FFew of us remember a world without the Queen or, until recently, imagined one. For seven decades the UK and most other Commonwealth realms treated questions about ditching the monarchy or what to expect from her successor more as thought experiments than urgent business. Her eldest son, by contrast, has long wrestled with both propositions, recognizing in his mother’s unmatched popularity a phenomenon that simultaneously secures his path to the throne and complicates his singular destiny. Born to preserve the crown and pass it on, Prince Charles at times doubts he will achieve either of these things.
He is, as a result and by nature, anxious, seeing existential threats behind every arras. Excitable aides can encourage this tendency. In 2015, I published a biography examining his strange existence; his character, by turns engaging and peevish; and the startling beliefs that have driven his lifelong interventionism and reckless fundraising for the charities he felt compelled to found. Spooked by press coverage of some of the book’s revelations, unnamed palace sources went on the attack, issuing false denials about the unusually generous access to Charles, his friends and staff that underpinned my research.
This misjudgment – nobody in Clarence House had yet read the book and the reaction publicized it more effectively than ever I could – is minor but telling. The royal family inhabits a parallel universe, reliant on aides and allies to explain us to them and them to us. The arrangement has kept most members shielded from close scrutiny, but also detached from reality and protected as much by public lack of interest as active support. Courts are accidents waiting to happen, medieval structures only partially adapted for the modern age and headed by people who have never, in the ordinary sense, held a job. The penalty of missteps was lower in a less communicative age and before a recent wrenching run of disasters plunged wider swaths of the population into precarity. The public eye is grown more unforgiving, its gaze, like its judgments, more relentless. Even so, if the Windsors wish to see the biggest dangers to the survival of the monarchy, they only need to look in the mirror.
The past years – the Meghan-and-Harry years, the Andrew-and-Jeffrey-Epstein years, the cash-for-honors-and-access years, the fragmenting-and-fracturing-of-family years – have hit the institution like a wrecking ball. Consider the trio of threats Charles’s advisers regarded, until this spate of self-inflicted injuries, as a “nightmare scenario” for the successful start of his reign. They gnawed their knuckles at the possibility that the Commonwealth of Nations might choose someone other than him as the organization’s next leader. They worried that failure to agree his second wife’s future title ahead of his accession – Princess or Queen Consort – would raise the ghost of his first wife. They feared that a restive Caribbean kingdom might seize the moment of transition to become a republic.
How petty those first two concerns, both swiftly resolved, now seem – and how sorely those royal aides underestimated the third. Barbados did not bother to wait for a new sovereign, breaking with the crown last year. Six of the remaining Caribbean realms have already signaled a desire to follow suit. The painful progress of the Cambridges, William and Kate, across the region in March prompted dismay in the royal palaces, but too little understanding to change the jarring choreography of a similar expedition by the Wessexes – Prince Edward and wife Sophie – the following month. Protesters at every stage pointed to the ways in which the royals are beneficiaries in economic and social terms of empire and inequality, enslavement and exploitation. None of the palace officials involved in planning either trip seemed to have grasped how this heritage twines with Windrush and other fresher narratives of injustice, whether of Black lives extinguished by the police supposed to protect them or of a woman of color crushed and cold-shouldered by the institution in whose service her in-laws traveled.
Meghan, like Diana, has not gone quietly, but the remaining royals appear not to comprehend the scale of the fallout from the Sussexes’ departure, instead still squabbling over memories that do indeed differ. In writing a substantial new section of my biography of Charles, it seemed important to unpick the claims and counterclaims of this conflict, but not at the expense of the bigger picture. Whoever truth you come to believe, the damage, personal and institutional, is profound.
People who know Harry report that the breach with his family has floored him, and he is not the only one hurting. His brother, William, is wound tight, says one of these sources, his distress expressing itself, as it has done since the loss of his mother, as fury. Another source speaks of Charles’s “deep, deep pain”.
Before the Netflix series The Crown turned earlier royal ructions into drama, many people already mistook the Windsors for reality TV stars, tabloid fodder, but not much more. Yet although it unfurls in palaces, theirs is a human story, and monarchy matters whether or not you think it should, wielding far more power and influence than is widely understood. Its members are also symbols and as such easily co-opted. These days the Cambridges and the Sussexes are proxies in culture wars that rage across social media and in banner headlines, with William and Kate standing for a stodgy status quo and Harry and Meghan for progressive ideals.
