THE STUARTS never quite seemed at home as the rulers of England. Certainly, no other English dynasty has had such a dismal record. Of the seven Stuart monarchs, Charles I was executed and Charles II and James II were driven into exile. Of the remaining four, James I and William and Mary came to the throne as rulers of foreign states and were always suspected of not fully understanding English ways. Moreover, except for William and Mary and Anne, all of the Stuarts were either themselves Catholics or married to Catholic queens -- at a time when the English hatred of popery, nourished by memories of the Armada, was openly pathological.

Despite this unhappy chronicle, the family is making something of a comeback in historical literature. Some of them, of course, have always had their partisans. Charles I, the royal martyr, has never lost his special appeal to those of a Tory persuasion. On the other hand, William and Mary have won Whig admiration as the executors of England's definitive political settlement after the "Glorious " Revolution of 1688. The recent rehabilitation, however, has been much more wide-ranging and has benefited especially the two Jameses and two Charleses, who have never before had such a kind of reception. And the reassessment has been enhanced by the bestowal of one of the Stuart's controversial names, Charles, on the heir to the English throne for the first time in 300 years.

At one level such redemption makes sense. The 17th century witnessed far-reaching transformations that were completely beyond the power of individual monarchs to control. The nature of government was changing fundamentally as it grew in size and reach but did so without the fiscal mechanisms to support its growth. Every state in Europe went through painful adjustments as this problem intensified. The fact that only England needed a revolution to solve it was as much a result of a unique ideology, Puritanism, and a unique representative instituiton, Parliament, as of mishandling by Charles I. Similarly, one can hardly attribute England's 17th-century literary glories, or her rise under the Stuarts from secondary importance in Europe to preeminence as a worldwide commercial and imperial power, to the policies of her kings. But it is one thing to argue that there are limits to a ruler's influence on his country's history, and that therefore harsh judgements miss the true explanation of events. It is quite another to paper over the defects of a family whose actions undoubtedly exacerbated the difficult problems they inherited.

Richard Ollard permits himself no such defensiveness about his subject. Indeed, his interest is precisely in the question of how, regardless of their real characters and deeds, the two Charleses managed to manipulate the way others viewed them. Although one quarter of the book is taken up with Charles I, and the character sketch of this melancholy and hesitant king is well done, one does expect more on Charles I's greatest image-promoting effort -- at the royal court of the 1630's. Might the scantiness be Ollard's tacit recognition that, although Charles was the greatest royal patron of the arts in English history, he was in this regard no equal of many continental rulers? Perhaps his very uniqueness as an asthete-king is another indication why the Stuarts never fitted comfortably into the nation they ruled.

Ollard's light treatment of Charles' propaganda is all the more surprising in light of the recent interest in the king's patronage of the arts, which has revealed how hard he worked at the creation of a brillant persona -- the maker of peace, the wise and cosmopolitan king. That the image failed to convince his subjects, many of whom viewed his masques and his paintings as idle frivolities, is a point Ollard does not, perhaps sufficiently recognize. He is more persuasive, however, in showing how effectively Charles' stoicism at the end of his life created his enduring reputation as a holy martyr.

For Charles II the question of image has less to do with his own deliberate propaganda than with the many attempts by historians, both at the time and since, to decide whether his outward behavior reflected his real intentions. Students of the king have seen this as an issue precisely because it is so difficult to penetrate the self-protective enormous good fortune and was determined not to go on his travels again. Ollard's own assessment, which he supports or contrasts with the images the other historians have drawn, is entirely convincing. The reader is swept along by his portrait of a shrewd, sometimes cruel, and repeatedly "lazy, self-indulgent, shallow, frivolous and shabby" man who wriggled through his own difficulties without much regard for those who helped him or for the omnious constitutional heritage -- in the shape of the unsuitable James II whose succession he had ensured -- that he bequeathed to the nation. Ollard's picture of the old Charles as a vieux boulevardier like Edward VII, commanding affection and even gratitude, but little respect, for ending the turbulence of the revolution seems exactly right.

The same cannot be said for Antonia Fraser's long and detailed defense of the king. Fraser handles drama well. There is a fine momentum to her description of Charles I's execution. Charles II's escape from England and the Exclusion crises of the late 1670's. But the more uneventful stretches of her subject's life -- and they form most of his years -- are not easy reading. All the developments of the time are seen in terms of personal relationships; as a result, one is unable to understand or generate a real interest in the major issues Charles confronted: resistance to Cromwell, difficult relations with Parliament, fiscal problems, the growth of English naval power, social change, or the tangled diplomacy of the age. Despite occasional strainings for bon mots and sloppy proofreading, the prose itself is lucid and readable, but the content only occasionally justifies the very leisurely pace.

Fraser draws a protective mantel around Charles which simply will not stand up to scrutiny. She excuses his taking of the bribes from Louis XIV that led him into a mistaken foreign policy by saying his ministers did the same. But that is to ignore the difference between king and subject; no other ruler of England played so demeaning and secretive a role. She minimizes Clarendon's justified accusations of Charles' sloth and negligence by deprecating this wisest of the king's ministers as a fusspot. She glosses over the king's despicable behavior to his anxious, newly arrived foreign queen and claims that his pampered mistress, to whom he frequently gave way at the queen's expense, "has had a press." The outright cruelty, let alone ingratitude, to the servants who sustained him -- Clarendon, the architect of the Restoration, Ormonde, Montrose and Essex -- is not even mentioned. Fraser admirably delineates Charles' best qualities: his wit, his tolerance, his instinct for peace and relaxation, and the informality with which he stamped the age. But the warts, and they are large ones, are missing.

Both books will certainly give the reader the flavor of the two Stuarts whose reigns covered more than half of their family's tenure on the throne. Although Ollard comes close to the mark with Charles II, neither author really captures the uneasy relationship with their subjects that was the central tragedy, and the distingushing feature, of this most troubled of England's ruling dynasties.