King Charles III: A Failure

To even the casual historian, Charles, Prince of Wales’ eventual coronation as Charles III brings to mind the tumultuous period of constitutional uncertainty in 17th century England. From the 1620s until 1688, England endured the rule of Charles I, a Civil War, a botched attempt at Republicanism, the restoration of the Stuart dynasty in 1660 with the ascension Charles II, and finally the Glorious Revolution, which established parliamentary supremacy. At the heart of this conflict, perhaps best realized in the remarkable trial of Charles I, was the definition of the state. Parliament insisted that Charles’ war against parliament constituted a betrayal of the English people and thus treason, for war against the people was war against England. Charles chose not to dispute the charges, but the Court’s very right to try him, for he was England. This conflict was a flashpoint of modernity; a paradigmatic clash between the feudal order claiming legitimacy from God and republicanism grounding its rule on the primacy of citizens’ just authority in the state.

Previous Charles’ constitutional battles serve as a backdrop to the fictional modern iteration in “King Charles III,” a 2014 play recently adapted for a short film by the BBC. Shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, newly anointed Charles is confounded by a bill seeking to limit freedom of the press in his first weekly meeting with Prime Minister Tristan Evans, who we can assume to be Labour from a quip about Thatcherism. This initial conflict escalates into Charles refusing Royal Assent and eventually deigning to dissolve parliament altogether! As an amateur historian with an admittedly childish monarchical fantasy, I found this premise exciting. Yet I came away from “King Charles III” disappointed. Perhaps my critique is blinded by my own expectations (I imagine myself a Jacobite had I been born in the late 17th century), but even as I try to cast my own projections aside, I find that the plot and characters do a disservice to the constitutional conflict “King Charles III” seeks to portray.

Disappointingly, Charles’ key moments are not organic to himself, but a result of Leader of the Opposition Steven’s manipulations. First, she uses her access to plant the idea of refusing Royal Assent, which Charles at first brushes aside before later coming around to defend such a maneuver. Second, when Parliament is pushing through a bill to circumvent Royal Assent, she advises Charles to seek “inspiration in William IV,” alluding to William IV’s 1831 dissolution of the House of Commons in response to the defeat of electoral reform. Charles response indicates that he does not even know this anecdote in history, undoubtedly surprising for the King to be ignorant of the history of his office.

Similarly, Prince William’s ultimate defiance of his father seems to be due to Kate Middleton’s manipulations, as he originally defends his tacit approval of his father’s actions as key to his “station” and filial duty as prince. In one particular soliloquy Kate confirms her own ambitions to be queen along with William and to wield power of her own. This is particularly unnerving as she later invokes her popularity in order to influence William to betray his father. Not only is this a starkly negative portrayal of a Duchess who by no indication harbors such ill-advised ambitions, but it is disappointing as it is indicative of William’s apparent spinelessness. Just as Charles falls under the opposition leader’s manipulations that lead him to wield ancient royal power, William similarly seems incapable of independent thought!

Not only are Charles and William’s plotlines colored by their private weakness, but Prince Harry seems laughably timid, especially when contrasted with the hard-charging Prince who insisted on serving in a combat role in the War on Afghanistan and is notorious for his aggressive antics. Upon meeting a young woman “Jess” at a party, who introduces herself by rudely inquiring about whether Harry’s real father was James Hewitt, Harry disappointingly does not react or even attempt to defend his mother’s honor. Subsequently, when the two become closer, she criticizes taxpayer support for the monarchy, to which Harry hastily agrees without offering the simple defense that revenue from royal property given to the state is greater than taxpayer support for the royal family. “King Charles III’s” Harry is far from the one we know from the media. He is not the charismatic sportsman or combat veteran but somewhat of a neutered boy incapable of performing his duty. I suspect that we are meant to sympathize with Harry’s portrayed “entrapment,” but I cannot escape disappointment in Harry’s lack of respect for duty and station, which his father reveres and older brother comes to respect in his own way.

Despite my qualms about Charles’ character, a few scenes stand out as exceptional for their portrayal of monarchical and republican authority. In his first meeting with King Charles, PM Tristan Evans attempts to defend his bill curtailing freedom of the press by invoking Princess Diana. Charles is justifiably offended, but nonetheless retorts by distinguishing between his beliefs as a man and convictions as King. Here, the film correctly portrays a struggle seen many times in history. I myself recall a particularly memorable lecture by history Professor P. David Lagomarsino in which he told of King Louis XIV of France casting aside his love of Marie Mancini, daughter of a relatively minor Italian aristocrat, in order to marry Spanish Infanta Maria Theresa much to the benefit of France.

A second scene in which similar themes are on display is Charles’ address to the people after news had broken that he refused Royal Assent. Charles defines his role as one who “stands outside the rough and tumble of expedience;” a King acting out of conscience and service to the English people. Here, when Charles directly addresses the people, he strives to invoke the “wise and ancient bond between the crown and people” he referenced in an earlier soliloquy. He defines himself as a patient check on parliamentary authority, safely above electoral politics, and a servant of his nation’s interests.

Finally, at the climactic moment in the conflict between monarchy and parliament, Charles storms the commons and with excellent tenor and delivery dissolves the House and demands fresh elections. In his speech, magnified by a foreboding soundtrack, he invokes his ancient right as monarch, his unique cultivation as a ruler, and his authority rooted in his manifestation of England. The personification of the state in one man strikes at the heart of absolutist thought; that there be one man (or woman) raised to rule and given authority through ideally years of hereditary right. This scene also echoes the conflicts of old that climaxed in the English Civil War.

Stylistically, playwright Mike Bartlett composed the play in iambic pentameter, the same meter of William Shakespeare, to varying degrees of success. At times the poetry feels forced, perhaps because it was not originally intended for film. Nonetheless, awkward dialogue is an unfortunate symptom of blank verse, including one moment when Charles referred to himself as the King of “England, Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland” as opposed to referencing the four kingdoms in their proper order.

After watching “King Charles III” I felt as if I had been “trolled” (baited into a state of frustration, in case our older readers are unfamiliar with internet lingo). I hoped for a showdown worthy of the legacy of English constitutionalism, but I came away disappointed with Charles’ reliance on MP Stevens for his action against parliament as well as the confused state of William and Harry, who act under female influence and change their minds frequently. What started as an intriguing premise promising a paradigmatic clash between traditional duty and modern authority was lost to weak characters. Nonetheless, there are a few choice moments in “King Charles III” that convey thematic elements worthy of the history of constitutional crises that make the BBC adaptation palatable. These scenes, coupled with a stellar soundtrack, mitigated my frustration over weak characters and plot that did a disservice to the historical clash it sought to portray. Overall, I would tentatively recommend “King Charles III,” if only for the scenes conveyed above, but caution any historian hoping for an epic portrayal of King fighting commons.