Why Prince Charles Isn't the Favorite Future King: Inside the Royal's Complex Relationship With His Sons, Queen and Country

It isn't news that many Brits aren't exactly enchanted by the idea of the Prince of Wales becoming king one day, but his mother wouldn't have it any other way

By Natalie Finn Oct 24, 2019 4:00 PMTags
Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Prince Charles InvestitureHulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

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It is no secret that many citizens of the United Kingdom aren't exactly thrilled by the idea of Prince Charles becoming king one day, believing instead—much like disgruntled people all over the world with respect to their leaders—that younger, fresher blood is needed to put some pep in an old institution's step.

Queen Elizabeth II, 93, remains an extremely popular member of the royal family, having been a fixture in the lives of multiple generations and a stalwart, soothing presence in (almost) every instance of national trauma. The people's collective bond with her now 70-year-old son, however, has always been lacking for one reason or another. 

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A survey published in January conducted by Britain's Independent confirmed as much, finding that 46 percent of the public (a sample of 1,500 in this case) thought that Charles should just pass the crown along to his eldest son, Prince William, upon the the queen's death, rather than take the throne himself. Another 29 percent stated that they have no opinion on the matter. (They would probably just prefer that whoever lives in Buckingham Palace pay some taxes.) And in YouGov's end-of-2018 likability poll, only 48 percent had a positive opinion of the Prince of Wales. 

And he's been well aware for some time that he's not everyone's cup of tea.

"I've gone on regardless of the endless criticism and carping and shouting and screaming, because I've always believed in the long term," Charles says in Prince Charles: Inside the Duchy of Cornwall, a new two-part ITV documentary premiering Thursday in the U.K.—referring here to his convictions regarding town planning, sustainable farming and other ecologically minded solutions, though he could just as well be talking about his overall position in the monarchy.

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Though Charles' reputation has certainly improved since the failure of his marriage to Princess Diana (and some even think he may have got a raw deal in the court of public opinion back in the 1990s), has 27 years not been enough time to heal the wounds of the past? Or at least to get 50 percent of the people a little bit on the prince's side?

"How do I make the royal family relevant in the next 20 years' time—you know, it could be 40 years' time, it could be 60 years' time—I have no idea when that's doing to be and I certainly don't lie awake waiting or hoping for it because it sadly means my family have moved on and I don't want that," Prince William said in a BBC documentary in 2016, hitting the nail on the head as to  how weird his and his father's lots in life are.

Not least because Charles and William are sons, fathers and brothers and public figures who forever have to keep an eye on how the rest of his family is being perceived. Information coming out of their corner has been mixed as far as how Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's interviews in the ITV documentary Harry & Meghan: An African Journey were really received.

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"It's fair to say that there is a deep sense of unease in the royal households about the direction this is all headed," royal sources have told E! News about the reaction to the show, in which Harry surprisingly acknowledged that his and William's relationship had its challenges, while Meghan emotionally admitted, reservedly, that she found much of the coverage of her to be unfair.

There also seems to be "a lot of bemusement within the royal family about what exactly Harry and Meghan are trying to achieve, as members of the royal family do not usually speak in such detail about personal matters."

"I never thought that this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair," the Duchess of Sussex said, fighting back tears. "And that's the part that's really hard to reconcile."

Her long line of defenders, Harry included, has evoked the tragic outcome of the media's obsession with Princess Diana when talking about the vitriol directed at Meghan. But Charles is said to be thinking about his late ex-wife in a different way. He's "worrying about Harry in the same way he did Diana," a source told The Sun.

At the same time, the source said, Charles was "absolutely furious," thinking "that this whole kerfuffle has completely undermined the work he is doing, just as it undermined the work Prince William and Kate were doing in Pakistan."

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While everyone would prefer that the queen live forever, it has to be especially strange being Charles, now past the age of retirement but still knowing that a promotion he doesn't technically want but has had to think about for years is coming.

It's a bizarre situation all around, the role of heir being to basically "sit quietly and wait," as William and Prince Harry acknowledged in the 2018 BBC One documentary Prince, Son & Heir—Charles at 70. And Charles can't help but be stretched in two directions—people want to know what sort of king he's planning to be, but simultaneously it's unseemly to go on too much about it.

