King Charles III
Just after I finished university I worked in London, teaching Politics and Economics, in a tutorial college in Notting Hill Gate. The school operated in a plush garden square in an affluent and largely residential area; right next door was a separate nursery or pre-prep, Wetherby School, which I think was run along Montessori lines, at least in those days.
One foul morning, the weather not unlike that we’ve had these last few days, I was trudging into school, the hood of my raincoat over my head, stooped and leaning into the wind and rain, and I bumped into someone I’d not seen, coming the other way. I apologised, saying: “Sorry, mate”, and scuttled along to get out of the rain.
As I hurried up the stairs into the building, I became aware of several colleagues standing in the bay window of the reception, looking out onto the street, and giggling at me.
“What?”, I asked.
“Do you know who that was?”, they countered.
“No….. who was it?”
“That was Prince Charles! What did you say to him?”
“I just said “Sorry, mate!”
So that was my encounter with our current monarch, King Charles III, who’d been dropping off one of his children, William or Harry – possibly both – to the nursery nextdoor. Pembridge Square was no more than a fifteen minute walk from Kensington Palace, where Prince Charles lived at the time with his then wife, Diana, Princess of Wales.
It’s hardly the most insightful of encounters, though I am grateful that I wasn’t manhandled by any of his bodyguards, which tells you something, perhaps.
Usually it was a member of their household staff who dropped them off, and we thought nothing of it, though one of the small boys being delivered to the school next door is now next in line to the throne.
By the time of that trivial encounter, Prince Charles, as he then was, had already had decades to think about the role to which he has now at last acceded. At 73, Charles is the oldest person ever to assume the British throne.
But what’s his path been? And what does this, surely a candidate for inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records, for the longest apprenticeship ever served, tell us about the sort of King he might be?
In a number of ways, Charles symbolises a very modern monarchy.
He was the first heir educated away from home, the first to earn a university degree and the first to grow up in the intensifying media glare as respect for royalty seemed to fade.
Now, in the autumn of his life, he has to think more carefully than ever about how he projects his image as a public figure. Even in the last few days we have seen his willingness to do so. The wording of the invitation for people to pay homage to the King as part of the Coronation Service was changed just a few days before the Coronation following criticism. The Archbishop of Canterbury in the end “invited” those who wish to express support for the King, instead of a “call” for people to swear allegiance to him. The change followed criticism of the wording in the order of service from both republicans (those who would wish to abolish hereditary monarchy) and from friends of the King, including Jonathan Dimbleby, who said that the man he knew would hate the idea of people paying homage to him.
He was born Charles Philip Arthur George at Buckingham Palace in November 1948. When his mother acceded to the throne in 1952, the three-year-old prince became the Duke of Cornwall, and next in line to the throne. That was over seven decades ago.
His school years were unhappy, with stories of being bullied at his Scottish boarding school, Gordonstoun – he described it as a ‘prison sentence’.
He then studied history at Trinity College here in Cambridge and in 1970 became the first British royal to earn a university degree.
Thereafter, he spent seven years in uniform, training as a Royal Air Force pilot before joining the Royal Navy, learned to fly helicopters and ended his military career as commander of a minesweeper in 1976.
His personal life has been equally colourful. His relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles began before he went to sea, but he would later marry Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. Prince William, now heir to the throne, was born a year later, followed by his brother, Prince Harry, in 1984.
The public fairytale soon crumbled. Charles admitted to adultery on TV, while Diana drew attention to her husband’s relationship with Camilla, saying: “There were three of us in this marriage.”
It took years for many in the UK to forgive Charles, especially after “the people’s princess” – as she was dubbed – died in a Paris car crash in 1997. But the public mood softened after he married Camilla in 2005 and she became the Duchess of Cornwall.
She helped Charles smile more in public, making him appear approachable, as he cut ribbons, unveiled plaques and waited for the crown.
He has been a ‘doer’ as well as a talker. One of his greatest personal achievements has been creating the Prince’s Trust, a charity to help train young people to find jobs or start businesses.
Architecture has been high on his agenda, antagonizing some within the industry. He famously described an extension to London’s National Gallery in 1984 as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.”
