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After Kings Charles I and II, many were surprised that there is a third

The first sparked a civil war and was beheaded; the second was known as the “Merry Monarch,” a party animal

Lawmakers pledged their allegiance to King Charles III, who was proclaimed the new monarch on Sept. 10. The occasion was marked with gun salutes and trumpets. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)
8 min

The death of Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest ruling monarch, has heralded the ascension of a new British monarch for the first time in 70 years. Charles, the former Prince of Wales, born in 1948, was formally proclaimed king on Saturday, becoming King Charles III, the oldest monarch to succeed the British throne.

The question of Charles’s regnal name had been a matter of speculation over the last few years, especially after the death of Prince Philip, the queen’s husband of 74 years, in April 2021 hammered home her own mortality. The new king’s full name is Charles Philip Arthur George, leaving several possibilities to potentially choose from, had he rejected the use of “Charles.”

Historically, British sovereigns did not adopt a new name upon their accession to the throne, although this changed during the modern era. Elizabeth’s father and immediate predecessor was born Albert Frederick Arthur George and known as “Bertie.” However, he chose the name King George VI (a homage to his father George V) when he ascended the throne in 1936 after the abdication of his older brother King Edward VIII, who stunningly abdicated after less than a year as king to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson.

Charles’s choice to keep his name may come as a surprise to some historians and royal commentators. They had speculated that he might select a different name to avoid associations with Charles I and Charles II — one viewed as a tyrant and the other a playboy. These common perceptions continue to dominate British popular memory. But in fact, keeping this name evokes two predecessors who each made historic contributions to British history, for better or for worse.

Both of them (a father and son), came from the Stuart dynasty, which ruled England, Scotland and Ireland from 1603-1714. Both had highly significant reigns, with the periods of their rule earning the respective epithets of Caroline (for Charles I) and Carolean (Charles II) based on Latin Carolus, meaning Charles.

King Charles I was the second Stuart sovereign, succeeding his father James I in 1625. Charles was small, shy, awkward and had a speech impediment. Unlike other heirs, he was never raised to rule, and grew up in the shadow of his older brother, Prince Henry. But, when Henry died unexpectedly in 1612 at the age of 18, Charles stepped into the role of heir apparent and later became Prince of Wales.

Charles inherited not just the English throne but also a war with Spain as well as the religious and financial problems of his father’s reign. James I had left the largest peacetime debt in English history. Without experience in government affairs, Charles relied heavily on a favorite of his father George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, for advice. But Villiers, who was widely despised, was assassinated in 1628.

After the death of Buckingham, Charles turned for comfort to his wife Henrietta Maria, who, being a French princess, was thoroughly unpopular with the English populace. Although not originally a love match, the royal couple's relationship deepened to one of genuine affection and loyalty, and together they invested greatly in art and culture. Some historians have considered Charles I one of the greatest connoisseurs of the arts, due in large part to his enthusiastic acquisition of Flemish, Spanish, French and Italian paintings and tapestries.

Yet Charles’s reign was notably marked by intense political and religious turmoil. His rigid adherence to the divine right of kings (the belief that monarchs are chosen by God to rule) meant that he frequently clashed with Parliament over almost every issue. Charles pushed unpopular religious policies and enacted taxes without the approval of Parliament including, most notably, a practice known as ship money, which required counties to provide warships for defense of the realm or pay their equivalent costs in money. By 1642, the tensions between Charles and Parliament erupted into civil war, plunging the entire country into mayhem with those loyal to the king, the Royalists (Cavaliers), squaring off against the Parliamentarians (or Roundheads). Not since the Wars of the Roses (1455-85) had England been so horribly divided. Contemporaries described this time as a “world turned upside down.”

Charles lost the war and — in an unprecedented and historic moment — he was tried and convicted of treason. On Jan. 30, 1649, Charles was beheaded, and onlookers reportedly dipped their handkerchiefs in the king’s blood as a grisly keepsake of the regicide.

