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Sunday, 3 June 2012

Let's hope Charles III keeps his head

Top: "Ouch!"; middle: "Erk"; bottom: "Um..."
Lots of people are paying attention to the British royals again starting this weekend because of the Diamond Jubilee for Elizabeth II.

The what?

I didn't know either so I called my mother to ask. "The Queen has been on the throne for 60 years," she told me. Oh, OK.

News of this sort, once affirmed in this way, automatically gets one thinking of what's going to happen when Elizabeth II starts thinking about handing over the reins to her successor, which will be her son, Charles. For anyone who has a basic understanding of history this conjures up some interesting images (see right). It has been 327 years since we had a Charles on the throne, after all. And the British monarch is Australia's head of state. So we should give a bit of an expletive. Not too much, but a bit.

Before we get to the Charles thing it's worth noting that British queens tend to reign for a long time. During the Renaissance Elizabeth I held the reins for 46 years and during the 19th Century Victoria held them for 63 years. So maybe Elizabeth II is waiting for the right moment to hand over the controls to her son, namely when she gets past Queen Victoria in the endurance stakes. Just a thought. Or it may be a cultural thing. The most significant thing about Elizabeth I was that she was on the throne when William Shakespeare was active, and Victoria had Charles Dickens working while she was alive. Both men were Very Good Writers and enjoy an extraordinary quantum of esteem among people who read books. Elizabeth II had Anthony Burgess and Salman Rushdie to adorn her reign, which is not quite the same thing I guess. With changing times other, lesser-known British authors might lift their stakes in the collective consciousness and eclipse both of these men. Who knows? Maybe the Queen is waiting for definitive signs of this nature before she steps down and goes off to feed her dogs in quiet tranquillity.

So who was Charles I?

This king had his head chopped off in public in London in 1649. Ouch! From his point of view this was not a Good Thing but lots of people were happy about it. What happened? It's complex of course, but basically Elizabeth I had handled the sectarian struggles in England quite well, and she also got along with Parliament in a constructive manner but Charles I annoyed both these sets of constituents with the result that he came to declare war against Parliament, lost the war, and was killed. Ostensibly it was about taxes. Charles I made it a habit to shut down Parliament because he thought its members were a bit uppity, asking for things he didn't like, and so when it came to raising money for his undertakings he decided to levy taxes without parliamentary fiat. Shades of 1776 here, right? Englishmen hated being asked to pay money to their rulers without being asked via Parliament. He lost the war because of Oliver Cromwell, a soldier who developed novel ways of fighting and who was the first Army general to use remote-controlled drones against an enemy combatant.

The people wanted to make Cromwell king but he said, "No." He was styled Lord Protector instead. When he died, aged 59, his son lasted nine months in the role his father had held before being forced to quit and then Charles II came across from France where he had been living during the Commonwealth. Apart from instituting a new form of government in the British Isles, Cromwell is now notable for having had John Milton writing during this period. Milton, as is now known, invented moving pictures, Dolby Surround Sound and the Moog synthesiser. But nobody reads him now outside universities, which is a pity.

Charles II liked girls and also lived at a time when British scientists were doing some pretty cool stuff. He was not a geek, however, although he established the Royal Society. There is nothing else of interest associated with the reign of Charles II because apart from John Dryden, who cleaned up the language, nobody wrote anything interesting during these years apart from the minor poet Robert Herrick, who wrote pretty verses about girls.

As for Charles III, the only thing we need to know is that he went to high school in Australia and married the Wrong Woman. He is also quite outspoken and has a reputation for saying controversial things. He wrote a children's book and then married the Right Woman. He has two sons, one of whom once wore a Nazi costume to a party. The other one will be king and he will be styled William V.

Just quickly on the Williams. William I was the guy who, in 1066, brought horses and soldiers from northern France across the English Channel and took over the country. The most critical result of this event was that English school children find it easy to learn French because there are so many French-based words in the English language. And nobody now can read Chaucer in the original. Nobody knows anything about William II so I'll pass quickly to William III, a Dutchman who was invited by Parliament to invade England with horses and soldiers in 1688. This event is known as the 'Glorious Revolution' because it resulted in the rise of the middle class in England, and the winners always get to write the history. The event was about stopping a Catholic from becoming king. Yay.

As for William IV, he ruled just before Victoria did and was in charge when a number of major reforms to English law were pushed through Parliament. These things are worth reading about so go to Wikipedia and then maybe go out and buy some books so that you can learn more about them. Possibly it's also worth mentioning that by the time of William IV the transfer of real power in England from the king to Parliament was pretty much a done deal. The next William has no children yet but at least he's married, and he's apparently married to the Right Woman, which is a Good Thing.

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