England has a bad History with Kings named Charles

Prince Charles, heir apparent to the English monarchy and by extension the monarchies of 16 countries (including New Zealand) has never been shy about sharing his opinions whether those be on Genetic Modification (against), alternative medicine (for), or architecture (modern = bad). In fact, it looks like a bunch of his letters lobbying the UK government (referred to as the Spider Memos due to the quality of his handwriting) are about to be released. As time passes, and Queen Elizabeth has transferred more of her official duties over to Charles, it is becoming increasingly apparent he has no intention of stopping even when he eventually becomes King. It would seem King Charles will have a much more proactive stance toward government that his mother’s policy of benign neglect.

You may be inclined to two responses to this observation (especially if you are American):

  1. Who cares?
  2. He’s entitled to his opinion.

Taking the second point first – no he isn’t. The function of the monarchy in the 21st Century (to the extent it has a function) is to provide a ceremonial unifying role for the country. That only works if the monarchy stands for everyone, and that’s difficult if the monarch goes around having opinions, at least where other people can hear. I have no idea what Queen Elizabeth’s opinions are about anything (except that she likes corgis) and that’s how it should be. She stays apart from politics which allows her to represent the country as a whole. This also allows her to perform the tricky role of being a theoretically powerful political figure in an environment where she has no moral mandate to actually do anything – after all strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. If Prince Charles wants to have an opinion he is free to abdicate. Yes, I know the last abdication was a dramatic affair (which is why I’m certain he’ll never actually abdicate), but the circumstances are quite different. Prince William is comfortably into his majority (with an heir of his own), and he already has an expectation he’ll be King someday.

As for the first point, as noted above King Charles would be the Head of State of over a dozen countries, as well as probably being the head of the Commonwealth (although that last one isn’t automatic). And he already has access to the UK government that few others can match – and once he’s King he will have a regular meeting with the UK’s Prime Minister. And that assumes he sticks to lobbying, and doesn’t try to use some of the long-dormant powers held by the monarchy.

I used to be a lukewarm monarchist, of the form “the monarchy is too irrelevant to be worth reforming”, but that attitude was born of Queen Elizabeth’s approach to reigning – the modern monarchy is largely her invention. The monarchy is a successful institution because the Queen has firewalled it away from politics, but Prince Charles doesn’t seem to realise that. If he continues in his current vein, it seems inevitable that frictions between him and the UK government will eventually escalate into some manner of Constitutional Crisis, and any such crisis would result in the powers of the Monarchy being curtailed or even abolished. That’s the other half of the social contract between the monarchy and the people, they get to keep all kinds of powers precisely because they don’t use them. A modern democratic nation won’t accept being dictated to by a hereditary monarch, and any battle between Parliament and King will end badly for the King, not as badly as it did for Charles I, but badly nonetheless.

But winning a war is not as good as not having the fight the war in the first place. Constitutional crises are pretty much the opposite of fun; even if it worked out OK in the end the conflict between The Crown and Parliament would be hugely disruptive to the UK, and possibly to the other countries that still recognise the House of Windsor. For this reason, I think all the countries that still recognise the English Monarchy should make some contingency plans. In the case of the dominions, each of them should involve setting up some mechanism to separate themselves from the monarchy, should the public desire to do that at some point in the future. In the case of the UK, it might be time to start trimming the powers of the monarchy, and emphasizing that the job of the reigning monarch is to have an impressive wave and have the good sense to face the right way on coins, not to actually try governing.

Image: “Coat of Arms of Charles, Prince of Wales” by Sodacan This vector image was created with Inkscape. – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coat_of_Arms_of_Charles,_Prince_of_Wales.svg#/media/File:Coat_of_Arms_of_Charles,_Prince_of_Wales.svg

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78 thoughts on “England has a bad History with Kings named Charles

  1. Charles II seemed to be a fun monarch. At least he gave Christmas and some other fun things back to the English people and helped redesign London well after the Great Fire. His only problem was that he could not father a successor with his Queen, leaving his Catholic brother to run a very Protestant nation.