Neither characterization is full or fully accurate. Those fighting the Cambridges’ corner assume the Sussexes must be losing the battle for hearts and minds, as UK-based polls show Harry’s popularity plummeting and Meghan’s, never high, slip further into net negative. Once again, this misses the point. A YouGov survey taken in the wake of the Sussexes’ allegations, in their interview with Oprah Winfrey, of racism by an unnamed senior royal and William’s riposte (“we are very much not a racist family”) showed that 20% of respondents believed the royal family was in fact racist. That figure rose to 43% among respondents of color, with 40% in favor of Britain switching the monarch for an elected head of state.
Weeks later, a second poll indicated a similar, and rapidly growing, disaffection with the royals among the young – and who is left among the Windsors to connect with them? (The eldest of the Cambridge children is only nine. Andrew’s reputed suggestion that his daughters be elevated to the front ranks of working royals is only slightly more brain-stretching than the idea that the Wessexes could fill a Meghan-and-Harry-shaped hole .)
William and Kate appear irretrievably tainted in the eyes of significant sections of their potential future subjects in the UK as well as the overseas realms, and that’s by no means the only legacy of the split. Who knows what wounds Harry’s memoir, expected later this year, will inflict – and his father has much to fear. Charles’s obvious affection for his boys and glowing happiness with Camilla had begun to endear him to the public. That image is under pressure just as older scandals are coming home to roost.
His brother Andrew’s interview with the BBC’s Emily Maitlis wasn’t just a gobsmacking own goal. It revealed the complicity of the royals in continuing to provide uncritical harbor despite Andrew’s association with a convicted paedophile and in the teeth of allegations against him of sexual assault by Virginia Giuffre. At Prince Philip’s funeral, the Queen sat hunched alone in her pew for a service scaled down by Covid precautions from stateliness to mortal dimensions, an icon of grief and dignity. By the time of her husband’s larger memorial, attention focused on Andrew’s jarring presence at her side and the damaging implications of affording him such prominence.
In settling the civil suit brought by Giuffre, Andrew made no admission of guilt, but raised another neuralgic issue for the royal family: money. The Treasury denied UK taxpayers were footing the bill, but a public sandbagged by the soaring cost of living isn’t easily mollified. Royal finances are anyway opaque, deliberately so, derived from a mixture of estate incomes, grants and investments. To the outside world, the family appears to be rolling in it – so why have there been so many stories over the years of members borrowing or tin-rattling among the super-rich? “The royals have relatively little private money,” says a former palace insider. “That’s why they’re always trying to get money… There is also the question about where [their money] comes from since they cannot own anything they are given in their public roles.”
This definition of “relatively little” is open to challenge, but the former insider cites an interesting example: “Whenever the Saudis give the Prince of Wales a horse, he views it as a bill, not a present. He can’t sell it. He has to house it and feed it for the rest of its life.”
As king, Charles is likely to receive many more burdensome gifts, but he will also benefit directly from the annual sovereign grant, earmarked for the fulfillment of head of state duties. Such duties will be his focus. His days of trying to coax funding for his charitable empire from the wealthy donors his staff called “Bond villains” should be over. “Clearly, I won’t be able to do the same things I’ve done as heir, so of course you operate within the constitutional parameters,” he declared in a BBC documentary marking his 70th birthday.
The danger for him – and the monarchy; these things are indivisible – is that his history is studded with unexploded ordnance. In the new edition of my Charles biography, I revisit a small, private, fundraising dinner I attended in 2013 at Dumfries House, a stately home in Scotland rescued by him from redevelopment and turned into a base for his charities and initiatives. Seven of his and Camilla’s guests that night, existing or potential backers, would subsequently find themselves embroiled in news stories involving misdemeanors, criminal or otherwise, from money laundering to, in the case of Camilla’s nephew Ben Elliot, now co-chairman of the Conservative party, and David – now Lord – Brownlow, an arrangement to fund golden wallpaper and other furbelows as part of Boris Johnson’s renovation of his Downing Street residence.
This is not to suggest the guests themselves have been guilty of impropriety, but rather that King Charles will be judged not only on his future decisions but past associations and actions. These include his determination to reappoint and promote his former valet, Michael Fawcett, to ever higher positions despite two resignations and serial controversies. As then chief executive of Dumfries House, Fawcett presided at the 2013 dinner. Late last year he resigned from all his royal roles, this time amid allegations that he solicited a charitable donation against the promise of a knighthood. In February, Scotland Yard launched an investigation under the Honors (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925.
Charles has weathered more than a few scandals and won over more than a few sceptics. His environmentalism, once widely derided, resonates more widely than it did. He remains, however, a polarizing figure trying to navigate an increasingly polarized world. The primary role of a head of state is to unify. This could be a bumpy ride.
Extracted from Charles: The Heart of a King by Catherine Mayernew edition published by WH Allen on 25 August 2022, £10.99.
© Catherine Mayer 2015, 2022