"The idea somehow that I would go on exactly the same way, if I have to succeed, is complete nonsense because the two situations are completely different," Charles said in the film. "I think it's vital to remember there's only one sovereign at a time, not two, so you can't be the same as the sovereign, if you're the Prince of Wales, the heir."

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He's been the heir apparent since his birth in 1948, so even if you give him till he was 18, he has carried the weight of his future upon his shoulders for some time. It certainly played a role in his decision to marry Diana in 1981, his bachelorhood having extended into his 30s and his parents hoping he would settle down.

Rather tragically, the match that thrilled a kingdom ultimately almost proved to be the entire family's undoing, first when the marriage went terribly wrong and much more so after Diana died and a devastated citizenry were initially appalled by the queen's lack of public response. The stoic monarch addressed the nation in a touchingly heartfelt way five days later, but that week continues to live in infamy and was the subject of Peter Morgan's The Queen, for which Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her portrayal of the resolute royal.

Even though Charles eventually got high marks for fatherhood, the sensitive eldest son of two very busy working parents wanting to make sure that William and Harry felt loved and protected, it still would be years before the great love of his life, Camilla Parker-Bowles, was accepted into the fold. 

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The queen and husband Prince Philip were fully aware that their son had resumed a romance with his former girlfriend while he was still married to Diana, and the queen—having no choice but to think many steps ahead—worried that one day Charles would want to marry Camilla.

As noted by Charles biographer Sally Bledell Smith, Queen Elizabeth II remembered all too well the scandal caused by her uncle, who was briefly King Edward VIII before abdicating his throne to marry twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson, thereby installing Elizabeth's father, Albert, as King George VI. She thought Charles marrying Camilla could potentially throw a wrench into the order of succession, that the people wouldn't stand for him marrying the divorcée he had also had an affair with during his marriage to Diana.

That, combined with the prince's general reticence to rocking the boat, is why Charles and Camilla, now the Duchess of Cornwall, didn't marry until 2005.

Though Camilla has also become somewhat popular over the years (there's a reason she was considered the fetching belle of the ball back when this generation constituted the young royals back in the 1970s and '80s), part of the public's acceptance of her does seem to have to do with the official understanding that she's not planning to take the title of queen (as Diana would have) when Charles becomes king.

In fact, part of Charles and Camilla's wedding announcement read: "It is intended that Mrs. Parker Bowles should use the title HRH the Princess Consort when the Prince of Wales accedes to the throne." 

But people have been known to change their minds in matters of love and nicknames.

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"It has always been the intention of the duchess to be known as the princess consort when Prince Charles becomes King," a Clarence House insider told the Telegraph back in 2007.

Added another source, "The duchess fully intends to be known as the princess consort when the time comes. She is fully supported by the prince in this."

Still, there has never been a princess consort before in the British royal family, the female spouses of male monarchs always choosing to be called queen—and the government may actually have to get involved to sign off on such a thing. (Then-Prime Minister John Major released a strange statement in 1992, after Diana and Charles separated, in which he confirmed the order of succession wouldn't be affected and that there was "no reason why the Princess of Wales should not be crowned Queen in due course." Count him among optimists that Charles and Di would reconcile...?)

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But the ambiguity is why there's still a question mark hanging over Camilla's future role, reports having circulated in more recent years that Charles wanted his wife (of over a decade by then) to be called queen after all.

Sunday Express poll in 2017 found that 67 percent were not on board with making Camilla queen, though Queen Elizabeth II promoted her daughter-in-law to the Privy Council (a sovereign's body of advisors) in 2016.

But the people's opinion will only matter so much in the end. (Perhaps it will matter more to a King William than it would to a King Charles, and that's why the majority of those who aren't apathetic would prefer William—which makes this a rather vicious cycle, doesn't it?)

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Also in 2016, the queen—who above all is reliably pragmatic—signaled that it was appropriate to start publicly paving the way for Charles to succeed her, knowing it was "healthy and important" to discuss it, an insider told Bedell Smith. Though she re-vowed during her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 to continue to serve her people for the duration of her life, now in her 90s it's only fitting that she slow down a bit to conserve her energy. Prince Philip retired from public life in 2017.

