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The former Prince of Wales became King Charles III upon the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II (Palácio do Planalto / CC BY 2.0)

SCIENCE & TECH: King Charles III: What’s in a Name? More Than You Think

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Ready to assume the English throne following the passing of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, the former  Prince of Wales  has chosen the name King Charles III as his official title. His ascent to the kingship comes 337 years after the last king to share that moniker, Charles II, passed away in 1685.

It should be noted that this was a true selection, and not simply a formality. Prince Charles was not required to choose his first name as his royal name, and there was some speculation that he would not do so.

The new king’s full birth name is Charles Philip Arthur George, and he could have chosen any of those four names for his official royal designation. Many suspected he would choose to be crowned King George VII, in honor of his great-grandfather and grandfather, who were the fifth and sixth British monarchs to use the name George.

In addition to paying tribute to his forebearers, there is another reason why King Charles III might have chosen to become King George… or Arthur, or Philip. In royal circles, the name Charles has long been considered unlucky, based on the unhappy fates of the two kings who carried that name during their tumultuous 17th century reigns.

The former Prince of Wales became King Charles III upon the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II (Palácio do Planalto /  CC BY 2.0 )

Act I: The Kingship of Charles I

The first king to be named Charles was born in Scotland in 1600. His parents were King James VI of Scotland, who was also crowned king of England in 1603, and Queen Anne, the former Princess of Denmark. The freshly crowned  King Charles I  ascended to the united thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland following the death of his father in 1625, and almost immediately ran into trouble.

In the early 17th century, the parliaments of both England and Scotland had begun to demand a greater role in determining policy. This rankled King Charles I, who firmly believed in his divine right to rule as he saw fit. Over the years the conflict between the king and the two parliaments intensified, eventually escalating into an open struggle for power.

At the same time, Charles I also earned the enmity of religious groups linked to the  Protestant Reformation , because of his alleged preference for Catholic teachings and traditions (his marriage to the Roman Catholic Bourbon Princess Henrietta Maria of France only deepened their suspicions). His legitimacy was fatally undermined in the eyes of many by his failure to provide support to continental Protestant armies engaged in the  Thirty Years’ War  (1618 to 1648), and by his 1637 attempt to force the Churches of England and Scotland to adopt uniform practices generally associated with Roman Catholicism.

Charles I’s attempts at religious reform threw the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland into political turmoil, culminating in the outbreak of the religiously motivated  Bishop’s Wars  of 1639 and 1640. These conflicts ostensibly pitted England against Scotland, although the situation was more complicated than this description implies.

With Charles I’s kingdom now destabilized by open ecclesiastical conflict, the situation deteriorated on the political front as well, to the point where revolution became inevitable. The king and the two parliaments engaged each other in fierce armed conflict during the  English Civil War , which began in 1642. The hard-luck Charles and his Roundheads proved to be badly overmatched and without significant support, falling to the forces of the Parliamentarian leader  Oliver Cromwell  in 1645.

After his initial capture, Charles I was given the option of forming a constitutional monarchy. But he refused to do so, and as a result the disgraced king was convicted of treason and beheaded in 1649. The king’s position was then abolished, and England was converted to a Commonwealth, with Oliver Cromwell then in charge.

The reign of the King Charles I led to an end of the monarchy in 1649, before it was re-established in 1660 with his son, King Charles II. King Charles I shown in three positions (Public Domain)

The reign of the King Charles I led to an end of the monarchy in 1649, before it was re-established in 1660 with his son, King Charles II. King Charles I shown in three positions ( Public Domain )

Act II: The Reign of Charles II

As disastrous as Charles I’s reign was for the English monarchy, his failure alone probably wouldn’t have been enough to convince people that the name Charles was cursed. It took yet another catastrophic and unpopular reign, of Charles II, to plant the idea that Charles might be a name for kings to avoid.

The future  King Charles II  was born in 1630, to the first Charles and his wife, Princess Henrietta. As the eldest surviving son he was in line to become the next king, once his father’s reign ended. However, after his father’s arrest and execution he was forced to live in exile between the ages of 19 and 30 in France, the Dutch Republic, and the Spanish Netherlands, hoping against hope that he might someday be able to return and rule over a united England, Scotland, and Ireland.

The fates seemed to be smiling on young Charles in 1660, when the Stuart monarchy was restored following the death of Oliver Cromwell. He triumphantly returned to the land of his birth and was crowned King Charles II in 1661, a position he would hold for the next 24 years, until his sudden death from complications of an apoplectic fit in 1685.

Unfortunately, the same fates that had put him on the throne quickly turned against him. Through no fault of his own, Charles II had the misfortune of serving as king during the calamitous and deadly  Great Plague of 1665  and the equally devastating  Great Fire of London  of 1666. Despite his association with these terrible events, the king himself was relatively popular, mainly because of his jovial nature and preference for religious tolerance. However, historians have judged Charles II as basically a failure, as someone who lacked the skills, knowledge, discipline, and temperament to function effectively as a statesman, economic policy setter, or military leader.

Whether it was his fault or not, people suffered under the reign of Charles II, victimized by forces of nature that for some reason seemed determined to further besmirch the royal name of Charles.

One can hope the rule of King Charles III is smoother than that of King Charles II, who faced non-stop crises ( Public Domain )

Act III: The Commonwealth is crossing its Fingers for King Charles III

While King Charles III’s powers will be far more limited than his namesakes, King Charles III will be recognized as the head of a Commonwealth that is much more populous than the states ruled over by the previous two Kings Charles. His expansive kingdom includes 14 nations and more than 2.4 billion subjects, spread out across Europe and the Americas. The new king’s massive constituency can only hope that he has better luck with his name than his predecessors, since the number of people affected by any misfortune that might befall him will be that much greater.

Top image: The then Prince Charles visiting Canada, 2014. Source: Korona Lacasse /  CC BY 2.0

By Nathan Falde



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