Sunday 22 September 2019

Charles the heir, Charles the heartless, Charles the husband: how Britain's prince regained public favour

Prince Charles, who turns 70 this week, is already the world's longest-serving royal heir and after years of struggle he seems to have regained the public's favour

The Prince and Princess of Wales on holiday in Balmoral in 1981
The Prince and Princess of Wales on holiday in Balmoral in 1981
Prince Charles and Princess Diana pose together during their honeymoon in Balmoral, Scotland, 19th August 1981. (Photo by Serge Lemoine/Getty Images)
Charles and Camilla pictured together during the summer of 2018
Prince Charles On his fourth birthday in 1952
Prince Charles on his 18th birthday in 1966
Prince Charles with Princess Diana in 1986
Prince Charles dotes on grandson Prince Louis, with daughter-in-law Kate Middleton in a still from a BBC documentary, taken by Chris Jackson/Getty
Prince Charles with Diana, William and Harry in 1989
Princess Diana Holding Baby Prince Harry As She And Prince Charles Leave St. Marys Hospital In London. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in the grounds of Buckingham Palace after announcing their engagement in February 1981
Starting at Cambridge University in 1967
The wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul's Cathedral in London, 29th July 1981. The couple leave the cathedral after the ceremony. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Windsurfing in 1978
Trying some breakdancing in 1985
Prince Charles as a baby with his parents in 1940

Emily Hourican

If ever a man was defined by the women in his life, it is Charles, Prince of Wales. His relationships with his mother, his first wife and his second wife have dominated him so completely that it is mainly in response to them that we see him - Charles the heir, Charles the heartless, and finally Charles the husband.

Charles has been his mother's heir, next in line to the throne, since he was three years old, when Queen Elizabeth II began her monarchy in 1952.

Now almost 70 - his birthday is on Wednesday - he is still waiting to begin the job he was born for, well past the age when most people retire. Seen like that, his looks like a lifetime of disappointment - the one formal purpose for which you exist constantly out of reach; a carrot on the end of a string that comes no closer. You wonder at what point did he feel William's hot breath on his neck? Even though there is no constitutional possibility of William superseding him as king, it must have been galling to have the idea so often mooted as a popular move.

As well as eternal heir, Charles has been public villain number one, so cast by Princess Diana's smart manipulation of their marriage breakdown and later, her tragic death. Only in the later stages of his life, as partner and then husband to Camilla and now as a grandfather, has he found some kind of redemption in the public mind, settling into an almost elder statesman role now, in which his occasionally snappish response to the 'bloody' press, or piece of anachronistic foolishness, is viewed as cause for indulgence rather than outrage.

Prince Charles on his 18th birthday in 1966
Prince Charles on his 18th birthday in 1966

On a recent visit to Ireland, where he and Camilla stayed at Ballyvolane House in Cork, instead of tales of 'the pampered prince' - Paul Burrell, Diana's gossipy ex-butler recently claimed that: "His pajamas are pressed every morning, his shoelaces are pressed flat with an iron, the bath plug has to be in a certain position, and the water temperature has to be just tepid", adding that "On one occasion, he rang me from his library and he said, 'Oh Paul, a letter from the Queen seems to have fallen into my wastepaper bin. Would you pick it out?'" - the prince's host, Justin Green, owner of Ballyvolane, said: "It was a huge privilege having them here and it was an incredible few days. They were utterly charming. The Prince of Wales presented us with a bottle of Highgrove Organic Gin and we gave him a bottle of Bertha's Revenge Gin by way of a cultural gin exchange."

Partly, the softening of the public mood towards Charles is undoubtedly down to careful media manipulation by the palace - after all, this man will be king - but partly too it has been his good luck to survive the worst of his own errors of judgment, and live down the more humiliating episodes (tampongate, anyone?).

So whether Charles is the meddling, helpless, leery, hopelessly out-of-touch ditherer portrayed by Harry Enfield in The Windsors - the slow-burn to Haydn Gwynne's portrayal of Camilla as a whip-smart, cold-hearted schemer - or an affable sort whose love of nature and old-school values suddenly puts him on the right side of history, the point is his successful reinvention.

Charles was never his mother's favourite - that, apparently, is Andrew - but he was very close to his grandmother, the Queen Mother, delivering an emotional tribute at her funeral in 2002: "For me, she meant everything and I had dreaded, dreaded this moment… Somehow, I never thought it would come. She seemed gloriously unstoppable and, since I was a child, I adored her."