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  2. Oh, like the name Richard was any better:

    Richard I – wasn’t in England except for 6 months out of 12 years, ransacked the place for taxes to pay for wars in France, and claimed he’d sell London in a heartbeat if he could find a buyer;

    Richard II – inherited the crown as a child, spent years pissing off his relatives until he got old enough to start executing them instead, stole everything that wasn’t nailed down, married a 7-year-old, and was one of the monarchs of any major state to lose his crown in the mother of all time-outs;

    and of course Richard III – was loyal to his brother Edward IV while he was king, then overturned the will to seize power when his brother died and finally murdered his brother’s sons, one of whom was the true king Edward V.

    No, I think the name Charles comes pretty far down the track from that.

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  3. On a more serious note, you don’t understand the importance of the head of state in a parliamentary system. It’s a lot more than simply waving at crowds. And it’s been centuries since any monarch has “dictated” anything in the UK. The whole growth of parliament is proof of that. And by parliament, I don’t mean government. I mean: parliament as an institution and the Crown is an indispensable part of that.

    And considering what an unworkable mishmash the American system looks like outside American borders, I wouldn’t denigrate a system of government that has worked for centuries and absorbed all kinds of social shocks and major upheavals without shredding the social fabric, and has proved adaptable to all kinds of countries around the world.

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    • IIRC James is a reluctant supporter of the Monarchy (in the absence of a better alternative). I do get that this particular post could, if read uncharitably, come off as concern trolling. It’d be ironic indeed if commonwealth republicans had to resort to hoping for the Monarch to rescue them from the Monarchy.

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      • Yeah, I got that. I’m not sure James is saying what you think he’s saying, but you put too little about why you disagree, and too much about what you think of another, irrelevant country, in your comment for me to be sure.

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      • The thing about the role of the monarch in the UK (or New Zealand, which I am more familiar with) is that there is a Big gap between what a monarch could technically do and what they have been doing for the last century.

        Now it’s entirely possible that Charles’s love of tradition will restrain him to simply annoying the government rather than trying to exert control over it, but that’s still more than he should be doing.

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      • You keep personalizing the issue, but Charles the man is not the same thing as the Crown in Parliament. The latter is a role with very specific functions and duties, a kind of pull-in-case-of-constitutional-emergency lever.

        I’m sure he will include his views on various issues during his weekly (or whatever) chat with the Prime Minister and I’m equally sure the PM will smile politely and ignore everything else. It’s really only the constitutional role that counts.

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      • It’s entirely possible that Charles will be entirely harmless once he becomes King, I certainly hope so. I guess what Charles represents for me is a risk I previously hadn’t considered – the possibility that King has a mission to contribute to government, rather than simply being a ceremonial head.

        It’s this risk that concerns me, constitutional frameworks are not a place where you want risks to crop up. Charles is simply a tangible manifestation of those risks.It would seem based on ‘s comment below, England is already doing what I’s suggesting – removing powers the monarch is not supposed to be using anyway.

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  4. I think your concerns are overblown my fine kiwii cousin. Even if, God(ess?) forfend, her Majesty were to ‘retire’ tomorrow Charles is 66 years old which is a bit long in the tooth to be provoking crisises. While I’m sure the Prime Ministers might find a HRM Charles especially opinionated I am doubtful he’d go much beyond that. Age and his Mother’s example would, I suspect, reign him in. If he had some cause that he cared about enough to go into the teeth of a crisis over we’d be hearing about it right now; it wouldn’t be coming out of the blue. I don’t think the Prince is making enough noise about any of his current fancies to suggest he’d really push them excessively from the throne.

    Also I would gently contest the idea that the noninterventionist Monarchy was HRM Elizabeth’s invention alone; her father George VI was an architect of this attitude as was her Grandfather Geoge VI a notorious neutral mediator rather than a negotiator. While it is a bit early to assume I get the same level headed vibe off of William as well. No, I expect we’ll see a short and uneventful reign from Charles which will then be followed by quite a long and steady one from his son. I’d short commonwealth republicanism barring them finding themselves some better alternatives/arguments to proferr.

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  5. “They get to keep all kinds of powers precisely because they don’t use them. A modern democratic nation won’t accept being dictated to by a hereditary monarch, and any battle between Parliament and King will end badly for the King.”

    James, please explain what “all these powers” are. (That’s not sarcasm; I really have no idea what legal authority modern British monarchs retain.)

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    • Goodness, there are so many. Just to name a couple:

      The Monarch appoints the Prime Minister. By convention the Monarch invites the leader of the party with the largest number of seats in Parliament to assume the role but in theory at least the Monarch can appoint whomever they chose.
      The Monarch is the head of the state. The armed forces swear allegiance to the Monarch. In theory if the Prime Minister ordered the military to arrest the Monarch and vice versa any soldier who took their oaths seriously would side with the Monarch. This symbolic and literal power of allegiance extends to pretty much every civil servant and citizen. The Prime Minister, in contrast. commands no more formal allegiance from the citizenry than would any other civil servant.

      In theory the Parliament serves at the pleasure of the Monarch. In theory the Monarch has the power to call and dismiss Parliaments. This harkens back to the origins of Parliament; originally the Kings called Parliament together so he could give them orders- eventually it went the other way round.

      Then there’s Royal Prerogative which includes the powers to appoint and dismiss ministers, regulate the civil service, issue passports, declare war, make peace, direct the actions of the military, and negotiate and ratify treaties, alliances, and international agreements. Most of these powers are either unused or are vested in Parliament and various ministers but legally speaking of you track it back all the threads lead back to the Monarch.

      This is by no means an all-encompassing list but it gives you a general idea. The Monarch fills a role kind of like a living constitution and absolute ruler all bundled up in one but then chained down and immobilized by centuries of laws and conventions.

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      • As I understand it, there’s the Crown, and then there’s the Queen.

        Queen = rich old lady. Sometimes Likeable, sometimes kinda mean.

        Crown = the institutions of government.

        Queen, as head of state, personifies Crown.

        Is that right, wrong, or incomplete?

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      • Possibly not, but if anyone is then Charles is. For me the risk is itself an issue, which is why I suggested making contingency plans. And to be honest, stepping the powers of the Monarchy that are no longer used is not a bad idea just in terms of tidying up our constitutional structure.

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      • In theory the Parliament serves at the pleasure of the Monarch. In theory the Monarch has the power to call and dismiss Parliaments.

        I know that a recent law changed the way elections are held in the UK. The traditional method was that the Prime minister would ask the monarch to dissolve parliament and hold new elections, but now they happen automatically every five years. Did this actually remove the crown’s control over elections, or does the new system rely on the monarch using their powers to dissolve parliament at the appropriate time?

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        • Parliament can still be dissolved before five years if there is a no-confidence vote.

          But I think the basic thrust of your comment is correct, that the monarch can no longer call elections unilaterally but still does so as required.

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      • James, if doing what you suggest was that simple and uncontroversial republicanism would be the law across the commonwealth. The questions of where to vest those powers and authorities if not in the hands of the crown remain significant.
        Also there are plenty of contingencies in place already for dealing with a Monarch run amok. Hell they were developed gradually over centuries and haven’t been used for about a century since the Commonwealth’s Ministers informed a new young King that of three items; he could marry the woman he wanted; he could retain the throne; he could avoid having his governments resign and provoke a crisis the Monarchy likely couldn’t survives; he was permitted to choose two. It went off quite smoothly.

        Modern English democracy, the whole bloody institution, evolved elegantly, organically, as a system for dealing with Kings or Queens getting fast and loose with things. Charles, at his worst, wouldn’t be enough to even raise the dust on most of those statutes and conventions.

