Pity the Prince of Wales. Not only must he spend his life waiting to become King of England, he isn’t even left in peace to do what he wants in the meantime. When he fell last summer during a polo match, breaking his arm in two places, his manager, Maj. Ronald Ferguson, said never in his 40 years in the sport or in the military had he “seen anyone in such pain.” Critics reacted in predictable fashion: Wasn’t it just like Charles, off playing polo again, always thinking of himself? The windsurfing-parachuting-scuba-diving Action Prince of the ’70s and the oratorical Philosopher Prince of the ’80s has become in the public mind the Selfish Prince of the ’90s. Whatever exquisite pleasures he pursues—be they polo, off-trail skiing or just going home early from a dance without his wife—he stands accused of conduct unbefitting a Man with Royal Responsibilities.
Charles has tried to please. Until he was 32 years old, he lived at home with his parents. Then he found a lovely bride and promptly fulfilled his duty to beget heirs. Now all he can do is try not to go bonkers with boredom waiting for his hardy mum, Queen Elizabeth II, to pass him the scepter. This is an awkward position, since career advancement can come only at the price of personal loss. He has no other choice—it’s not as if there were an executive search firm out there offering him Denmark plus moving expenses.
Elizabeth is ticking away better than Big Ben (which seized up several times this past summer in unusually muggy heat), and Charles could end up like his great-great-grandfather King Edward VII, who held the title of Prince of Wales for almost 60 years before his mother, Queen Victoria, passed away. But in the meantime Charles has been a superior Prince of Wales, maybe the best ever. He has eschewed some preferred hobbies of heirs apparent—falconing, gambling and conspicuous wenching—and contributed eloquently and provocatively to the public discourse on the preservation of architecture, the environment and the language. And what thanks does he get? In his own words, he is “at once accused of having a quaint nostalgia for a picturesque, irrelevant past.” Even his self-deprecating humor isn’t always appreciated.
True enough, he has become a tad eccentric, a little uncertain of whether to adhere to the standards of the Queen Mother or Mother Jones. He awakens to farming programs on the radio. He eats odd vegetable dishes like nettle soup and sells organic bread stone-ground from whole meal grown on his own farm. He believes in homeopathic medicine, frets about disappearing peat bogs and collects antique lavatory seats. “He likes to discuss the meaning of life,” observes one palace regular. Yet all of these activities are at worst harmless, at best valuable, for an extraordinarily wealthy, inordinately spoiled gentleman patiently biding his time.
There had been a fatal flaw in his childhood: He didn’t have one. He was not reared; he was trained. He began life with a nanny who believed in liberal doses of codliver oil. Unlike prior generations of royal children, who were educated by palace tutors, he was sent to boarding schools—notably Gordonstoun, in harsh northeastern Scotland, a boot camp with books. In the ’60s, when the youth of the world were exploding with passion, Charles was attending Trinity College, Cambridge, playing the cello in his tweeds. His mother, the titular head of a diminished British Commonwealth, had precious little time for him. She mostly wanted him to behave, and he did. His outspoken father, Prince Philip, made Charles feel as though he couldn’t live up to the energetic example he had set. Charles became a four-goal polo player, the equivalent of a golfer who shoots in the low 80s; Philip had been a five. No matter how many helicopters Charles piloted or parachute jumps he made, he seemed never to receive the wholehearted approval of his old man.
His upbringing didn’t prepare him to be a regular guy, but it certainly taught him how to be a king. Remember the royal wedding of 1981, when then “Shy Di” stood nervously at the door of St. Paul’s Cathedral and asked, “Is he here?” (Now there are so many weeks of what the Sunday Times calls “avoidable” separations, she probably knows the answer without asking.) In strode Charles, looking regal in the full-dress uniform of a Royal Navy commander, highlighted by the blue sash of a knight of the Order of the Garter. Inspired by a bride who adored him and a realm that wanted to revere him, he rose magnificently to the moment. She is 5’10”, but he seemed to tower over her and the wedding, as though he had elevator heels in his psyche.
And then there is Charles today. At age 41, he has become the Charlie Brown of the Windsors, uncertain whether he is liked. When he and Diana appear together at ceremonial events, he occasionally apologizes, half facetiously, to the people on his side of the receiving line, telling them how sorry he is that they ended up mooring him instead of his radiant wife. Detractors dismiss the contemplative Prince as “a fart in a fog,” and his wife might perhaps think him odd as a £3 note.
Clearly, he and Diana aren’t getting on, which is why people are whispering the D word. No, not decapitation. That worked well enough for Henry VIII, but the times just aren’t right. No, not even divorce. If he tries that, he just might find out that Britain cares more about her than about him. The operable word is dating, the one social activity he actually did quite well, back when he was pursuing all those lusciously named women, like Lucia Santa Cruz, Lucinda Buxton, Lady Jane Wellesley and Anna “Whiplash” Wallace. Reportedly, the bumptious beau is back at it again, looking for companionship in all the wrong palaces. He might be the only man in England unaroused by Diana, but she might be a little uninspiring as a conversationalist. When he wants to discuss modern British architecture or Italian Renaissance painting, she’s probably talking Phil Collins and Tina Turner.
Charles might seem one sorry son of a sovereign, fascinated as he is by other women and solitary experiences, but is that so inappropriate for a monarch-in-waiting? Is he really supposed to stay home on weekends and barbecue bangers? He is complex. So was Prince Hamlet. He is part lionhearted and part coldhearted, part headstrong and part wrongheaded, part noble and part nonsense. Have kings ever been anything else? Should Charles attain the throne before he is too dotty to tell a chambermaid from a chamber pot, he should be able to master the job.
Many Brits harbor doubts about this. They see a new-age guy living in an old-age monarchy, and it worries them. England has a class system, every man in his place, and Charles is too unpredictable. But there’s nothing wrong with him that meaningful employment wouldn’t fix. A few hundred years ago, he might have paid off the palace guards, stormed Buckingham Palace and arranged for his mother to take up involuntary residence in Scotland, but that sort of behavior is no longer fashionable. He’s royal and he’s ready, but he remains infantilized, a middle-aged prince, a prisoner of privilege.
Charles could blossom as King. Success can iron out the wrinkles of insecurity. If all he can do now is joust against skyscrapers—the windmills of the 20th century—it only shows that his spirit remains bold. If he insists on playing dangerous sports, it indicates he still has something to prove. As a child he was taught to stand motionless for long periods of time, a form of training for ceremonial occasions, but nobody can be expected to stand still all his life. One day Charles will hear the words that he has been awaiting, and possibly dreading: “God Save the King.” The King will be fine. Until then, God save the man.