King Charles: oldest new monarch ever. How will he handle his reign?

No heir has ever spent as long waiting to accede the throne. The future of the monarchy is in his hands – and he faces many tricky questions. Can he succeed?

King Charles III has been waiting his whole life for this moment. At his birth 73 years ago he became second in line to the throne and for the past six decades, ever since his mother ascended the throne in 1952 when he was three, he has been the heir apparent.

He was brought up, trained and endlessly coached for a job that has finally come to him at an age when most men want nothing more than a peaceful retirement; a time which, in his case, might have otherwise involved growing organic vegetables and painting watercolour landscapes.

How he handles his reign will shape the future of the monarchy – and, indeed, determine whether it has one at all. His great-great grandfather Edward VII came to the throne (aged only 59) in 1901, after the 64-year-reign of Queen Victoria, with a reputation as an amiable but talentless and feckless wastrel – that’s certainly what his mother thought – and yet when he died nine years later was regarded as a monarch who had been a success, enhancing the institution, improving its popularity and making it more accessible in a democratising nation.

Charles and William inspecting the Ayrshire cattle raised at Duchy Home Farm
Charles and William inspecting the Ayrshire cattle raised at Duchy Home Farm. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

So can Charles accomplish something similar? Can an older sovereign, succeeding an elderly one, engage the monarchy with a country whose population is mostly much younger than he is and whose future is with a coming generation, not a departing one? Particularly one whose politicians, business leaders, generals, police chiefs are decades his junior: 20, or 30 years younger, a whole generation with different experiences and skills.

Keeping up with the times and adapting to them has been the hallmark of this royal dynasty’s success and, unless he does so, he and the monarchy are sunk. Can he manage the chief object of all his predecessors since time immemorial of passing on the crown untarnished, safely, to his heirs and successors? Or will he, through his own volition, end up as Charles the Last?

This would be a terrible legacy after all this time of waiting: a great humiliation for a deeply proud and self-conscious man who has had dinned into him all his life the special responsibilities he will one day bear.

Unlike his predecessors, especially Edward VII, he has been trained in the requirements and expectations of monarchy: he has seen the state papers, sat in on the meetings, and stood in for his mother at royal events. He is as prepared as anyone could be for the role of head of state, and has been for more than half a century. He is the oldest as well as the longest-waiting heir to the throne and Prince of Wales. Now his hour has come.

The outline of Charles’s life has been scrutinised in great detail ever since the November evening in 1948 when the notification that the Princess Elizabeth had been safely delivered of an heir was posted on the railings at Buckingham Palace to the cheers of the waiting crowd (who were asked to keep quiet to avoid waking the baby).

Charles, Prince of Wales, walking along a Cambridge street while an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge.
Charles, Prince of Wales, walking along a Cambridge street while an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge. Photograph: Fox Photos/Getty Images

First, there was the sensitive little boy with the ruthless father and the often absent mother, sent to board at the spartan and hated Gordonstoun school in Scotland.

Then came the awkward undergraduate life at Cambridge, the brief naval career, and the prolonged search for an eligible wife, the disastrous marriage to the fairytale princess, then the tragic denouement of their acrimonious divorce followed by her sudden death a year later.

After that there was the more contented second marriage and the emergence of his two sons into the adult world as young men who appear to have inherited the best of their mother’s traits rather than the worst of their father’s. It is a soap opera at which much of the world have been observers, so much so that, like all the best reality television characters, most people have an opinion on what Charles is like.

We have seen more of him, heard from him more often and giggled at his eccentricities and sheer oddness more regularly for decades than was possible with any of his predecessors. But since Charles is a more complicated, difficult and reserved man than modern celebrity allows, his popularity is decidedly limited: he is not loved or even liked much, nor particularly admired or respected, and this is a very great handicap to overcome in his new role.

For, after all these years, Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales, brings with him considerable baggage. We know where he stands on issues such as organic farming, education, modern architecture, town planning, the countryside and herbal medicine; these are all issues that are not party political, but deeply and controversially partisan and certainly political with a small p.