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      • What North neglects to mention is that the Crown does these seemingly powerful things at the request of the elected representatives of Parliament. He recognizes the leader of the largest block of representatives in Parliament – after an election – as the Prime Minister. Ditto all the other powers. It’s all at the behest of elected representatives and cabinet ministers.

        And it’s not like the monarch is just some schlub who walked in off the street – he/she has had training and advice from constitutional experts and legal help about what he/she can or should do in any situation.

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    • To expand on the various other replies with a long-view historical perspective, most Medieval European kingdoms had some sort of consultative body: France had the Estates General, the Holy Roman Empire the Imperial Diet, and so on. These were necessary because a Medieval kingdom had very little administrative machinery, so the king had to get his subjects (at least the important ones) on board with any program. It was a response to the lack of bureaucracy.

      Where English Parliament went a different direction was that it managed to both seize and hold onto the power of taxation. The King of France could impose taxes unilaterally, and so long as he didn’t push his subjects into open rebellion he could ignore their opinions and simply not convene the Estates. In England, Parliament refused to go along with the program unless it got to also agree to the taxes that were, inevitably, associated. The implication was that it could also refuse those taxes.

      Now jump forward to the Elizabethan era. Free speech was a big issue. Not free speech in the modern sense. No one supported anything that crazy. In the Elizabethan context it was the question of whether Parliament could debate topics of its own choosing, or only what the Queen convened it to talk about (which was, of course, the taxes Parliament should grant her). Everyone agreed that the monarchy had to sign off on anything Parliament passed in order for it to become law, but Parliament could hold those taxes hostage.

      This was an ongoing debate, both with her and her successors. It reached the point with Charles I that he went for over a decade without calling a session of Parliament. Government had long since passed the point where the king could actually do this on his own resources without additional taxes, so Charles resorted to various stratagems to raise funds. Some of these were legal but a bad idea, such as selling monopoly rights to various industries. Others were taxes where his legal position was borderline at best. Eventually even this didn’t work, and he had to call Parliament, with ultimately poor results for the connection between his head and body.

      This is followed by a decade of the Interregnum, which began as Parliament holding executive powers directly and ended with Oliver Cromwell as a military dictator. When he died, they could only think of two ways to go: either make the military dictatorship hereditary, or bring back the monarchy. Richard Cromwell was unsuitable to and did not want the job, so they went with Charles II. He was a merry king, and very interested in maintaining his head-body connection, so he didn’t cross Parliament in anything that mattered, such as religion. He was succeeded by his brother, who lasted about three years before a strong Parliamentary faction invited his sister Mary (for her bloodline) and her husband William (for his army) to invade. This was the Glorious Revolution. Wags invariably pipe in at this point that it was neither glorious nor a revolution. Perhaps not, but it ratified the principle that the monarch shared power with Parliament, and could only push it so far.

      Jump forward another couple of decades and, through an accident of marriage and religion, a middling-minor German dynasty inherits the throne of England. They hadn’t a clue how to run England, so Parliament took on many of the day-to-day functions of government. The king still had real power in some areas. He was in charge of foreign policy and the military, but he could not dictate domestic affairs. (You can see the powers of a late 18th century British monarch by looking at the powers of the US President. This was not lost on the Jeffersonian small-government types during the debate over the ratification of the US Constitution.) This status quo went on until Victoria’s reign. The first part of her reign was business as usual, but then Prince Albert died. She did not take it well, and she withdrew from public affairs for some years afterwards. This created a power vacuum, which Parliament via the Prime Minister and his cabinet filled, and have not left since.

      So what are the powers of the monarch? On paper, late Victoria had the same powers as had early Victoria, who had had essentially the same powers as her n-Greats Grandfather George I. Go back to the 17th century and you find actual agreements in writing amending the division of power, but the more recent shifts had been de facto, not de jure. In theory, Elizabeth II has the same powers as did her predecessors going back three centuries, but she chooses not to exercise them. In practice, there is ample precedent for Parliament making new arrangements.

