Charles III

Charles III

People have been wondering what a Charles III reign will look like for a long time. They’ve had a lot of time to do it: He’s the longest-serving heir in British history, having spent 70 of his 74 years next in line to the throne.

It has been unclear what Charles ought to be doing with his time on earth. His job has been, more than anything else, to wait, and to wait for something both monumental—becoming a king—and ghoulish—the death of his mother. The pitfalls of not quite finding your place in the world as a member of the royal family and kicking your heels on top of a near-limitless mountain of wealth are very clear: You get a Prince Andrew situation.

So how has Charles been passing the time? In the mid-’70s, when he was approaching 30, he began setting up charities, and he kept at it: He held a summit in 2009 with the intention of protecting the climate and reducing deforestation that saw Hillary Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in attendance. He’s a keen agriculturalist, and believes that industrial farming is an environmental travesty. He has his own organic farm in Gloucestershire, where he keeps up traditional farming techniques, and where he hosted the “National Hedgelaying Championships” in 2005. He’s also spent much of the past couple of decades getting involved in politics through what became known as his “black spider memos,” after his scrawling handwriting: letters he would write to government ministers on subjects like urban planning and education. He’s been vocally in favor of overhauling the “honours system,” whereby titles such as “Commander of the British Empire” are handed out to the rich and powerful, a designation he has said is bestowed on “the wrong people” for “the wrong reasons.” He’s subsequently been accused of interfering in political matters to an undue degree. A critically acclaimed play called Charles III premiered in London in 2014 and went on to Broadway. It depicted Charles meddling with freedom-of-the-press laws, sparring with Parliament, and ultimately having to abdicate in favor of Prince William. A more sympathetic portrait came on the TV series The Crown, on which he was recently played by Dominic West, but even there, he was most memorably portrayed as an ambitious but ineffective royal conniver.

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There’s also the slightly woo-woo stuff—a hippie-ish bent. In 2010, he gave a now-famous interview to one of the U.K.’s foremost celebrity gardeners (yes, we have several of these), Alan Titchmarsh, in which he said he talks to the trees on his estate, something he asserted keeps him “relatively sane.” It’s not accidental that the official invitations to the coronation featured an illustration of the Green Man, a sort of pagan vegetation spirit associated with ancient English folklore (although it’s not actually as ancient as many people think). He co-authored a book on his beliefs about the environment and the “magical” rhythms of nature in 2010, too, called Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World.

But the truth about Charles is that he is a traditionalist, really. He famously hates modern architecture, and seems to long for a return to a romantic idea of a pre-industrialized England, of farmhands working the land and feeling a deep connection with their local and national community.

What’s he like personally? We know the ins and outs of his rocky marriage to Diana and their subsequent divorce all too well. His current wife and now Queen Consort, Camilla, admits that he can be obstinate, describing him as “pretty impatient.” “He wants things done by yesterday,” she has said. “That’s how he gets things done.” It is also undeniable that he is a little bit creepy, perhaps just by virtue of being necessarily so out of touch with normal life, coming out with statements like “Mummy laughs and cries with us all,” about the late queen, which sounds like something a haunted doll would say before its head spins all the way around.

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The thing about becoming king is that the role of a monarch is strictly defined in the U.K. They must act with political neutrality. In other words, there will be no room for black-spider memos, none for backhanded comments about political machinations in the country he reigns over; no room, ideally, for personal opinion at all. He knows this well. In 2018, Charles gave a television interview to mark his 70th birthday, promising he would not be a “meddling” king. When he was asked whether his campaigning on various issues would continue, he put it bluntly: “No, it won’t. I’m not that stupid. I do realize that it is a separate exercise being sovereign.”

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But that doesn’t mean his reign is going to feel much like his mother’s. Charles is, by default really, the most modern king the U.K. will have had. He’ll be the first monarch to have been to school. He’ll be the first monarch whose life has been subject to tabloid scrutiny, whose failures and foibles are already well known to the public before he ascends the throne. Elizabeth II had an appeal that extended beyond people who would consider themselves royalists—she was a fixture in national life, thought of by many as a sort of benign grandmotherly figure and, based on the very little information people ever got about her, quite widely liked in the U.K., as monarchs go. She intentionally kept her private self hidden. Unlike Charles, she almost never gave a televised interview, and although she agreed to let a BBC crew chart the lives of the royal family in 1968, she reportedly felt when the subsequent documentary came out that it had opened too wide a window on the inner lives of the royals. She is said to have personally had it scrubbed nearly out of existence, other than in a few physical archive locations. By contrast, if you want to, it’s all too easy to find out perhaps too much about the king’s intimate personal history via, for example, Googling the words “Prince Charles” and “tampon” together.

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Charles won’t be allowed to express his opinions on things anymore, but in some ways that doesn’t matter. It’s too late. We already know them. And his conduct before taking the throne will probably dictate his popularity during his reign more than anything else. Opinion polls have consistently shown him to be less popular than Queen Elizabeth II, or his son Prince William. Anti-monarchist protests are now a fixture at his public events. He’s been egged. Charles III may be a more modern monarch than his mother was, but he will be ruling over a very different country than the one she looked out on at her coronation in 1953—and the judgment of his reign has been underway for most of his lifetime.