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King Charles I, as painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck
Photograph: Sir Anthony Van Dyck / Royal Collection Trust

5 London lessons King Charles could learn from his historical namesakes

Fight fires, support theatres, and never get on the wrong side of Parliament

Written by
Alice Saville

For history nerds, it's pretty surreal to have a King Charles in charge of this country once again. And, potentially, a bit ominous. When Elizabeth II was crowned, people celebrated being in a new Elizabethan age, pointing to her Tudor namesake's long, illustrious, and largely peaceful reign.

The picture for the new King Charles is a bit more complicated. He's got some thrilling, troubled forbears, men who struggled (and failed) to cling to the throne in times of political tumult. Charles I (1600-49) fatally fell out with Parliament, and was publicly executed in London's streets. Charles II (1630-85) kept his head, but had to hold onto his crown through the disastrous Great Fire of London, the plague, and ongoing plots to dethrone him. So here's what our new monarch can learn from his historical namesakes about the art of kingship.

1. Muck in when there's a crisis

When the Great Fire of London tore through the streets in 1665, Londoners panicked. Famous diarist Samuel Pepys reacted by burying his prized wheel of Parmesan cheese in his garden for safekeeping, then fleeing the city. Luckily, Charles II was more public-minded. He worked alongside the men who were pulling down houses to create a firebreak. Then, he rode round London's fire posts, carrying a bag of silver sovereigns which he used to persuade Londoners to stay and fight the flames. Let's hope our current monarch takes a similarly hands on approach to any disasters that happen during his reign: perhaps he could pass around some Duchy Original oat cakes?

2. Support London's theatres

Our late queen sat patiently through each year's Royal Variety Show without ever showing more than mild amusement at London's finest entertainers. But with any luck, Charles III will be a more enthusiastic patron of the performing arts. For inspo, he should look to Charles II, who was an avid theatregoer, and was regularly seen at Theatre Royal Drury Lane (currently showing Frozen, which he probably wouldn't have vibed with). Playwrights even concocted a new theatrical genre, the tragicomedy, under his influence: they knew that Charles favoured plays that mixed laughter with heroic narratives about kings vanquishing their rivals. Famously, Charles II also used the theatre as a hunting ground for new mistresses, including plucky orange seller Nell Gwynn. Watch out, Camilla...

3. Behave yourself down the pub

King Charles II kept some seriously rakish company, filling his court with libertines and sybarites. His best mate Sedley caused a minor riot in 1663, when he misbehaved in a tavern on Bow Street, Covent Garden: he stripped naked, got on the balcony, delivered a lewd mock-sermon and then pissed onto the crowds in the streets below. Charles II paid the resulting £500 fine for him, to the disdain of the monarchy's critics. All very embarrassing. Luckily, our current king is notorious for talking to his plants: to stay on the safe side, he should make sure all his future drinking buddies are chlorophyll-based. 

4. Keep the costs down

Whether you're a seventeenth-century peasant or a present-day Londoner, no one likes the sight of a king making merry with the public purse while ordinary people struggle. In 1661, Samuel Pepys was concerned by Charles II's extravagant spending, complaining about 'the lewdness and beggary of the court, which I am feared will bring all to ruin again'. And Charles I was obsessed with expensive building projects: even when he was imprisoned on the Isle of Wight, trying to negotiate his survival with furious parliamentarians, he kept working on plans for a costly revamp of his palace at Whitehall. Charles III is already known for a taste for the finer things: he travels with six types of honey in a special 'breakfast box', and has his shoelaces ironed. Let's hope his extravagant tastes stop there.

5. Don't get too cocky

Charles I believed he should rule without Parliament's help, drawing on the divine right of kings. And Charles II fell out with Parliament too, after he staged an expensive war on the Dutch: he subsequently became unpopular for repeatedly dissolving Parliament, and converting to Catholicism. When he died, he was buried at Westminster Abbey in a cheap, low-key ceremony. Some monarchs get a stone monument: he got a wax effigy of himself, which was humiliatingly displayed alongside that of the Duchess of Richmond, who repeatedly repelled his sexual advances. Charles III has already been outspoken on architecture (famously calling a proposed extension to the National Gallery a 'monstrous carbuncle') and has penned letters to government ministers on everything from hospital food quality to the fate of the Patagonian Toothfish. Will he hold his tongue now he's got the big job? Watch this space.

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