Charles in Charge

When Prince Charles walked beside his two sons, his father and his former brother-in-law behind Princess Diana’s cortege, savvy observers in London and around the world noticed something extraordinary. The future King of England, 48, usually a pillar of protocol, had parted with tradition by wearing a blue Savile Row suit to the funeral. It was neither a symbol of disrespect nor a fickle fashion statement. Rather, says royal author Brian Hoey, “It was Diana’s favorite, blue suit, and she helped him choose it. She preferred him in blue [rather] than in black or gray. It was a lovely, silent compliment to her.”

Finally, perhaps, Charles may be showing his true colors. Already his comportment in the aftermath of Diana’s death—tearfully receiving the coffin in France, tenderly consoling his sons, distraughtly walking alone in the misty Scottish highlands outside Balmoral—has helped soften his image as the poster boy for royal stoicism. “The public cannot have had anything but sympathy when they saw Charles crying, arriving home with the coffin,” says Peter Archer, royal correspondent. “Charles is a melancholy man, and this tragedy will have affected him more than most people.”

Indeed, while every detail of Diana’s life, down to who colored her hair, was devoured by fans, Charles in many ways has remained an enigma. Routinely derided as both parent and public figure, he has never quite managed to capture the public’s heart. After Harry was born in 1984, he reportedly rushed from the hospital to play in a polo match. And when 8-year-old William suffered a depressed fracture of the skull in 1991 after being accidentally struck by a golf club, Charles left the hospital to attend a performance of Puccini’s Tosca as part of a royal engagement. A frantic and distressed Diana waited in a room nearby while her son underwent exploratory surgery for 75 minutes.

So much of Charles’s behavior, however, is a matter of upbringing and thankless experience. Just weeks after entering the world as heir to the throne in 1948, he was left in the care of nannies while his parents, the future Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, performed their endless royal duties. His father, a boorish military man with a mean streak, regularly brought his son to tears during family meals by ridiculing him “so that [Charles] seemed foolish and tongue-tied,” according to The Prince of Wales, Jonathan Dimbleby’s authorized biography of Charles. The queen did little to compensate. “There’s a famous old photo,” says royal author Anthony Holden, “of the queen arriving home on a train after a coronation tour and greeting her mother and sister [Princess Margaret] with a kiss, then greeting Charles, who was about 4 years old, with a handshake and straightening his collar. That tells the whole story.”

If home was chilly, school was worse. Tales abound of a young Charles being tormented at the spartan Gordonstoun boarding school in Scotland, where he was sent at the age of 13. There, he was “mocked relentlessly about his ears, which were larger than average and somewhat protruding,” writes Dimbleby. “It is hard to exaggerate the anguish which this minor irregularity caused him.” In a letter to his parents in 1964, he said, “It’s such hell here, especially at night. I don’t get any sleep practically at all nowadays. The people in my dormitory are foul. They throw slippers…or rush across the room and hit me as hard as they can. Last night was hell. Literal hell.”

With typical royal resolve, Charles endured the hazing. In 1971, a year after graduating from Trinity College in Cambridge, the prince enlisted in the Royal Navy, where he served for five years flying helicopters and serving on frigates. Already, at a polo match in the early ’70s, he had met Camilla Shand, whose great-grandmother Alice Keppel had had an affair with Charles’s great-great-grandfather Edward VII, the eldest son of Queen Victoria. Though they hit it off immediately, Camilla, reportedly having no interest in marrying Charles and becoming a public figure herself, wed cavalry officer Andrew Parker Bowles in 1973. Still, they remained close, even during Charles’s courtship of Diana in 1981.

But as the world celebrated that fairy-tale marriage, the seeds of its failure should have been apparent. Royal watchers maintain Prince Philip had urged his son to marry a quiet girl and produce an heir. Charles, though less cynical, certainly married a girl—and, at 20, 12 years his junior, that’s what she was—for whom he was ill-suited. On their honeymoon in the Mediterranean, Charles brought along a stack of books by South African philosopher Sir Laurens van der Post to discuss over dinner. Soon, Diana was heading off to Duran Duran concerts and scampering around London with her girlfriends, while the prince was lamenting his unhappy union. In an excerpt from his diaries of 1986 and ’87, as reported in the Dimbleby book, he wrote, “How awful incompatibility is…I never thought it would end up like this. How could I have got it all so wrong?”

Things would only get worse. As the marriage dissolved and Diana successfully courted public sympathy, Charles clumsily attempted to tell his side of the story. Though he reserved comment, when, in 1993, an incriminating taped phone conversation between him and Camilla was leaked to the press, he admitted in a televised interview the following year that he had committed adultery.

Now, sadly, the bickering between the Prince and Princess of Wales seems almost a pathetic footnote in the chronicle of a doomed misalliance, and the burden is on Charles to reclaim his lost dignity. It seems unlikely now that, without deeply offending public opinion, he could marry Camilla in the foreseeable future, and though his life will continue largely unchanged, the prince must, say friends, let the public see the man they know and admire. His work on such charities as the Prince’s Trust, which since 1976 has helped more than 50,000 disadvantaged youths in Great Britain, is extensive, as is his commitment to preserving British gardens and traditional architecture. “I think people have focused in on the personal side of [Charles’s] life through a magnifying glass,” says friend and fellow polo enthusiast Peter Brant, a New York businessman. “You really feel by being with him the love he has for his country.”

That, despite his faults, is something no one can question. Royal insiders say that Charles will do whatever is necessary to ensure his family’s continued reign. “Diana’s death will have many consequences,” says Archer. “One will be that the royals will have to be responsive to the public. And it’s a change he’ll embrace. The Windsors are constantly reinventing themselves.” For the moment, at least, the prince’s role as Britain’s next sovereign seems secure. “Absolutely, he will be king if he outlives his mother,” says Hoey. “There’s no question of William bypassing him. William wouldn’t want it, the Queen wouldn’t want it, and I don’t think the country would want it. It’s his destiny.”



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