Never in British history has a monarch had so long to prepare for the role. Seven decades after he became heir to the throne aged three, King Charles III assumed the title following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, on Thursday.
Nor has a monarch arrived having previously revealed so much of his opinions and emotional life. This pensive man, once demonised after his separation from the late Diana, Princess of Wales, now replaces the longest-serving and arguably most perfectly cast sovereign that the country has ever had.
His reign will test him. It may also test whether the constitutional monarchy is compatible with a less neutral incumbent. Jonathan Dimbleby, Charles’s authorised biographer, once predicted he would “go well beyond what any previous constitutional monarch has ever essayed”.
Charles’s life-long search for relevance may now inform the kind of monarch he will become. His decades as next in line meant he had to define the waiting role. “To be just a presence would be fatal,” he wrote in his diary in 1970, after talking with Richard Nixon at the White House. Restless and haunted by duty, Charles opted to champion causes that included inner-city revival, sustainable agriculture and interfaith understanding.
Far more outspoken than his mother, he justified his interventions partly by claiming to have a more long-term perspective than politicians and businesspeople. In a candid radio message in December 2016, he appeared to criticise Donald Trump, lamenting the rise of “many populist groups across the world that are increasingly aggressive towards those who adhere to a minority faith. All of this has deeply disturbing echoes of the dark days of the 1930s”.
Such frankness has alarmed some close to the monarchy. Charles’s activity levels also raise eyebrows. “He works till midnight ,” said one courtier. “He works too hard, frankly.”
Aged 73, Charles is also the oldest person to assume the throne, surpassing William IV, who became king aged 64 in 1830. His life has tracked the evolution of the monarchy itself. Charles has never been linked to the age of Britain’s global pre-eminence as Elizabeth II was. Although he dislikes modern architecture, he has welcomed a slimmed-down, modern monarchy. This would likely mean that royal duties are performed largely by him, his wife, his children and grandchildren, thereby reducing costs.
Unlike his mother, who barely gave an interview, he has extensively explained many of his ideas — without managing to shed his aloof image. In the most notable outing, a 1994 interview with Dimbleby, he suggested he could rule as Defender of Faith, rather than Defender of the Faith, an inclusive message to other religions. He later clarified that this would not affect his formal title.
“Down the ages, monarchs do things differently,” said one person who has worked with the royal family. “He will make some adjustments while maintaining the central architecture intact.” Charles has named George III, who reigned at the time of American independence yet became a symbol of British renewal, as the monarch he most respects.
Charles’s childhood, together with that of his three siblings, was marked by distant parents. “I like the Prince. I feel sorry for the child he once was,” concluded Catherine Mayer, author of a 2015 biography. The Duke of Edinburgh in particular sought to toughen him up. For years, Charles relied instead on the guidance of his great uncle Lord Mountbatten, who he said “combined grandfather, great uncle, father, brother and friend” until his murder in 1979 by an IRA bomb.
After his private education at Hill House, Cheam and Gordonstoun, Charles’s trajectory was initially determined by a committee that included the prime minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury. It decided he should go to university. He ended up at Trinity College, Cambridge, choosing to study archaeology and anthropology and then history. He had gained admission despite middling A-level grades (a B in history, a C in French). Distracted by royal duties, he graduated with a lower second. The committee had also dictated a spell in the services: Charles served in the RAF and Royal Navy, with pluck if not prowess.
In 1976 Charles set up the Prince’s Trust — partly, as often reported, with £7,400 from his navy severance, but also with the proceeds from royal events and donations from wealthy individuals. The organisation gave grants to young people, gaining momentum in the Thatcher years. It was the start of a sprawling philanthropic network, which grew to include initiatives for businesses to prioritise sustainability.
Charles’s work was soon eclipsed by his personal life. He met the then 16-year-old Diana Spencer in 1977 and the two married at St Paul’s Cathedral four years later. The dream quickly unravelled in private: Diana suffered from bulimia; Charles, 12 years her senior, struggled to help her. After their public estrangement in the early 1990s, the media shone a cold light on Charles and his relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles, a previous girlfriend. “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” Diana said in a BBC interview in 1995. In his own, earlier TV interview, he insisted he had not been unfaithful until the marriage had “irretrievably broken down”.