      What could Charles III (assuming he keeps the name) do that would provoke a crisis? He could refuse to sign an act that Parliament had passed. He could dissolve Parliament on his own volition. He could name ministers to government without Parliament’s consent. He could take personal command of the military and order it to do things contrary to the wishes of Parliament. These would result in a constitutional crisis, rather than merely a referendum like Scottish Independence did. The difference is that the authority of the monarch does not, in theory, derive from the popular will. He is God’s Anointed–literally so: it is part of the coronation ceremony. Furthermore, he personally receives the homage of his subjects. While most consider this a quaint anachronism, not everyone does. Who does the army take orders from? If the army itself isn’t sure, then wackiness can ensue.

      Not that I think any of this is likely. I think it far more likely that Charles III will bore his ministers, followed by their going about their business as usual.

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  6. all strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.

    I beg to differ. If the alternative is force of arms. . .

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  7. If King Charles gets too snippy, Prime Minister Urquhart can just force him out!

    I am a staunch relativist when it comes to the monarchy. I’m 100% opposed to instituting anything like that in the US. But if I lived in Britain, I suspect I would be 95% in favor of keeping it. Not sure about Canada, Australia, New Zealand, an independent Scotland, etc. I think my answer for the middle two might be different than for the first and especially the last.

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  8. Who says he has to be King Charles? doesn’t he get to pick his own regal name — and he’ll be King, so who’s going to tell him he can’t? I thought I’d read that he’d contemplated ruling as George VII rather than as Charles V.

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      • Ouch. Charles is a kook, but other than the medicine stuff, he’s a harmless kook and even then he’s done less harm than a certain former playboy centerfold. His personal life is a matter of Royal Indifference to the likes of an US citizen like me: I’m used to the spectacle of rich people behaving badly and his bad behavior is a lot less bad than most. So if Britain must have a king, why not this fellow? Or is it just that his son is so young and good-looking, with a young and good-looking wife? “Britain and the Commonwealth would be so much sexier with William and Kate than Charles and Camilla!”?

        Seriously, the age of kings is past. They’re relics. Keep them, or not, but keep them in perspective.

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      • The problem is that Charles would talk. He’d talk to journalists.

        “What do you think about issue of the day?” and he’d speak extemporaneously for a good five minutes.

        Doesn’t matter if the issue of the day is Zayn leaving One Direction or Israel/Palestine. He’d tell you exactly what he thought about it even if he’d never thought about it before you asked.

        William seems to have his head on straight.

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      • I’m a monarchist, Burt, I like HRM’s performance and I’d like to see it sustained. Setting aside that I would like her to live as long as comfortably possible I get the vibe off her Grandson that he’d follow in her footsteps. This is a Vibe the Princem her son, doesn’t give off- I don’t think he’s unsuitable as monarch, simply less suitable than his own son. That William is young and likable with pretty much no bad history at all and a repository of enormous goodwill on the part of his subjects is just a significant bonus.

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      • See, here’s the thing with that, . I agree with you and that William seems like he’ll be a fine King one day: we’ve every indication that Brits can look at him and be proud that a man such as that symbolizes their nation. Honorable military service, good-looking, inoffensive to people of diverse backgrounds and opinions, a happy family man.

        But we don’t know that this will come to pass. Back when I was a kid, it seemed that Charles and Diana would have so much charisma and goodwill that it would seem like Camelot. But no. The fallout from that not coming to pass may be related to republican sentiment in Britain being (apparently) at the highest-water mark it’s been at since 1649.

        It’s much easier in a republican government to get rid of a head of state who is unpopular or isn’t working out right. New election, public says, “Yeah, you’re outta here,” and then they can get disappointed by someone new in a different way than they were disappointed before.