He put his own ideas into practice in Poundbury, an urban extension to the medieval town of Dorchester in southwest England, on 400 acres of land. Critics call it a fantasy throwback; supporters and residents say it is radical and successful.
But it is his passion for environmental issues and organic farming produce, founding the Duchy Originals brand to promote organic food, that have been his main preoccupation.
He has championed sustainability and warned that problems caused by climate change have fuelled wars, terrorism and mass migration.
This vocal advocacy is where the contrast with the late Queen is starkest, and King Charles knows this more than anyone. During his very first address as King — the speech he’d waited his whole life to make — Charles III acknowledged that he will have to give up some of the things that have given him the most satisfaction.
“My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities,” he said, a little more than 24 hours after his mother died, bringing to an end the reign of the only monarch most Britons can remember. “It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply.”
The entire speech was designed to reassure a country in mourning for Queen Elizabeth II that her successor would seek to maintain her style of steady, even-handed leadership. But this line also acknowledges how difficult that could turn out to be.
For, unlike the late Queen, who was famous for not letting her views be known — much less drive the public debate — Charles has spent a lifetime immersing himself in sometimes controversial political or social causes.
The Queen was steadfastly silent on political matters throughout her reign and the content of her weekly audience with successive Prime Ministers from Churchill to Truss remains private by convention. Charles’ habits stand in marked contrast.
The causes he was involved in as prince don’t fit neatly into traditional categories of left or right. He has stood in support of fox hunting and in opposition to “ugly” modern architecture, yet he has also championed organic farming and advocated for action on climate change well before the subject was embraced by the mainstream.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the newly anointed monarch will be whether he will truly be able to leave the passions of his previous life behind.
Just how central his views are to his life — and how much he hoped they would influence the workings of the British government — became apparent with the 2015 publication of what the press called his “black spider memos,” a reference to his scribbled handwriting.
In these notes and letters to government ministers and politicians spanning about a decade and released only after a long legal battle, Charles can be seen advocating for a badger cull, for improved equipment for troops in Iraq, for the wider availability of alternative medicines, for changes to the design of new hospitals, and against the cultivation of genetically modified crops.
Just last year he privately criticised the government’s intention to deport migrants to Rwanda, reportedly calling the policy “appalling”.
As the King adjusts to remaining constitutionally silent on issues about which he has been a passionate advocate for decades, new challenges await.
Countries like Barbados, Jamaica and Australia are laying the groundwork to remove the British Monarch as Head of State. In addition to the crown, Charles has inherited his mother’s position as Head of the Commonwealth, but there have been calls to have that position rotate between its members, rather than resting with the British monarch.
Meanwhile at home, some fear the death of Queen Elizabeth could weaken the ties that bind together the United Kingdom itself: the late Queen enjoyed higher levels of popularity in Scotland than the monarchy, or indeed her son. One Scottish paper recently set out what is at stake, asking on the front page whether he could be “the last king of Scotland.”
Tensions persist inside the royal family, too, underscored by the decision of Harry and his wife, Meghan, to step away from their royal duties and move to the U.S. in 2020.
There’s a generational challenge also. In April 2023, YouGov polling found that less than a third of 18 to 24-year-olds were in favour of the monarchy, compared to 78% of over-65s – so support for the monarchy seems to be very much divided along generational lines – similarly to Brexit, by the way. That could prove an existential threat.
Protests against the monarchy of King Charles III were expressed on Saturday and the criticism of the police’s handling of these protests continues to rage.
But Charles has always soldiered on. He has had a lifetime to prepare, and he would have been aware more than anyone that greater responsibilities lay ahead as his mother gradually passed down more duties in her final months. The coronation service was carefully crafted to highlight his commitment to inclusion, to a more modern, more multicultural Britain, and whilst he may be very different from his mother the late Queen, he appears just as committed as she was to the notion of a life of service.
Perhaps the last word today should go to his wife, now the Queen Consort, Camilla. In 2018, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, at a time when most people are already enjoying retirement, she said of him:
“I think his destiny will come. He’s always known it’s going to come, and I don’t think it does weigh heavily on his shoulders at all.”
That time has finally come for King Charles III. A vast number of challenges, both personal and constitutional, lie ahead, and I for one wish him well.