Charles in Charge

Britain’s new sovereign may yet learn, at a rather advanced age, how to comport himself.

Photo: Yui Mok - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Photo: Yui Mok - WPA Pool/Getty Images

History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme. When Queen Victoria died on January 22, 1901, aged 81, her death marked the end of a century, and, of course, of an era to which she’d given her name. At Osborne on the Isle of Wight, her family had gathered. One was uninvited and unwanted: her grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II, the bombastic German emperor. Another was the queen’s eldest son, and uncle to the kaiser, the Prince of Wales (he and his nephew greatly disliked one another). Despite her seeming not to recognize her son, with whom her relations had often been strained, Victoria’s last audible word was “Bertie,” as Prince Edward was known in the family.

This year came the rhyme. Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II had been visibly frail for some time. On September 8, while the public was told no more than that her doctors were “concerned” about her health, her family were clearly informed that she might be near the end. Her children and grandchildren hastened to Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands, which she loved as much as Victoria had done. All but two arrived after she died, but the two with her when she departed were the 72-year-old Princess Anne, Princess Royal, and Charles, the Prince of Wales, who will be 74 in November and is now King Charles III.

If the death of a 96-year-old woman is a sorrow rather than a tragedy, few British people — or people anywhere — were alive when she came to the throne in 1952, and even though we all knew it must come before long, her death has had a numbing effect. After the queen had been part of our lives for so long, she leaves a void — and we aren’t quite sure about the man who now steps into it.

For some time past, as the queen’s health declined and she missed public engagements, I’ve been haunted by the words, “To speak in rude and general terms, the Queen is invisible and the Prince of Wales is not respected.” That was W.E. Gladstone, the prime minister, in 1870, but it has had an ominously topical resonance more recently. I have more than once written that Charles should renounce the throne in advance and allow his elder son, Prince William Duke of Cambridge, to inherit the throne directly, a man of 40 rather than his father, who is now at the age when most men think of retirement rather than a big new job. Polls not long ago showed that 42 percent of British people agreed with me, more than those who wanted Charles to be king.

Poor Charles did want it so badly, and waited for so long. Not only did the Queen’s 70-year reign break almost all records, in this and every other country (she surpassed the 67 years on the throne of the Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria-Hungary, and almost reached Louis XIV’s 72 years, a misleading figure anyway as he inherited the French throne at age 4), but Charles has also broken every possible record for time as heir to the throne. As the years have passed, he has been more and more fretful, longing to inherit while failing to convince us that he will occupy it with as much grace as his mother. All evidence, from polling to everyday conversation, showed that the queen really did inspire deep, popular affection and that Charles does not.

His role all those years hasn’t been easy. English history is littered with dubious Princes of Wales, whose relationship with their parents were difficult. In the 1750s, there was even a Prince of Wales’s Party, an opposition faction grouped around Frederick, the eldest son of King George II. As it happened, he predeceased his father, who was succeeded by his grandson as King George III, remembered by history as the king who lost the American colonies. The next Prince of Wales was “Prinnie,” the dissipated, lecherous spendthrift who became King George IV (and who was the last monarch with really good taste in paintings and literature: He greatly admired Jane Austen, who dedicated Emma to him).

Queen Victoria’s eldest son was another pleasure-seeking idler who dismayed his puritanical parents. The genially malicious diarist Charles Greville heard enough to suggest that “the hereditary and unfailing antipathy of our Sovereigns to their Heir Apparent seems … early to be taking root.” That was true, too, of King George V and his eldest son, who was Prince of Wales for more than quarter of a century, and then justified paternal apprehensions when he inherited the throne in 1936 and abdicated before the year was out to marry the flighty American divorcée Wallis Simpson, subsequently going off to frolic with Nazi leaders.

Nothing our new king has done has been as reprehensible as that. Some of the derision heaped on Charles over the years has been spiteful and undeserved, since no one can possibly say that he’s a nasty man. People who know him at all well, from his fishing companions to his former girlfriends, often speak fondly of him. But he’s a crank, he has shown very bad judgment on occasion, and he’s famously sorry for himself, believing that he was hard done by his father, Prince Philip.

Too much about him — some obvious enough to the public, some less so — has caused concern about what kind of monarch he would make. Over the years, some of us have garnered snippets about the private man. He has been heard to say that “Shakespeare surely made many voyages when young. It is clear that he travelled in the East, and absorbed the wisdom of the Sufi.”

Our new king’s eccentric views were aired in his handsome but widely unread book, Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, and in a letter he wrote to supporters of an architectural foundation he heads. It read in part that “there is a DIVINE Source which is ultimate TRUTH … that Truth was understood, explained and interpreted by the wisest of those who have passed through this world before us … this Truth can be expressed by means of numbers … if followed correctly, these principles can be expressed with infinite variety to produce Beauty … its manifestation is a reflection of the order of the Cosmos.” This is the sort of chap you shy away from in the pub, before he goes on to explain that the meaning of life can be understood in terms of the dimensions of the Great Pyramid.