Neither his mother nor he might ever have taken the throne had it not been for Edward VIII’s decision to abdicate and marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Charles’s own divorce from Diana in 1996 was the end of a national fairytale. It also briefly led to questions over whether he could constitutionally serve as head of the Church of England.
After Diana’s death, Charles’s team at Clarence House found itself fending off calls for the succession to skip a generation. In one poll, two-thirds of people said Charles should not be king if he married Camilla. His advisers worked tirelessly to change his image. He and Camilla officially appeared as a couple from 1999 and married in 2005 in what has offered a less tempestuous relationship.
Despite the PR blitz, Charles has been overshadowed at each stage of his life — by his mother, by Diana and, most recently, by his sons, William and Harry. Those who know him describe a man who enjoys conversation, history and the solace of nature. His musical interests range from Wagner to Leonard Cohen to jazz. A polo player and huntsman, he is not known to enjoy watching mainstream sport. Despite his interest in ecology and social justice, he has acquired a reputation for lavish entertaining and travel.
The media has often poked fun at the prince. His claim that he talked to plants and “they respond” was widely mocked. His array of good causes has baffled some observers, leading them to nickname him Britain’s worrier-in-chief. When a series of Charles’s private notes to ministers — nicknamed the “black spider” memos because of his handwriting — were released under the Freedom of Information Act in 2015, few saw much scandal. Yet rightwingers remain suspicious of his causes, and leftwingers of his authority. As of May, only 15 per cent of Britons said he would do a “very good job” as king, compared to 44 per cent for Prince William.
Faced with criticism, Charles has assumed a slight defensiveness. “Perhaps I should not have been surprised that so many people failed to fathom what I was doing,” he wrote in his 2010 book Harmony. He has argued it would be “criminally negligent” for him to ignore social needs.
At the same time, he has felt vindicated by the importance now paid to climate change and rainforest protection. His interest in the environment dates back to the late 1960s, long before the cause was fashionable. He set up the organic food brand Duchy Originals in 1990 as part of his questioning of modern farming methods.
His views on modern architecture — in 1984, he attacked a proposed extension to the National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle” — led him to foster Poundbury, a new town in Dorset built on part of the Duchy of Cornwall’s estate. Critics have taken aim at its pastiche of styles but Charles has insisted that his instincts chime with the public.
The same could not always be said of his charity dealings. In 2021 the Sunday Times revealed that a Saudi donor to the Prince’s Foundation had been granted an honorary CBE, normally bestowed in recognition of services to the nation.
Amid an investigation into whether an improper deal had been struck, the charity’s chief executive resigned while denying knowledge of any “rogue activity”. The prince was also revealed to have accepted €3mn in cash, in Fortnum & Mason bags and other carriers, from the former prime minister of Qatar between 2011 and 2015. Clarence House insisted the donations, which went to his charities, were properly handled. Yet the margin for error will be smaller now that Charles is sovereign. In a televised address on Friday, he said his charities would “go on in the trusted hands of others”.
Family troubles have also never been far away. Charles distanced himself from his brother, Prince Andrew, after the latter faced questions over his friendship with the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Meanwhile, his son Harry criticised him for his parenting style and for not taking his phone calls after he and his wife Meghan gave up their roles as working royals.
Charles’s aides insisted that he did not cut Harry and Meghan off financially, but paid “a substantial sum” in 2020 to ease their path. Yet the couple’s acrimonious move to the US damaged the monarchy’s global image, and set back Charles’s attempt to position himself as a genial, relaxed grandfather. On Friday he said he wanted to “express my love for Harry and Meghan as they continue to build their lives overseas”.
In an interview with the FT in 2014, Charles said: “If you stick to your guns, sometimes 35 years later, whatever it is, you suddenly find that some of these things are starting to appeal to people.” As king, he cannot hope to achieve the longevity of reign or the adoration that his mother did. But he can take comfort from the fact that he has withstood tragedies and missteps. Such endurance is what the institution demands.