Prince Charles meeting residents on a visit to Poundbury, Dorset, May 2013
Prince Charles meeting residents on a visit to Poundbury, Dorset, May 2013. Photograph: Paul Grover/Rex/Shutterstock

It is not that he has these opinions so firmly and publicly, nor even that they are particularly quaint, though some of them are, but that they are expressed so dogmatically. They amount to a belief-set which has for many years defined the man: conservative, slightly tweedy, a little snobbish, hankering for a romantic never-quite-was past, looking for somewhat reactionary, small-scale, individualistic solutions to the giant problems of the modern age. We all get a bit stuffier as we get older, but a preference for the Goons 60 years after their humour was novel and innovative is possibly taking things a little far.

How does all that fit with his new role? It is there in his preference for the late-night, anguished, pen-and-ink “black spider” memoranda and letters with which he has been wont to bombard ministers and aides and in the worrying-away speeches on the future of the planet that he has been making for decades.

Some of this may be admirable, but it may be hard to reconcile with a job demanding absolute discretion as the price of survival. No one ever knew what his mother thought about anything: the trouble is that everyone knows what Charles thinks about practically everything.

It will make the evolution of the monarchy even more constipated. His mother could embrace change equably and without fuss – a blank emotional and intellectual canvas – but with him it may be more difficult.

He has sat, uncomfortably, on the cusp of the monarchy’s modernisation project: the first heir to the throne to receive an education at school, with his contemporaries. But it was of a rare and privileged kind, surrounded by the sons (but not the daughters) of the wealthy, at private schools and university.

Throughout his life he has listened almost entirely only to people who agree with him: argument, or debate, does not come easily, particularly for one who stands so firmly on his dignity.

There have been decades of dutiful public engagements, meeting “ordinary” people, but scarcely engaging with them, or appreciating what their lives are really like by doing a nine-to-five, wage-earning job himself. It never seems to have occurred to him that it might have increased his grasp of the realities of daily life for his future subjects and accordingly he has never really stepped outside the gilded life of large estates and a retinue of servants. Other royal families have been prepared to do this, but not Charles: his imagination seems strictly limited and unadventurous.

Prince Charles enjoys a pint at the Duke of York Public House in Devon.
Prince Charles enjoys a pint at the Duke of York Public House in Devon. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

The Duchy Originals biscuits and knickknacks may be doing their bit for farms on his vast estates, but they are overpriced and heavily subsidised from the profitable bits of the Duchy of Cornwall, which give him an annual income touching £20m, largely drawn from the rentals of urban shopping centres and agreeable chunks of central London. Poundbury, his model village in Dorset, bears all the hallmarks of a vanity project, subjecting ordinary folk to the sort of experiment in cramped social living that he would not dream of for himself.

He would probably argue that he has precisely striven to empathise and understand his future subjects – the farmers devastated by foot-and-mouth disease in their herds, the inner-city kids whose futures are nearly as circumscribed as his has been – but the gulf in their experiences and outlook has been a chasm.

His charity, the Prince’s Trust, has performed valuable work in helping disadvantaged youngsters to claw themselves out of the ghettos, but it still carries the whiff of noblesse oblige. And the tales leaching out about his keen sense of his own dignity: not the apocryphal toothpaste-squeezing valet, or even the range of soft to hard boiled eggs laid out for his delectation each morning, but the large personal entourage of butlers and flunkeys and the occasionally peevish and self-pitying outbursts tell their own story.

You might say that if a prince can’t have a sense of entitlement, who can? But such things are hard to hide these days, they militate against a true sense of identification and scarcely help to identify with his subjects’ lives – or assist them to identify with him.

And hiding is difficult for a modern monarch. Kings and queens have been under the scrutiny of the media for several centuries now and Charles has lived his whole life in its spotlight, from his first baby photographs and outings in the pram to the mundane round of visits and duties.

The prince has had some grounds for complaint – but equally brought many of his difficulties on himself. He did not ask for his first marriage to crumble in the full glare of the media, but the story the tabloids reported about his infidelity and thoughtlessness towards his wife was, after all, largely true. It was the photographers who first spotted his envy of her celebrity and her heedlessness of his ingrained obsession with protocol and sense of his own importance. The royals depend on public exposure and they can hardly complain if they get burned by its glare as, in Bagehot’s famous phrase, daylight is let in on the magic. The fairytale wedding to Diana fell apart and he had no one to blame but himself.

Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, are photographed arriving at the Cannes film festival, 1987.
Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, are photographed arriving at the Cannes film festival, 1987. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

Charles has experienced at first hand the evolving nature of the media, from the fawning deference and discretion of the 1950s, through ridicule to raucous intrusiveness in the 1980s and 1990s. It has become a loathe-hate relationship: he does not like the media and treats it with disdain and it doesn’t like him, for his pomposity and superciliousness.

Even the most inoffensive of royal watchers, the BBC’s royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell, has felt the lash of Charles’s tongue: “These bloody people. I can’t bear that man. I mean, he’s so awful, he really is,” as the prince said under his breath when Witchell had the temerity at a pre-wedding press conference on the ski slopes in 2005 to ask his sons how they felt about their father marrying Camilla.

Prince Charles, with his sons Harry and William, grits his teeth during a media photocall in Monbiel during their annual skiing holiday
Prince Charles, with his sons Harry and William, grits his teeth during a media photocall in Monbiel during their annual skiing holiday. During the press conference Charles was heard to mutter ‘I hate doing this, bloody people’ - and then went on to abuse the BBC royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell. Photograph: Arno Balzarini/AP

That marriage, to Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles’s long-term mistress, has proved to be a mellow one. Had it taken place a quarter of a century earlier, many of the prince’s troubles might just have been avoided, but in those days it was still thought necessary for the heir to the throne to marry a princess or at least a member of the aristocracy – an arranged marriage in all but name – and so the gauche and sensitive young man was hawked around Europe, failing to find a bride at every turn until, desperately, he landed with an inexperienced and naive young woman he scarcely knew and with whom he shared no interests.

The royal family has probably learned its lesson since then, but one constitutional problem is now solved. Camilla will be known as Queen Consort. It is clearly what Charles has always wanted and as the wife of the sovereign she is rightly queen. Nevertheless copious testing of public opinion went on at Clarence House: did the British people mind? How much did they care? However Camilla is a permanent reminder of the old backstory, and a considerable irony for a man so bound by convention and precedent.

After long years of treading cautiously about her status, it is clear that the public accepts her: Camilla is personable and friendly, plenty of people these days have experiences of adulterous partnerships and second marriages, either in their own lives or those of their relatives, and are not noticeably censorious about them.

Even the established church, founded by a much-married monarch, sustained by and sustaining the monarchy, has come to terms with the situation. It just about managed to bless Charles and Camilla’s marriage in 2005 but it has long finessed its privileged, jealously guarded position and will of course conduct the coronation albeit this time with the participation of other faith groups.

Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, at a religious ceremony at the Nieuwe Kerk
Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, at a religious ceremony at the Nieuwe Kerk church in Amsterdam during celebrations for Queen’s Day, which also marks the abdication of Queen Beatrix and the investiture of her eldest son Willem-Alexander. Photograph: Reuters

The Church of England had conniptions when Charles announced many years ago that he rather fancied becoming “defender of faiths” rather than defender of the faith, and the coronation oath with its ponderous rubric about maintaining the laws of God, the Protestant reformed religion and the preservation inviolate of the settlement of the Church of England and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof will be updated.

But that may be a minor difficulty compared with that of the Commonwealth, whose countries Charles and other members of the royal family have visited so regularly for many years. He is not only King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland but de facto of 14 other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada as well as, among others, the Solomon Islands, St Lucia, Tuvalu and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

At his back, King Charles will always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near. It is too late now – he’ll have been proclaimed king immediately (a legacy of the ancient succession fears of earlier dynasties). But he has a much younger, more personable heir standing right behind him on the balcony. Might it not make sense, people will be saying, to get on to the next generation for the sake of the monarchy’s future? Abdication, however, is not in the Windsors’ DNA: they tried it once, in 1936, and did not like it one bit, so ever since they have had every virtue except resignation.

Charles begins as king with a large legacy of public goodwill, bequeathed him by his mother, as well as institutional inertia, which he will have to be careful not to squander. He may feel that it is, at long last, his turn, after all these years. But will he be an old man in a hurry? How otherwise will he make his mark on history? And what if that mark is to bring the whole house tumbling down?


Stephen Bates

The GuardianTramp

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