Q From Bob Coldwell: I came across the phrase King Charles’s Head in the Peter Whigham 1966 translation of Catullus in the Penguin Classics series: ‘the phrase is the King Charles’s Head of Catullan biography’. I must confess that it has me floored simply because the only thing of note I can think of relating to King Charles’ head is that he lost it. Any chance of an exact meaning and derivation?
A As you say, King Charles I lost his head by being executed in 1649, though this historical fact has only a tangential link to the phrase you’re asking about. The allusion is to something that’s an obsession with a person, especially one that keeps intruding irrelevantly into other matters.
It’s a literary reference. Mr Dick, a gentle lunatic in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, lives with David’s aunt, Betsy Trotwood. For about ten years, Mr Dick had been trying to write a petition, a memorial, to the Lord Chancellor on the subject of some imagined dispute, exactly what the book never makes clear, but the subject of King Charles’s head keeps intruding into the text. Betsy Trotwood discusses his affliction at one point with the young David: “ ‘Did he say anything to you about King Charles the First, child?’ ‘Yes, aunt.’ ‘Ah!’ said my aunt, rubbing her nose as if she were a little vexed. ‘That’s his allegorical way of expressing it. He connects his illness with great disturbance and agitation, naturally, and that’s the figure, or the simile, or whatever it’s called, which he chooses to use.’ ”
The allusion was picked up by other writers and by about the 1890s had become common, as you can tell from a gently waspish comment by George Gissing in Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1898): “The craze about King Charles’s head has been, and is likely to be, a great resource to literary persons in search of a familiar allusion.”
Though less common now, that’s still true.