The queen had been putting plans in place for at least a decade, though. In 2014 her senior advisor Sir Christopher Geidt, who started working with Charles as well in 2008, received a second knighthood for his "preparation for the transition to a change of reign."

With the queen's seal of approval still meaning a lot, she has hoped that taking steps to visibly signal her confidence in Charles would help him when he inevitably assumes the throne. Last April, following talks at Windsor Castle with leaders of Commonwealth nations from all over the world, Prime Minister Theresa May formally announced that Charles would be the next Head of Commonwealth, further setting him up to reign one day.

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"I am deeply touched and honored by the decision of Commonwealth Heads of State and Government that I should succeed the queen, in due course, as Head of the Commonwealth," Charles said. "Meanwhile, I will continue to support Her Majesty in every possible way, in the service of our unique family of nations."

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While he's been "just" the Prince of Wales, Charles has been busy with his own priorities—conservation, sustainable agriculture, combating climate change, keeping GMOs out of food and other pursuits reflective of his lifelong love of the outdoors and appreciation for the natural world, as well as supporting the arts and education. There are concerns that he has been too political (royals aren't supposed to say who or what they're for, which is why you don't know what the queen, et al., thinks about Brexit) in connection with his various goals, but again, nothing so scandalous has occurred to really shake the succession line. 

"I've tried to make sure whatever I've done has been non-party political," Charles insisted in Prince, Son and Heir—Prince Charles at 70, per Britain's Telegraph.

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"It is entirely because I worry about your grandchildren and everybody else's grandchildren, as well as my own," he told ITV News in 2017 when asked about his outspokenness regarding conservation and the environment.

For those who appreciate Charles' management of the Duchy of Cornwall, they can take heart that William tells tenant farmers in the new ITV show, "I've started to think about how I will inherit the Duchy one day. Well rest assured I'm not going to rock the boat; I'll do much the same as what my father's doing." 

"He's quite lucky because I found myself there at 21," Charles said of his heir apparent. "I had a bit of baptism of fire really," Charles said. William "goes and visits different parts of the Duchy of Cornwall, and so he is learning, I hope, as time goes by."

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"Charles figured out a very long time ago that he was going to be Prince of Wales for a very long time," a well-placed source told Vanity Fair last year. "He planned his life accordingly, and he wouldn't have been able to accomplish half of what he has if he had become king earlier."

In the 2018 film, when asked whether his public campaigning for causes would continue once he was king, the prince dryly replied, "No, it won't. I'm not that stupid. I do realize that it is a separate exercise being sovereign. So of course I understand entirely how that should operate."

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In response to the concern that he might be a "meddling" king, Charles laughed. "I always wonder what meddling is," he said. "I mean I always thought it was motivating, but I've always been intrigued: if its meddling to worry about the inner-cities as I did 40 years ago and what was happening or not happening there, the conditions in which people were living...If that's meddling I'm very proud of it."

"Clearly I won't be able to do the same things I've done, you know, as heir," he continued, "so of course you operate within the constitutional parameters. But it's a different function. I think people have forgotten that the two are very different."

As in, a door can be open one's whole life, but when it closes, it closes, and then you have to open a window.

Also interviewed for the special, Camilla said that she didn't think her husband's unique perch on the rungs of history weighed him down.

"I think his destiny will come, he's always known it's going to come and I don't think it does weigh on his shoulders at all," she said. "It's just something that's going to happen."

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More recently, according to Bedell Smith's 2017 biography Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, the queen has been feeling more confident in the continued health of the monarchy after she's gone thanks to Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton, and her grandchildren.

"That has changed her life," said Lady Elizabeth Anson, the queen's first cousin and chief party planner for 50 years.

Other than going about their lives behaving like people who will one day be king and queen, William and Kate don't appear to be consuming themselves with what the future holds, either, just yet—they have people for that—and at this point the 37-year-old parents of three have no designs on leapfrogging Charles and Camilla.

"All we can do is plan for the desired end state, which is William coming to the throne respected, credible and connected," Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, who was William and Harry's principal private secretary from 2005 until 2013, told Bedell Smith. Of course, "then there will be gorgeous George. People are much more interested in glamorous princes than in glamorous kings."

(Originally published Jan. 8, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT)