By Alan Richman
Updated October 10, 1990 12:00 PM

To be Charles III or not, that is some question. One day (and, as they say in Britain, may it not be soon) a trusted retainer or family member will gently break to Charles the overwhelming news that his mother has passed on and he is at long last King. He will have to sign certain accession documents, but before he can do that, he must have a name to sign. Proclaiming his own monarchical moniker will likely be his first act as King, and given the intriguing options, it could be one of his more controversial decisions as well.

As easy as falling off a horse? Not at all. Let’s review the possibilities. Charles might choose to follow the sterling example set by his mother. She and Prince Philip were vacationing at the Treetops Hotel in Kenya in 1952 when word arrived from London that her father, King George VI, had succumbed to lung cancer. Her private secretary, Martin Charteris, asked the new Queen what name she would adopt. She looked at him and briskly replied, “My own name, of course—what else?”

You can’t blame Charteris for asking. Lilibet’s parents had christened her Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, for her mother, great-grandmother and grandmother, queens all. In a thousand years of royal history, no sovereign has ever plucked a name from outside his or her personal garden of appellations. But despite Elizabeth IPs matter-of-fact reply, the first name does not always prevail. In this century alone, Albert Edward (Bertie to his family) came to the throne as Edward VII, and Albert Frederick Arthur George (another Bertie) dubbed himself George VI. (It could be that Albert, thanks to Victoria’s deifying lamentations, has become a name too daunting to don.)

Where does that leave the present heir apparent, Charles Philip Arthur George? Forget the middle names. The Prince of Wales is too competitive with his father to honor him by acceding as King Philip. Dubbing himself King Arthur would invite comparisons with a legendary hero—not a winning idea, even if Diana would make a fetching Guinevere.

So the choice narrows to George VII or Charles III, and right now the smart money slightly favors the former. As befits a man of ruminative temperament, Charles has given the matter some thought. “He has let it be known privately,” says Brian Hoey, author of Monarchy, “that perhaps he wouldn’t become Charles III because the previous two holders weren’t particularly good monarchs. Some leading authorities on constitutional matters have said that perhaps it wouldn’t altogether be in the best interests of the monarchy if he did become Charles III.”

The first two King Charlies weren’t exactly jewels in the Crown chronicles. Charles I is remembered for how well he died, although he did so without his head. Charles II is remembered for how well he lived, although his life-style was so wanton that he didn’t often seem to be using his.

Charles I was a victim of budget deficits. Let that be a warning. He was poor in a way that only kings can be. He never had enough cash on hand to make proper war on France or Spain, which is pretty much what English kings did in the 17th century, that and go off to the countryside to avoid outbreaks of the plague. After Parliament removed the head of Charles I, his son spent the next 11 years in exile while Oliver Cromwell ran the country so tediously that in 1660 the people of England restored the Crown. By the time Charles II returned from exile in France, he had grown so enamored of things foppish that the fashion in London became long wigs, face paint, muffs and perfume. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, except that it was the royal horse guards who dressed this way.

Charles I was easily the more unfortunate of the two kings, although Charles II was the less prepossessing. (At his birth, Queen Henrietta Maria said of junior, “He is so ugly that I am ashamed of him.”) Charles I was short, overly sensitive and spoke with a stammer, yet he felt certain that his place in the universe was just beneath that of God. People gazing upon him were not so sure. While still Prince of Wales, he attempted to win the heart of the Infanta Maria of Spain by climbing over the wall of her garden. She screamed, ran away and begged her father to be allowed to enter a convent. Upon returning home, the Prince demanded that his father declare war on Spain.

Such touchiness can be dangerous in a king. Charles I insisted on making war against every country that hurt his feelings, which was almost all of them. Fortunately, the naval forays he sent across the Channel had so little effect that England had no choice but to live in peace for most of his reign. His downfall came largely because he lived at a time when Parliament controlled the purse strings, and he was forced to ask for special levies to finance his expeditions. The ensuing difficulties between a bullying Charles I and a recalcitrant Parliament led to a civil war that killed a higher percentage of British subjects than any war save for World War I.

Global belligerence will undoubtedly not be the downfall of Prince Charles, who keenly understands that the Royal Navy, last tested against Argentina in the Falklands, is not all it once was. Charles II is a more vexing role model. He changed mistresses as often as he changed ostrich plumes. One of his fancies was Frances Stuart, whose visage has represented Britannia on coins ever since Charles II put her on a commemorative medal. He sired at least 14 illegitimate children, many of whom he sentimentally raised to the peerage. His wife was Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese Infanta, just about the only woman he slept with who did not bear him a child. Although she gravely disappointed him, he did not neglect her. When Catherine became critically ill, she received the finest in medical treatment: Her head was shaved and dead pigeons were tied to her feet. Catherine recovered and Charles II was able to continue his guiltless life, which included seducing his wife’s maid of honor.

The final days of both Charles I and Charles II are meticulously recorded, for kings were the media celebrities of centuries past. Charles I, placed on trial in Parliament for his role in fomenting the civil war, proclaimed to the end that the court had no jurisdiction over him. We know how well that sort of defense works out. Following his conviction, the court ordered that trumpets no longer sound and servants no longer kneel at the presentation of his meals. He nevertheless concluded that he was going “to a Glorious death.” Just before his execution, he remarked, “Hurt not the Axe that may hurt me.” Charles II, gravely ill, took four agonizing days to die as the royal physicians bled and blistered him. It’s hard to know just where they went wrong. Among his last words was supposedly a plea for the upkeep of his favorite mistress, the harlot Nell Gwyn: “Let not poor Nelly starve.”

To be sure, the Charlies also have their virtues. Charles I was a notable patron of the arts, Charles II was a brave general and generous heart, and Prince Charles is reflective and devoted—particularly to his mum. He might feel that if Charles was good enough for her, it’s good enough for Britain. At the very least his difficult decision will prove that William Shakespeare was wrong. There is much in a name, when it names the King.