His relationship with his mother was more distant - the Queen took on her full royal duties when he was just three - and has been characterised as 'prickly' while Charles has described his father, Prince Philip, as 'harsh' and 'hectoring'. Philip himself said that Charles is "a romantic and I'm a pragmatist. That means we do see things differently. And because I don't see things as a romantic would, I'm unfeeling".

Philip was responsible for sending Charles to school at Gordonstoun in Scotland, which he hated, saying it was "a prison sentence… Colditz with kilts". He became a target for bullies in the excessively spartan dormitories where his fellow pupils 'throw slippers all night long or hit me with pillows… last night was hell. Literal hell. I wish I could come home', he wrote when he was about 15.

Prince Charles with Princess Diana in 1986
Prince Charles with Princess Diana in 1986

Charles was always old for his years - he was distinctly middle-aged by 40 - and, despite being astonishingly fit and healthy, has always lacked the kind of macho virility that Prince Harry, for example, has an abundance of.

And yet there was a brief period in his 20s when Charles was pitched as a kind of playboy prince. He was young and free, a desirable bachelor with realistic prospects (despite the longevity of the Windsors, no one expected Charles to be still a prince at the age of 70). He had glamorous girlfriends (see right) a career in the Royal Navy, polo, hunting, a kind of almost-jet-set existence - skiing, Barbados, the South of France. He was dashing - various photos of him stripped to the waist showed him looking toned and buff despite his leanness - and had a sense of humour. In those days, he would have the odd laugh with the usually respectful photographers and reporters who hung around the polo grounds. That was before the press turned nasty. Before Diana.

But, slightly lame jokes aside, the playboy prince was an identity at odds with his rather serious and thoughtful personality - he seems to suffer from an excessive sense of responsibility, like his mother, and, in family terms, has always done most of the heavy-lifting (after the Queen of course) in terms of public appearances and duties.

Marrying Diana was the end of Charles's youth, which would have been fine if he and his new bride had trod that path together. But they didn't. The increasing distance between them never did show Charles in a good light. Where he aged visibly, becoming careworn, almost bowed by the weight of his responsibilities, Diana was eternally young, eternally mischievous and luminous. Motherhood, if anything, made her seem even younger, almost a child herself as she took roller coaster rides and ski trips with her sons. Charles, in contrast, was the less fun parent, the serious one. You knew he was talking to the boys about the constitutional role of the monarchy and, as was recently revealed, making them pick up litter during their school holidays.

And while an unmarried playboy prince can be appealing, a philandering prince can't, certainly not to a moralistic British public, and where the wronged wife is as beautiful, charming and vulnerable as Diana. She played her role so effectively, with such brilliance, that, as long as she lived, there was simply no room for Charles to be anything except a villain. And a dull one at that. As Sandy Henney, former press secretary to Charles, says in the documentary Reinventing The Royals "if you've got a middle-aged balding man and a beautiful princess, it's a no-brainer as to who is going to get the media coverage".

It didn't help that the object of this middle-aged balding man's affections wasn't any kind of competition for the youth and glamour of his wife, but rather a sensible-seeming rather horsey-faced woman of his own age. In fact, that has turned out to be a strength - the sheer depth of Charles and Camilla's commitment to each other, a genuine love affair of a surprisingly romantic kind - has been the real animating principle.

Prince Charles with Diana, William and Harry in 1989
Prince Charles with Diana, William and Harry in 1989

But back when Diana died, aged just 36, in that Paris tunnel, for a while it looked as if Charles's reputation was damaged to the point where he might become the least popular monarch since his namesake Charles I. Luckily, time was on his side. The lengthy period as heir-in-waiting has allowed for redemption.

Gradually, his reputation was restored. Camilla, instead of being perceived as a home-wrecker - an older, more experienced woman manipulating the fragility of a new bride in a kind of creepy, Dangerous Liaisons-type set-up - became the legitimate love of Charles's life, the woman he should always have married.

They first met in the summer of 1971 and were apparently immediately taken with each other. But it was not, then, to be - Camilla Shand had been the on-and-off girlfriend of Andrew Parker Bowles for more than six years and was therefore not royal bride material. She married Parker Bowles, had two children and then divorced, later reuniting with Charles and beginning the affair that would help to destroy his marriage.

Introducing Prince William to her just 10 months after Diana's death was a bad move, and the Queen has apparently never been a fan, but, by playing it low-key but resolute, Charles and Camilla triumphed.

