Prince Charles at 50
Prince Charles has often given the impression that he was born old. Now, aged
50 this 14 November, with real senior citizenship not that far away, Charles
should take to it easily, wearing his maturity like an old familiar coat ,a
bit buffeted by time, but fitting perfectly nonetheless.
It was obvious that a premature aging process was already under way as the
serious-faced little boy grew into the gawky, diffident youth and became the
young man who, despite the sporty Action Man image cultivated by the press,
often resembled a misplaced professor in swimming trunks.The ivory tower
rather than the royal palace seemed to be Charles' natural habitat, and one which
was the antithesis of the dash and daring expected of a young man with
splendid prospects, like the heir to the world's most prestigious throne.
Charles was too deep a thinker to be truly young and carefree, too troubled
by the problems of the world, and too fond of the solitude which later led him
to bury himself far from civilisation in a Scots croft where he could pretend,
for a while, to be an ordinary countryman.
Charles' basic trouble when younger and unattached was that he never gave
the press the princely persona they preferred. The media wanted a harum-
scarum type revelling in the high life, and squiring glamorous women he could
never marry since the dignity of his royal blood prevented it. The suspicion
that Charles might , just might, step over the line has long made this
scenario good speculative newspaper copy.
This, though, was not Charles' template. The sensation-seeking elements of
the press knew it, and made him suffer for it., frequently flaying him for
being 'too serious' and thinking more about organic farming, the environment,
architecture, painting, music, mystic religions or any of his other interests
than the latest bit of skirt that might come his way. However, happily, as
Charles is already discovering, turning 50 opens up a haven from this kind of
harassment. It is all right for a man of that age to be serious-minded and
concern himself with more weighty matters. Intellectually, Charles has at long
last come home.
Even so, the path he trod to reach this oasis was far from easy. The way
there was strewn with obstacles, doubts and pressures. Press pursuit was only
the worst of them. The public, too, had its expectations and often acted like
a ventriloquist manipulating the works to make the puppet say what they
wanted to hear. They were listening out for a dashing "prince charming",
someone who could exude glamour in public while being both a "man's man" and
attractive to women and a thrusting leader type as well. The last was
particularly important to Charles' father, Prince Philip and it was not
surprising that he tried hard to make his son son and heir much like himself.
However, efforts to toughen the diffident, inward-looking Charles by sending
him to punishing schools like Gordonstoun in Scotland simply sent him further
back into his shell. Only recently has it been revealed that Charles looked on
term-time was torture , and Gordonstoun a place of terror which tried to wring
his natural character out of him. It did not succeed. Charles emerged much the
same thoughtful, emotional, self-doubting character he was when he went in.
It is significant that the three periods in Charles' life after Gordonstoun
when he seemed most at peace with himself were those which put him at a
certain distance, and enabled him to play roles prearranged by longstanding
tradition, rather than being forced to plough the furrow prepared for him by
press, public and paternal demand.
First, there was university, where Charles spent three years in the academic
environment which was so much to his taste, and still is. University enabled
Charles to be himself - the earnest student seeking knowledge in a calm,
semi-monastic atmosphere. The years Charles spent in the Royal Navy were,
likewise, much more in tune with his own instincts. There was the discipline,
the routine, the camaraderie, the excitement of new technology, and all of it
sited where neither press nor public could look over his shoulder and have
their uninvited say about what he should or should not doing. The public's
right to nose intruded rather more on Charles' sporting activities and his
attachment to the somewhat dangerous polo brought charges that a man in his
position was irresponsibly risking his neck. Nevertheless, both this and the
other sports in which Charles indulged, such as wind-surfing. yachting,
mountain walking or skiing lived by set rules of skill and safety which
Charles had to follow along with everyone else. Joining in a ready- made or
team activity where all men have to be equal is probably the nearest a prince
can get to ordinary, everyday conditions.
The opportunities, however, were relatively few, and it was in the
freelancing aspects of his life that Charles met his greatest stumbling
blocks.He chose to criticise the latest style in architecture and was slapped
down for undue interference by an outraged profession. He commented on the
problems of poverty and homelessness and riled politicians who thought he was
entering the political arena forbidden to royals. He interested himself in
mystic religions and was accused of renaging on his future role as Supreme
Head of the Church of England.
The most powerful intrusions, however, concerned his private life. Any girl
glimpsed in his company or even in the same group as Charles was ripe for the
media's "She's the one" speculations, which gave precious little chance to any
relationship which might have developed if left to flower in its own good
What was rarely, if ever taken into account was the great difficulty
Protestant British princes, and especially the heir to the throne, encounter
in locating suitable brides. The rules of royal marriage in Britain constitute
a veritable straitjacket. The prime requirement is that no British royal can
marry or be a Catholic and this is precisely what the great majority of royal
princesses were in Charles' eligible bachelor days . This was doubtless a
major reason why Charles declared quite early on that he wanted to marry
"someone British" who was more likely to know the royal ropes.. This was also
why Charles' own bride-hunting took place more or less exclusively on home
ground, but even this proved stony going for quite a time.
It is likely that Charles, being Charles, was after an ideal - someone who
could share his interests, yet also be self-sufficient and tolerant of his
absences while he was attending to his own considerable duties, and carry out
her own royal public life while he was at it. The press, however, was too
impatient to wait for the formula to be fulfilled and the game of pick a
princess became virtually a national sport. Had Charles been the sort of man
who could flit from girlfriend to girlfriend without a thought, persistent
speculation, however irksome it might be, would not have seriously bothered
him. The trouble was, once again, that he was not made in the regulation
mould. His impressionable, emotional nature meant that he fell in love all too
easily. Diana's elder sister, now Lady Sarah McCorquedale, said as much in the
days when he was going out with her and she was being touted as the latest
prospect for Princess of Wales.
In this context, Charles risked disappointment over and over again. When he
fell for Lady Davina Sheffield, for instance, he suffered the heartbreak of
having to give her up when an ex-boyfriend came out of the woodwork and
revealed that they had lived together. Camilla, too, fell foul of royal
requirements not long after she first met Charles in 1973. Though he loved her
then as he still does now, and knew from the start that Camilla was the woman
who could satisfy him as a man, he was forced to recognise an important flaw.
Camilla was not sufficiently pure, decorous or pliant enough to be a royal
wife and a future Queen Consort of England. Charles never solved the puzzle,
except eventually, by flouting public opinion and being grilled for taking
Camilla as his mistress. While the press lathered the public into a froth of
expectation over one or other of the royal dates, the real situation in which
he found himself - eligible, but only to a few and most of them out of reach -
brought out all Charles' tendency to agonise and dither.
The time for agonising was, however, finite. By 1980, when Charles turned
32, his family was starting to worry and, more importantly, his father was
becoming impatient. And when the peppery Prince Philip became impatient,
sparks flew. It would not be entirely true to say that 19-year old Lady Diana
Spencer was simply the girl who happened to be around Charles at the right
time, but her appearance in his life did coincide with one of Philip's
campaigns to get his son to "bloody well make up his mind".
Charles made up his mind, or it was made up for him, and what happened next,
the world knows only too well. However, what the world has not be told in
anything like the same detail is how painfully Charles was affected by the
failure of his marriage and the beating he took from a temperamental,
demanding and ultimately vengeful young wife. Charles, however, was simply
not up to the difficult task of taming the rampant Diana. He was too sensitive
a man to be openly aggressive, and too kind a man to deliberately hurt others.
He was, besides, taken aback by Diana's behaviour, having been brought up in a
family reared on discipline, duty and the all-concealing and unruffled public
Charles' shortcomings in the marital battle of wills meant that Diana's
insecurities, the result of a broken home and her parents' savagely-fought
divorce, were permitted to run riot. Her craving for love which led her to hog
public attention and upstage her husband over and over again, went
unanswered. In fact, Charles relinquished centre stage and even apologised to
the eager crowds when they got him instead of Diana on royal walkabouts.
Confronted, as he saw it, with a problem he was helpless to solve, Charles
looked on Camilla as a haven to which he regularly fled. This is one very
cogent reason why he adamantly refused to give her up, no matter how much
public flak was aimed at him. Another escape route led to Scotland and the
beauty and calm of Balmoral, which Charles knew Diana hated. And more than
once, he remained behind at Highgrove House, the Wales' country home in
Gloucestershire, long after Diana had returned to London.
Naturally, whichever course Charles chose - flight or concealment - was not
going to solve the problem. If anything, the problem was exacerbated as press
and public weighed on Diana's side and putting the prince in the pillory
became a national - and international - pastime. Charles found himself
denigrated as a man, a father, a prince, a royal and above all as the heir to
a throne which, popular opinion at one time concluded, he was not worthy to
inherit. Just how deeply Charles was hurt by all this has never been fully
revealed, and quite probably never will be. But the hurt was still there
behind Charles' impeccable public mask. Every line said so in the grey face he
sported during the years he spent in Diana's orbit.
Their divorce in 1996 relieved some of the pressure, but Diana's untimely
death only a year later seemed set to put Charles back on the rack. Doubtless
to his relief, this has not happened. Once the worst of the shock and grief
the British public, wakening from the trance the Diana story had for so long
exerted over them, started to shift back towards a better appreciation of
their next reigning monarch.
It is unlikely that dyed-in-the-wool Diana supporters will ever forgive him,
but Charles' ratings in the polls have markedly improved and his reputation as
a king worthy of his future throne has been restored.Even Camilla has gained
modest acceptance in these more reasonable post-Diana days.
The British public has also come to realise what they should never have
forgotten, that glamour, showbiz pizzazz and a ritzy lifestyle are not what
the British monarchy is about. One of the most cogent arguments made by
Diana's critics was that she took royalty much too far into these trivial and
impermanent realms. The fact that Charles typified the fuddy-duddy, boring old
ways of the royal past greatly told against him in the Diana years. Now the
heady Diana days are gone and the Fergie scandals are over, the public mood
seems to be settling back into what it was before these two disastrous
wives diverted the royal train: the Royal Family as dignified, dutiful, a bit
dull, not the least fashionable, but solid and dependable.
Charles can only benefit from this new perspective. It allows him to be shown
for what he always was: a loving and attentive father, an intelligent king-
in-waiting who knows his exalted but limited place in the constitutional
scheme of things and a man whose sensitive, responsive nature means he will
always have the good of his future subjects sincerely at heart.