        Much harder to do that when the monarch turns out to be kind of a dud. You can go the whole Purple Wedding route, I suppose, but I needn’t make myself a Carolingian apologist to defend the proposition that Prince Chuck certainly doesn’t deserve something like that.

        If I don’t like that Obama is the personal symbol of my nation for whatever reason, the worst case scenario for me is I have to wait eight years and then I know he’s out of office. If a public official or a member of official’s family causes embarrassment (e.g., Roger Clinton, Billy Carter) it’s relatively easy to shunt that off to the side and the official can still discharge public duties and eventually step aside. I don’t have to rant in pensive frustration, “Can’t you just die already?” or hope that like Edward VIII, he would have the good graces to abdicate.

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      • Yeah Burt, but in the US you can guarantee that whatever else your head of state may be he or she is 100% guaranteed to be a God(ess?)damned politician. Frankly I like all that jingoism, nationalism and similar hoopla and fooferaw sealed up in an inert and photogenic institution like the monarchy like so much nuclear waste sealed up for a millenia in a repository. If you need it you can always go get it but otherwise it’s out of the grasp of those sweaty handed politicians.

        I -like- the Prime Minister posessing little more legitamite symbolic power than a DMV employee. I like it very much, thank you.

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      • I -like- the Prime Minister posessing little more legitamite symbolic power than a DMV employee. I like it very much, thank you.

        It’s the thing I really like about monarchy. George Washington made a heroic effort to make the US Presidency as unglamorous as possible, but unfortunately not even he could stop it developing the trappings of a monarch.

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      • Yeah, just an error. Had the Jacobean claim (one with a decidedly non-frivolous legal point!) manifested, though, there would only have been one additional Charles; Bonnie Prince Charlie would have been Charles III and the line failed with him. So yeah that was just error on my part.

        Looking into it I see that Charles Edward Stuart had a bastard daughter that he legitimized, who in turn had bastards of her own after being the mistress to an archbishop. Her son became something of an adventurer, serving in the Russian military and doing a lot of marrying for money and not having kids. I also found a theory that HRH Elizabeth is, in fact, the current holder of the Jacobite claim to the throne.

        I wonder, have there been no James and Charleses since the House of Stuart precisely because there is a need to cement in place the Hanover-Windsor dynasty as legitimate?

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      • The current Jacobite claimant Is also the claimant of the Bavarian throne. The claim passed to the Savoy family (later Kings of Italy), then to a collateral branch of the Habsburg family (the Habsburg-Este) and then to the Wittlesbach.

        After Queen Anne died they skipped about 50 people with a better claim until they found George of Hannover who became George I. All the rest were either Catholics or had converted to Catholicism (Charlotte, sister in law of Louis XIV was one of these)

        The reason the claim has jumped through several families is that women are allowed to transmit the claim. In several occasions only daughters married out while their father’s throne went to their male cousins.

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      • Wikipedia has the claim passing to the descendants of Henrietta Anne, youngest daughter of Charles I. Conveniently enough to a man who is was already Charles IV, in his capacity as King of Sardinia. Of course, though that would leave no room for a Charles V, as he’s a pretender since the true king would be Francis, Duke of Bavaria.

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      • I wonder, have there been no James and Charleses since the House of Stuart precisely because there is a need to cement in place the Hanover-Windsor dynasty as legitimate?

        The first two Georges were already adults when they inherited England. The future George II also already had a son, Frederick, who predeceased him but not before spawning the future George III. All those Georges can, I think, be ascribed to dynastic lack of imagination. Other than that there are just the one William and two Edwards. This is not much of a statistical sampling, and in any case are both well established King of England names: much more so than either James or Charles. I don’t think there is anything here requiring explanation.

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  9. “You may be inclined to two responses to this observation (especially if you are American):

    Who cares?
    He’s entitled to his opinion.”

    Good point! That was indeed exactly what I was thinking until your comment made me realize the UK is a de facto monarchist democracy in the same sense that the U.S. is a de facto Christian democracy.

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