Charles in waiting: 63-year-old pays tribute to Queen – and his own destiny?

Queen Elizabeth might be 86 but her heir, the longest serving Prince of Wales, is still nowhere near a vacant throne

Whatever fond imaginings the young Prince Charles retained that his was just another ordinary British family – as newspapers used to assure their readers – must have been unsettled on June 2, 1953 when he watched his mother being crowned in the splendour of Westminster Abbey. He was four and the TV cameras (allowed in after much controversy) caught him tugging frequently at the sleeve of his grandmother, the new Queen Mother, to ask what it all meant.

More difficult to judge is when exactly the growing boy knew enough to be told or, more likely, to grasp for himself the delicate, unmentionable fact that in a family of long-living women, his was sure to be a protracted wait to inherit the throne to which – on the death of his grandfather, George VI, 15 months earlier – he had immediately become heir apparent. Great-granny, Queen Mary, lived to be 85; the Queen Mum would make 101. Queen Victoria had reigned for 63 years and 216 days when she died at 81 in 1901. If she lives, the Queen will overtake her on September 10 2015 when she is 89; she is in robust health.

Her eldest son will deliver a full and personal tribute to her in an hour-long primetime BBC1 documentary on Friday. Over the decades, officials and proverbial friends have assured the curious that Charles is perfectly content to wait, happy with his busy life, his charities and hobbies, his second marriage to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who, the longer Charles has to wait, must have a greater chance of being acceptable as Queen in place of the fairytale Princess Diana.

And yet the anecdotes persist that, whenever the Queen promises to serve her people "for many years to come", there is disquiet across the Mall in Clarence House, even though the A-for-abdication word has been taboo in Buckingham Palace since Edward VIII, the last Prince of Wales, indulgently relinquished his imperial throne after 11 months in December 1936 to marry the twice-divorced Mrs Wallis Simpson.

"You are fortunate enough to have succeeded to the title when still young," Charles is supposed to have told his then brother-in-law, Earl Spencer, in 1992. " I'm at the same age at which my grandfather died," the melancholy prince confided to a well-wisher on his 56th birthday in 2004. Private Eye's recent "Long Live the Queen" cover put it more bluntly. A speech bubble had her eldest son saying "Well, up to a point."

Yet heir apparent is one secure title his mother never held. As a woman, always capable, even in theory, of being superseded by a male heir (still the case until the agreed legal change is passed in 16 Commonwealth countries), the new queen, 25 on her accession in 1952, had always been heir presumptive, not Princess of Wales in her own right. It is the senior title among the many traditionally granted to the English – later British – monarch's heir since the warrior Edward I cynically promised the conquered Welsh a Welsh-born prince who spoke neither English nor French. He meant his infant son, born in his new fortress at Caernarfon.

In due course, the future Edward II, was invested as Prince of Wales in 1301, 13 years before the hapless monarch's armies would be crushed by the Scots at Bannockburn. In 1327, Edward would be deposed and murdered at Berkeley Castle by his wife, Isabella, and her lover, hardly a promising precedent for an English Prince of Wales even without his foppish portrayal in Mel Gibson's Braveheart. The rival Celtic version of the title – Tywysog Cymru – dating back to the 9th century, would finally end with Henry IV's defeat of Shakespeare's Owain Glyndwr in 1409. Scotland's ancient crown would be united with England's – along with a new-fangled union flag – by James VI of Scotland ( James I of England) on the death of the childless Elizabeth Tudor in March 1603.

James's son, Henry Stuart, then aged nine, immediately became Prince of Wales, the 11th since 1301, only six of whom survived long enough to become king. The dashing, much-loved Prince Henry was to prove one of the unlucky ones, dying of suspected typhoid in 1612, 13 years before his father. His title was inherited by his less impressive brother, Charles, the new heir apparent, who died on the scaffold in Whitehall as Charles I at the end of the Civil War in 1649. As such, he became the first monarch in history not simply to be deposed and murdered, but lawfully condemned to death for treason by his own people.

As the first Prince of Wales since Charles II (1660-85) to bear that unfortunate name, Charles Windsor can scarcely be unaware of the ill omens that circle his destiny. It is said he may even choose to be called George VII rather than Charles III when his moment finally comes, if it comes – because a republican upsurge or his own death might intervene in circumstances hard either to predict or rule out.

During Queen Victoria's long withdrawal from public life after the early death in 1861 of her adored Prince Albert at 42 (they seem to have enjoyed what is delicately called a happy marriage), there was such a republican upsurge – far more severe than that which engulfed the Windsors in the "annus horribilis" years surrounding Diana's divorce and death – but the national mood became more positive as the queen's great age and fame culminated in the diamond jubilee of 1897.

Elizabeth II is already older than Victoria was in 1901 and knows how long the royal Wisden requires her to survive to reign longer. Few people are more competitive about longevity than the very old. Most royal biographers report that the Queen was a somewhat distant mother – as she has been a queen, dignified, dutiful, but shy – and that Prince Philip was a stern father who wanted his sensitive eldest son to become "a man's man".