He has picked public fights in an ill-chosen way and forgot the reason for part of his mother’s success: She never in her 70-year reign expressed in public any view except that of Her Majesty’s Government, her prime minister and Cabinet, chosen by the electorate. The best verdict of Charles’s habit of putting his oar in — as well as his foot — came some years ago from James Lees-Milne, the conservationist and brilliant diarist, a man devoted to the monarchy. He knew and liked the Prince of Wales — “a sweet man. Heart bang in the right place” — but added with brutal candor, “Not very clever in spite of praiseworthy intentions. Lays himself open to criticism because he contends with intellectuals and specialists in fields of which he can inevitably have only superficial knowledge.”

Charles has too often badgered Cabinet ministers with letters written in his spidery hand. Over and again he has bestowed on us his views, and too often, as the late president of France Jacques Chirac might have said, missed excellent opportunities to keep his mouth shut. To say that doesn’t mean he’s always wrong. He was dismayed watching Hong Kong taken over by communist China, whose leaders he called “appalling waxworks.” He’s often appalled: He has been heard lately calling the Tory government’s decision to send asylum seekers to Rwanda “appalling.” I quite agreed, but then I wasn’t heir to the throne. And bad as any government might be, it does have a democratic mandate, unlike a hereditary monarch.

Charles’s bad judgement was seen again recently when we learned that he had accepted a huge sum from a Qatari sheikh as a donation (not for himself — he doesn’t need the money — but to one of his causes) in a sack of €500 bills. There have also been suggestions that members of his staff have come close to peddling honors, including knighthoods.

Before that, of course, were his all-too-public marital difficulties. The unfortunate coincidence of the queen’s Platinum Jubilee coinciding with the 25th anniversary of Diana’s lamentable death didn’t help Charles. Not that he helped himself. About 30 years ago, someone I know was taken as a guest for weekend house party at Sandringham, the royal shooting estate in Norfolk. At dinner on the first evening, she sat next to Charles, whom she had never met before but who spilled out his woes: No one understood him or what it was like to be married to that ghastly woman Diana. That was bad enough in private, but the excruciating television interviews both Charles and Diana (in that order) gave to talk about their failed marriage illustrated what W.H. Auden said: The trouble with nowadays is that people have forgotten the difference between their friends and strangers.

All those are the strikes against our new king. There is also a case for him, and for the dynasty to which he belongs. Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, the new king’s daughter-in-law, has made accusations of racist language and conduct against her husband’s family that would be extremely damaging if they were true, which I for one don’t believe they are. So far from being more racist than the larger British population, the royals have long been less so. Serge Schmemann in the New York Times has rightly said that the queen was “ahead of her time in championing equality and diversity in the Commonwealth.” He might have added that the queen privately reminded her ministers to take a stern line against apartheid South Africa.

And that was a family tradition. Queen Victoria was dismayed by the un-Christian ferocity with which the Indian Mutiny or Rebellion was suppressed. Her son may have sympathized. In 1875, the Prince of Wales visited India. He was angered by the racial contempt shown by too many Englishmen in the Raj, and said, “Because a man has black face and a different religion from our own, there is no reason why he should be treated as a brute.” As King Edward VII, he visited Russia in 1908 and reproached his nephew Tsar Nicholas II about the savage pogroms against the Jews.

Much more recently, in a little-known story, Prince Charles realized that the Household Brigade — Grenadier Guards, Royal Horse Guards, and whatnot — were exercising a discreet color bar. Black men who wanted to join the Guards were told they might be happier with another regiment and sent on their way. He put a stop to that, one episode of plenty that reflect his disapproval of racism, shown in deed and word.

Some of the shriller voices in our right-wing press would like to be royalist but are particularly hysterical about what they call “climate alarmists,” or people who are properly concerned with global warming. Charles has long been one of the foremost of those, and his broader concern for the environment does him credit.

So we must hope for the best. King Charles III’s first broadcast to the nation was affecting if a little over the top — “Darling Mama, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” — and he may yet learn, at a rather advanced age, how to comport himself.

When King George VI died in February 1952, the prime minister was the now elderly Winston Churchill. He spoke to the nation, commonwealth, and empire, ending with the words, “And so I, whose youth was passed in the august, unchallenged, and tranquil glories of the Victorian Era, may well feel a thrill in invoking, once more, the prayer and the Anthem ‘God Save the Queen!’” The Elizabethan Era hasn’t been entirely august or tranquil, but let us for the moment say once more, “God Save the King!”

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Charles in Charge