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Expert Blog: The naming of King Charles III

By Professor Martyn Bennett, an expert in early modern history

The Mall, leading to Buckingham Palace

Expert Blog: The naming of King Charles III

Until the Prime Minister Elizabeth Truss announced it on Downing Street, followed by Buckingham Palace’s immediate confirmation, media commentators were rightly cautious about referring to the new king’s regal name. It would not be unprecedented for him to choose one of his other Christian names. Indeed, some years ago there was speculation that he might be George VII. The new king’s choice of name is of interest. It may be simply that he chose to remain known by the name by which he has been known for 75 years. It may be also be because it acknowledged his descent from the Scottish Stewart monarchs. His mother indeed was descended on both paternal and maternal sides from the Stewarts.

This relationship with the Scottish monarchy was further underlined by the ceremony of the Accession Council on 10 September, two days after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The council first met in 1603 to confirm James Stewart, James VI of Scotland’s accession to the English and Irish crowns following the death of Queen Elizabeth I. It was felt necessary to underline the legitimacy of James’s succession. There had been other candidates for Elizabeth’s throne, but his was the strongest being descended from one of the late queen’s aunts, and of course he was a protestant, some of his rivals were not. In the end such precautions proved unnecessary. The king’s political and actual progress to Westminster was very smooth. Many had been worried that there would be the same chaos which followed the death of Henry VIII: four monarchs in a very short space of time including as it had a sickly minor, a teenage interloper and a Spanish king consort amongst them.

James’s own successor, the Scottish-born Charles I also had a smooth path to the throne, albeit under the shadow of the death of his elder brother, Henry, Prince of Wales. However, almost immediately there was trouble. Charles’s view of the governmental relationship between him and parliament was contended, and relations went into decline almost immediately. Blunders in secular government were compounded by an ill-advised attempt to create a homogenous system of church government and liturgy which provoked serious rebellion in Scotland. The outcome of this rebellion was multifaceted. Government in Scotland was to become a model of a constitutional monarchy with the king’s power much diminished. Worse still, the king’s continued intractable response to political and religious challenges, led to rebellions in Ireland and England which in turn precipitated civil war across the whole of the British Isles.

The first King Charles was defeated in the wars that followed his inept government, yet he still tried to outwit his Scottish and parliamentarian enemies. Exasperated, his enemies brought him to trial for treason. Found guilty after a staged trial, the king was executed outside the Banqueting Hall in Westminster. There followed eleven years when the kingdoms of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland were united in a single parliament for the first time within a Republic. To the monarchists this period had never really occurred and when the second King Charles ascended the throne in May 1660 it was counted as the eleventh year of his reign, just as if he had truly succeeded his father at his death on 30 January 1649. Charles II was very different to his austere father and lived his royal life to the full. Whilst he married, he never fathered a legitimate heir to the throne. He was not entirely trustworthy, signing a secret Treaty of Dover which allied the country to France in opposition to the United Provinces (Holland), his sister Mary’s country, which would later become his niece Mary’s country too. He could be heroic, being seen actively fighting the flames during the Great Fire of London. Yet his death was problematic. He was suspected of converting to Catholicism as death approached and leaving the throne to his brother. James VII and II was likewise problematic – he was an open Catholic and opposition to him drove him from the throne quickly.

Choosing to be Charles III is therefore a brave move, reflecting perhaps a desire to honour his mother’s past but also challenging the legacies of the two King Charleses who came before him.

Professor Martyn Bennett is a professor of early modern history in the School of Arts and Humanities

Published on 14 September 2022
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Arts and Humanities