It cannot have been easy for any of them. In 2008, Prince Charles overtook Edward VII (1901-10) as the longest serving Prince of Wales, although not quite the most dissolute, an honour reserved for George III's eldest son, the future prince regent (1811-20) and George IV (1820-30), who had strong competition with his brothers, one of whom sired 10 illegitimate children before becoming William IV (1830-37) at 64. What Buck House calls "the Edward VII problem" long exercised the Queen (Victoria had blamed the first of "Bertie's" sex scandals for his father's death at 42), although she has never offered a job-share to avert idle dissipation. But Prince Charles has dutifully avoided most of his great-great-grandfather's temptations except one: the former Camilla Shand is the great-granddaughter of Edward's last mistress-en-titre, Mrs Alice Keppell. Legend has it that Camilla cheekily first propositioned him on the basis of that ancestral connection.

Prince Charles can claim to be descended from Charlemagne and Alfred the Great, King Canute and William the Conqueror, the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1155 to 1190), Catherine and Peter the Great, and every English king except (curiously) Charles I and his sons, a dynastic cul-de-sac once the Stuarts were exiled in 1688. But Professor Robert Hazell, head of University College London's constitution unit, argues that the most powerful case that republicans could make for abolishing the ancient British monarchy – practical rather than theoretical – is "the serious burdens it places on the royal family".

"The Queen is 86, an age when most people have retired; she's been in the job for 60 years with no prospect of relief until she dies. She won't ease up and she feels her coronation oath was a sacrament, so there is no question of abdication. It is a very heavy burden, for which we will be applauding her this weekend. She's stuck on the treadmill."

Prince Charles? "He's 63, itself an age when most people are starting to contemplate retirement, yet he's not actually started the job he's spent his adult life preparing for. That is burdensome, too. There are other demands we make on them in terms of the human rights we now value. The Queen has no freedom of expression or religious belief: she must be an Anglican in England and become a Presbyterian when she crosses the Scottish border. She has no freedom to travel, which the rest of us take for granted, and royal marriages need approval. It may be gilded, but it's still a cage," concludes Hazell.

Time can hang heavy for what Spike Milligan, Charles's court jester, once called a "trainee king". As a Cambridge history undergraduate, probably sooner, he would learn that the second Prince of Wales – Edward the Black Prince – would pre-decease his father, Edward III, in 1376, and that his son, the third Prince of Wales, would be deposed and murdered as Richard II by his usurping cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, Henry IV, in 1399. Henry V (1413-22), victor of Agincourt, must be rated the greatest warrior Prince of Wales, although the next one, his grandson, Edward, was shaping up well when he was killed at Tewkesbury (1471) in the dynastic War of the Roses.

The next three such princes fared no better – the uncrowned Edward V was murdered with his brother in the Tower of London by their uncle, Richard III (1483-85). Richard's own son, another Edward, Prince of Wales, died aged 10 the following year. Henry VII's heir, named Arthur to honour resurgent English nationalism, lived long enough to marry Catherine of Aragon before dying at 15. His handsome brother Henry – 6ft 2in when he became Henry VIII at 17 – took his title and married his wife, a theological dilemma that would lead to England's break with Rome.

And so the uncertainty goes on. Fourteen out of 21 Princes of Wales have become king, not all eldest sons. James II's Catholic heir became James the Old Pretender (1688-1766) whose hopes of a coronation at Westminster ended with the defeat of the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion by Hanoverian forces. He outlived Frederick Prince of Wales, George II's son, who died in 1751. It was his son who became George III in 1760 – and lost the American colonies. His nine sons and six daughters managed to produce one legitimate heir between them, Princess Charlotte. In the belated race to get one when she died in 1817, the Kents won with Princess Victoria.

Yet Charles, the Eeyore-ish introvert, can take little comfort from the recent history of the House of Windsor (even its name de-Germanised from Saxe-Coburg during the first world war) in the modern world, where monarchs no longer die in battle, of dynastic murder or minor infections. Succession remains a hazardous business. Edward VII's eldest son, Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence (1864-92), never lived to become Prince of Wales, only a Jack the Ripper suspect (untrue). George V was a No 2 son who – like Henry VIII – married his late brother Eddy's fiancee, the steely kleptomaniac and future Queen Mary, who died only in the coronation year of 1953. She, too, saw her second son, the stammering Bertie of The King's Speech fame, reluctantly take over as George VI from his charismatic brother, Edward VIII.

Little wonder that Prince Charles must enter this weekend's celebrations with mixed feelings. He has seen how his first wife, Diana, effortlessly upstaged him. He can now see his son and heir, William, and his middle-class wife, Kate (the first since James II married Anne Hyde), doing the same. As with talk of an abdication, speculation about bypassing Charles when the Queen dies periodically resurfaces – and fades. It won't happen.

Professor Hazell notes that most Britons who support the monarchy – still a majority – prefer it that way, a hereditary monarchy where tradition prevails, not the Dutch bicycling-and-abdicating model. "But in the age of celebrity culture, they also want it both ways: that their monarchs should be interesting and glamorous. It's a lottery."

For Charles it could be worse, but not much worse. When the 72-year reign of Louis XIV of France, Europe's longest, ended in 1715, he had outlived his eldest son, eldest grandson and two great-grandsons, whose little brother, the new Louis XV, was five.

Michael White

The GuardianTramp

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