The other Charles knew the worth of his women

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If rumour is true - and with the royals rumour is its own truth - Prince Charles doesn't want to become King Charles III when he succeeds to the throne, as he is still determined to do, but use his other, more sober name: George. King George VII somehow sounds more reasonable, King Charles being associated with either an executed monarch or a libertine.

If this is his thinking, his doubts about his current name will hardly be allayed by the BBC's new period drama on King Charles II's life. Even the BBC is presenting it as a romp rather than serious history. Launching the series, which starts on Sunday, the BBC's Radio Times has the corporation's own favourite populariser, Michael Wood, attacking the whole tendency of such dramas to ignore the facts, while the producer, Kate Harwood, cheerfully admits the drama is only "historical imagining".

"There's no such thing as historical truth anyway," she argues. "There are only interpretations of facts, and they always differ. The truth we're after is human truth and dramatic truth, which is something else."

Well, up to a point, Ms Harwood. A post-modernist view that truth is only a construct has to have some limits where historically verifiable facts are concerned. But then facts and the monarchy have never quite gone together. The whole point about popular perceptions of monarchy is that they are figures on whom we can impose our own view of life. They're not meant to be truly real in their own right.

Queen Boudica - whose recent dramatised life on ITV draws particular ire from Michael Wood - was resurrected by the Victorians in search of genuine "English" heroes and heroines, untainted by the foreign rule of Romans or Normans. She went out of fashion when two world wars made the image of a martial and bloodthirsty woman rather less attractive. She's back in fashion now as an extension of Xena, The Warrior Princess - big busts and scanty clothing.

Charles II is a more interesting case. The Victorians didn't take to him because of the looseness of his morals. When that gave way to the permissive society, the feminists sustained the disapproval. Passion was allowable, but not mistresses. The revival of Charles' standing owes itself partly to the insatiable appetite of television for the details of sexual shenanigans and partly because the feminisation of historical study and political commentary - the assumption that the public is the private - has inevitably begun to turn attention to the private life of past public figures.

David Starkey's success as a popular television historian owes itself in no small part to the fact that, with the question of succession so important to the Tudors, the court kept very precise accounts of how the King was doing between the sheets.

When we come to the Stuarts, interest in the Restoration has been given a formidable serious fillip with the success of the biography of Samuel Pepys by the doyenne of the distaff biography, Claire Tomalin. Pepys is attractive because he wrote a diary in which he gave intimate details of his domestic life, from his illnesses to his lusts. And if he is acceptable with his affairs, the way must be clear for the randiest monarch of all, King Charles II.

The trouble with the Benny Hill view of Charles is that the most interesting psychological point about Charles is not his licence but that he was made by two influences which we find almost impossible to comprehend - exile and more than a decade of life on the Continent. Exile, which made Charles warily sensitive to the currents around him, just doesn't figure on the English horizon. Russian culture, Irish and even Scottish history, is marbled by it. Ours is not. Nor do we understand the Continental view of life, today probably less than ever before, despite our membership of the European Union. And the gap is nowhere more evident than where sex is concerned. Charles may well have regarded the pursuit as natural. We can only see it is as naughty.

It wasn't always so. The English public of the time took an interest in Charles' affairs, but not a censorious one. They worried more about his proclivity for Roman Catholicism than for women. It was partly that Charles treated his mistresses well. There were no embittered cast-offs to stir up his enemies. He was also shrewd in making sure that his personal life never became part of his political one. You couldn't play favourites with him in the same way as his Tudor predecessors.

Our present day Charles might wish it were still the same. And if it was just the perverse prurience of the media that was causing the trouble one might have sympathy with him. But he has learned none of Charles II's wisdom in breaking with his partners or in keeping them from becoming a public issue. As long as he is a public figure and the media can sell on her image, then he will continue to be haunted by the Princess of Wales.

If he does decide to use the name George instead, at least he will have a nearer parallel among his predecessors. George IV, with his ill-treatment of his wife, dissolute household and his insensitivity to the feelings about him, yet his obstinate conviction of his right to rule, is a ready template for comparison. Only "Prinnie" did at least help to put Britain at the forefront of contemporary taste.