Fraser, the founder of Canada’s Institute for the Study of the Crown, “was that Charles couldn’t incite the crowd. Oliver Cromwell could incite the crowd.” Six per cent of the British population, more than 300,000 people, died in the struggle. Charles barely escaped being captured in the siege of Oxford (where the Royalists made their headquarters) by disguising himself as a servant.

He went into hiding, but the Scots sold him out for £100,000. He was finally captured (twice) and indicted for treason in 1649. (The idea of trying a king for treason was as shocking to Britons then as the idea of charging and jailing Donald Trump is to some Americans today.) Charles refused to testify at his own trial on the grounds that only God had the authority to make him testify. He was one of those types. He allegedly wore two shirts to his beheading on Jan. 30, 1649: it was a cold winter, and he didn’t want to shiver, in case onlookers thought he was afraid. He has been called “the worst king we have had since the Middle Ages.” His eerie similarity to Donald Trump ends at Charles I’s infinitely more refined artistic taste: he had a keen eye for painting, and collected nearly 1,500 masterworks by everyone from Breughel and Bernini to Rembrandt and Caravaggio.

His son, Great Britain’s second King Charles, took up his father’s fight against the interregnum, as the absolute dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell is often known. Cromwell defeated 22-year-old Charles and the Royalists at the Battle of Worcester in 1652, but the would-be king escaped (by hiding in a tree) to exile in Normandy. After Cromwell died in 1658 and his son proved incompetent, Charles was reinstated as king in 1660. He too was famous for his religious tolerance (he had too many mistresses not to be), but he knew how to settle a score: one of his first acts was to order Cromwell disinterred and posthumously beheaded. That appendage then sat on a pike at Westminster Hall for more than 20 years.

A portrait of Charles II by Antonio Verrio is adjusted for a preview of a Buckingham Palace exhibition in 2018, curated for the 70th birthday of the future Charles III, then Prince of Wales.Joe Maher/Getty Images

Charles II faced the same tensions his father had, between a largely Protestant parliament and allies who were Roman Catholic. But by the time Charles II took power, parliament was more powerful and harder to ignore, while the king was even further in debt and thus more beholden to Parliament. He became a secret wangler: under one of his private arrangements, he was paid £160,000 a year by Louis XIV, in return for troop support and a promise that Charles would one day convert to Roman Catholicism. A heck of a deal! Gradually, continuously conceding powers to Parliament in return for money, and thus strengthening Parliament against the likes of kings like him and his dad, Chuck Two established the foundation of the (relatively powerless) constitutional monarchy Chuck Three has inherited.

But unlike Charles I, Charles II was a popular king – one of the best loved of all time. After a dour and dusty decade of Cromwell’s priggish rules and restrictions, Charles II was The King Who Loved to Party. He re-opened the theatres (hence Restoration comedy). He allowed women to act the parts of women in plays. (He loved actresses.) He kicked off the establishment (for better and worse) of the British Empire, granting the Hudson’s Bay Company its charter in North America in 1670.

He was tall for his time, and considered dishy. He was intellectually curious – Thomas Hobbes was one of his tutors – and both a student and huge supporter of the new and emerging discipline called science. (He practiced alchemy in a lab off the royal bedroom, and may have died of complications from mercury poisoning.) Like his current namesake, he was interested in botany and gardening, and founded the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, which went on to make important contributions to solving the problem of establishing longitude at sea. He was also obsessed with time: he had seven clocks in his royal bedroom.

An astronomer looks through a telescope in 2015 on the meridian line at the Royal Observatory in southeast London, which Charles II founded.Reuters

He also consorted with at least seven mistresses, and sired a minimum of 12 illegitimate children, many of whom became dukes and earls whose fitzrovian descendants today make up a big chunk of the British peerage. (Charles II was known in the press as Old Rowley, after one of his especially prolific stallions.)

For instance, both of our King’s wives – Princess Diana and Camilla, Queen Consort of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth – are descendants of one of Charles II’s longtime mistresses, Louise de Kérouaille, whom Charles made Duchess of Portsmouth, even though she was French and Catholic. There was a theory in Charles’s day, unproven, that Louise was a mole planted by Louis XIV: she met Charles while serving as a lady in the French court, after which Charles appointed her (by then his mistress) as a lady-in-waiting to his own queen, Catherine of Braganza (Portugal), who was not at all happy with that arrangement.

Charles’s nickname for Louise was Fubbs, which meant plump, a shape very much in vogue at the time, and even bestowed it on one of his royal yachts in her honour. Fubbs’s advocacy for France made her unpopular in Britain, and she cost taxpayers a lot of money: Her allowance in 1681 alone was reportedly £136,000 (about $206,300). The charge that Charles II taxed his subjects to pay for his mistresses was true. Nell Gwynn, the actress, another of Charles’s favourite mistresses, was once mistaken for the squatter Louise and replied, “pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore.” It was all very complicated. Charles loved both of them (and his Queen) to the end of his life, and on his deathbed in 1685– when he is reputed (without convincing evidence) to have converted at last to Roman Catholicism, allegedly at Louise’s urging – instructed his aides to help Nell and “do well by Portsmouth.”

Charles's 60th birthday portrait in 2008.Hugo Burnand/Anwar Hussein Collection/WireImage

By comparison, then, King Charles III – for all his long wait and emasculating run-up to the big job, for all his early quavering, for all his corporate involvements and lobbying, for all his divorcing of Diana and his cringey phone calls about wanting to be his mistress’s Tampax – has lived a tame, engaged, responsible and above all modern life. His foibles have been dug up, dissected, displayed and televised intergalactically and endlessly. And yet he has borne his shame and blame and carried on with what he cares about, regardless. That may yet give us reason one day to respect at least his inner fortitude.

The new king has already reassured his subjects that he understands he will have to abandon the advocacy and enthusiasms he espoused as Prince of Wales, to perform the more anodyne ceremonial role his mother filled so flawlessly. Some of those passions were crucial issues, and benefitted from Charles’s edgy leadership – notably on climate change (he sounded the alarm decades ago) and Indigenous reconciliation.

But what the lives of Charles One and Charles Two tell us about the future role of Charles Three is that however prominent or recessive, whether tyrants or mere figureheads, British monarchs have always played a secret role as well. They are the antidote to the rushing manias of their eras. Queen Elizabeth II’s much-admired but chilly constancy brought calm to a world shattered by war. Charles I was a skunk and a tyrant, but he forced the notion of religious tolerance onto a narrow, enisled nation of xenophobes. Charles II was a bottomless spendthrift, but insisted on joy in a culture that had forgotten the immense value of pleasure. Maybe, despite restive republicans and a splintering Commonwealth, King Charles III can somehow, by his trundling but open-hearted and particularly human example, restore unselfconscious earnestness to a world paralyzed with shame by the spectacle of its own self-destruction. That would make history.

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