Yet not all celebrated his death. After Charles’s death, a cult of mourning grew around him, and his loyal followers began wearing commemorative jewelry with his portrait, beginning the trend of mourning rings.

After Charles’s death, his firstborn son, Charles, did not immediately succeed him. Rather, governance fell into the hands of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarians who ruled as a de facto king. During this period of parliamentary rule, Charles lived in exile in Europe, spending time at the Dutch and French courts with his mother and siblings.

After Cromwell’s death, it became clear that the best option was the “restoration” of the monarchy and negotiations began to recall Charles. On his 30th birthday, Charles returned to London and was formally crowned Charles II in 1661.

In sharp contrast to his father, Charles II was tall, dark and handsome, impressive in both appearance and personality. He had escaped many close calls during the civil wars and even hid in an oak tree to avoid capture by the Parliamentarians after the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

While living in exile at the French royal court, he developed a taste for all things French — art, food, music, clothing. And when he returned to England in 1660, he brought the French cultural influence with him. He often copied the styles that his cousin King Louis XIV of France popularized, even the trend for red-heeled shoes, which appear in his coronation portrait by John Michael Wright. Yet he was a fashion trendsetter as well. In 1666, he introduced a new style of vest aimed at bolstering England’s wool trade. The new plain vest, which was knee-length and worn under a coat, would gradually evolve into the modern three-piece suit, that is, a jacket, trousers and waistcoat.

Charles II’s reign ushered in a new cultural golden age as he reopened the theaters, lifted censorship of the press and reinstituted the celebration of Christmas. He also promoted the sciences by establishing the Royal Society, which is still in existence today. He is often referred to as the “Merry Monarch,” a title that references his now-notorious affinity for fine food and drink, beautiful women and “merry making.” And the moniker is understandable. The king partied with the lower orders and had several mistresses at any given time. He had at least a dozen children with women he was not married to; he acknowledged five children with his longtime paramour Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine.

His reign was also marked by intense religious and political problems, including profound anti-Catholic feeling and xenophobia. Such tensions were further exacerbated by the fact that Charles’s younger brother and heir James (the future James II) was Catholic, as many wished to avoid the throne falling to another papist. Charles contended with political scandals, assassination plots and national disasters including the Great Plague from 1665-66 (the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague) and the Great Fire of 1666, which razed parts of London and killed more than 100,000. When Charles died in 1685 at age 55, the throne passed to his brother, who reigned for a mere three years before he was overthrown by his own daughter and son-in-law (Mary II and William III).

The history of these two Stuart kings explains why some experts thought Charles III might opt for a different regnal name. Some regnal names have never been repeated; there has never been a second King John, a pointed move to avoid any association with the first and only bearer of that name, who is considered one of the worst monarchs in English history. And while Henry is tied with Edward as the most frequent regnal name — eight times each — there has not been a King Henry since Henry VIII, perhaps due to his now immortal status as a serial divorcé. All things considered then, the name “Charles III” is not the worst option for this new modern king, as it invokes the rich cultural legacy of his Stuart predecessors.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II

The final resting place: Queen Elizabeth II has been buried in her final resting place next to Prince Philip, her husband of more than 70 years, capping an elaborate state funeral, which was invested with all the pomp, circumstance and showmanship that the monarchy, military and state could put on display for a global broadcast audience of millions.

The state funeral: The funeral was full of pageantry and pathos, including a new national anthem, funeral ensembles with affectionate touches in honor of the queen, a personal note from King Charles III, appearances by the young heirs, Prince George and Princess Charlotte and the royal corgis. Here are some of the most memorable moments in photos and videos.

A new monarch: Queen Elizabeth II’s son, Charles, became King Charles III the moment his mother died. He may bring a markedly different personal vision of religion and spirituality to the role. Here’s what to know about him.

We’re following changes in the British monarchy post-Elizabeth. Get the Post Elizabeth newsletter for the latest updates.