Finally, on April 9, 2005, almost nine years after the dissolution of Charles's marriage to Diana and eight years after her death, he and Camilla were married at Windsor Guildhall. At the time, it was announced that when Charles became king, Camilla would be known as 'princess consort', which is a kind of royal slight the rest of us can only half-understand. But in recent years, so far has public opinion turned, the hot news is that she will become 'queen consort', a more customary title for the wife of a reigning king.

The 'black spider memos' were another low point - a series of memos and letters written by Charles to government ministers and politicians, and so called for Charles's spidery handwriting and choice of black ink. These were an attempt to put pressure on government - and therefore constitute rather improper meddling on the part of the heir to the throne - on topics close to Charles's heart, including genetic modification, planning and architecture.

Prince Charles dotes on grandson Prince Louis, with daughter-in-law Kate Middleton in a still from a BBC documentary, taken by Chris Jackson/Getty
Prince Charles dotes on grandson Prince Louis, with daughter-in-law Kate Middleton in a still from a BBC documentary, taken by Chris Jackson/Getty

However, in comparison with the worst excesses of his siblings, particularly Prince Andrew, Charles began to seem steady and reliable rather than just dull. More recently, his long-standing preoccupation with the environment has gone from being niche, to urgent. Back in the 1970s he was warning about ecological disasters, rainforest and the dangers of plastic. Suddenly, it's a bandwagon everyone is on, and Charles is at the head of a popular movement, rather than on the fringes of dubious or elitist ones.

Asked recently if he felt optimistic about the world as he enters his eighth decade, Charles said frankly: "I would be if we would just stop b*****ing about with the planet. I just worry about the sort of world my grandchildren are going to live in," and later, "I don't really see any value in saying, 'I told you so'."

In contrast to Prince William, who is increasingly petulant and controlling about press interest in his life, Charles has adapted a relaxed, co-operative attitude that is matched by Camilla. In a recent profile, various reporters were quoted as saying, of Camilla, "She's my favourite royal, by a country mile", and "She always gives you a little gleam in her eye and will find a moment to look at our cameras".

Perhaps most telling of all though was the moment when Charles walked Meghan Markle down the aisle at her wedding to Harry, when her own father pulled out, due to ill-health and following a number of dramas, including staged paparazzi photos. In stepping into the breach, and then taking Megan's mother Doria's hand, to escort her to see their children sign the register, Charles caused a social media flutter. To a generation who did not grow up adoring Princess Diana, Charles is a charming, decent, steadfast figure.

And so from being un-crownable, Charles Philip Arthur George has become, at 70, his own man at last. A safe pair of hands. Someone solid and sensible. A worthy successor, when the time comes, to his mother. In fact, right now, it's William we're all worried about…

The ones that got away

As the most eligible bachelor of the age, Charles did a lot of dating, and even some proposing. Among those who might have been queen are:

* Sabrina Guinness

Once dubbed 'The It Girl of her generation', twin sister of Miranda, Sabrina dated Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Michael Douglas as well as Prince Charles, before marrying playwright Tom Stoppard in 2014.

* Lady Davina Sheffield was a serious contender until an ungallant ex-fiance revealed that the two had been lovers - at the time, virginity was still a prerequisite for would-be princesses.

* Actor Susan George (she made Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman, and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry with Peter Fonda) dated Charles in the mid-1970s. The film critic Leslie Halliwell once unfairly described her career as "British leading lady, former child actress; usually typed as sexpot". As well as Charles, she dated George Best and American actor/singer Jack Jones.

* Charles gave Dale Tryon the nickname 'Kanga', which she later used as the name for her fashion label, and described her as "the only woman who ever understood" him. They met while Dale was married to Baron Tryon and rumours of an affair were never substantiated. She died in 1997 after a series of health problems.

* Lady Sarah Spencer - Diana's older sister - dated Charles briefly, once saying that she always called him 'Sir'. Later, of the engagement to Diana, she said "I introduced them. I'm Cupid".

Charles and Camilla pictured together during the summer of 2018
Charles and Camilla pictured together during the summer of 2018

* Asked by reporters about the possibility of marriage to Charles while the couple were dating in the early 1970s, author and historian Jane Wellesley, daughter of the Duke of Wellington, apparently snapped "Do you honestly believe I want to be queen?"

* Amanda Knatchbull's grandfather, Lord Mountbatten (Charles's godfather), was very keen on a match between the two. And indeed, Charles apparently proposed to her in the late 1970s on a yacht in the Caribbean. She said no.

* Anna Wallace, known as 'Whiplash Wallace' for her sharp sense of humour, reportedly was proposed to twice by Charles. Each time she turned him down, then apparently dumped him after he invited her to the Queen Mother's 80th birthday ball, and ignored her all night.

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