From Prince of Wales to Charles III: The man behind the crown
One thing has always been known about Charles: he was the man born to be king. Today, he becomes the 40th monarch to receive a coronation at Westminster Abbey, a tradition dating back to 1066; our new Carolean era will officially commence. But aside from that fact, known since his birth, we will only learn in the coming days, months and years, what kind of king he will be.
Of course, many clues are already there. The public has had a long time to get to know the man before he became king – at 74, he is the oldest heir to ever take the British throne. In his many decades as heir, not only did the public get to know a man who is passionate, sometimes political, gregarious and occasionally grumpy, but the monarchy became more visible and photographed than ever – the latter not least because of a number of Charles’s own personal crises, including his divorce.
Over the years, he has been vocal and enthusiastic about his interests. In the past, Charles was teased for talking to his plants, but his eco-conscious mindset, love of gardening, and all things green, now looks prescient in a world tackling climate change. His dislike of ugly buildings is well noted: he famously described an extension to London’s National Gallery in 1984 as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. He loves the arts, and is an ardent fan of Shakespeare – his favourite play is Henry V. His appetite for intellectual pursuits might, in fact, have even torpedoed the honeymoon of his first marriage: he was apparently more interested in tomes by South African writer Laurens van der Post than hanging out with new wife Princess Diana.
His bold personality may, perhaps, be to blame for occasional rumours that paint him as a quirky and privileged eccentric. According to someone close to Charles, no, he doesn’t travel with a custom toilet set. The King himself told my source “it’s crap”, while they were on a walkabout in Brisbane. Nor, as claimed in Jeremy Paxman’s 2006 On Royalty, is Charles served seven boiled eggs in a line, so that if an egg was too runny, he can knock the top of the next one, hoping it will be just right. A former royal butler recently debunked this, telling The Independent that “it made no sense” as the King “hates waste”.
It is true that the King is a fan of eggs – coddled, baked and mashed into salad leaves. But not, we have learned, leaking fountain pens, as seen in the viral video of him losing his temper over a malfunctioning one, while signing a guestbook at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland last year.
“Oh god, I hate this [pen]!” Charles says, standing up and handing the pen to his wife Camilla, the Queen Consort, who looks well-practised at swooping in to steady the ship when Charles has a moment of frustration.
There are certain facts about Charles, though, that do suggest kingly habits. He doesn’t do lunch and that a pre-mixed Martini (said to be 50/50 gin and dry vermouth) is carried by aides in a plastic container for evening receptions or dinners; he loves a mutton pie when on a shoot; and runs his vintage DB6 Volante convertible on wine and cheese… literally. “My old Aston Martin, which I’ve had for 51 years, runs on – can you believe this – surplus English white wine, and whey from the cheese process,” he told the BBC in 2021.
He’s “a mixture of extravagance and thriftiness”, according to another source. “He’ll keep an old tweed coat and darn it loads of times to keep it going.” Yet he’s a seeker of quality. “It’s the details – [from] a cushion cover to the chime of a clock – that matter,” the source adds.
Charles is hardworking, verging on workaholic – something Camilla has to keep in check. He can often be found slumped at his desk asleep late at night. He’s very hands-on: he famously writes by hand to everybody, as well as all the memos to staff. “He’s an endless organiser. There is an obsessive element of control which is good and bad.”
But, eggs, Aston Martins and architecture aside, what do we know of the private mind of our new monarch? “He’s a deeply feeling, spiritual man,” I’m told by the royal correspondent Robert Jobson, the author of Our King: Charles III, a new biography that examines the man behind the crown, including his relationships with his sons, William and Harry. “He doesn’t like confrontation and expects them to act as grown-ups.”
He’s referring, of course, to “the stalemate” between the two, who have fallen out – something King Charles will try to ignore at his coronation on 6 May. Prince Harry will attend his father’s ceremony alone in an “in-and-out job”, while the Duchess of Sussex skips the ceremony to look after Prince Archie on his fourth birthday and Princess Lilibet in California. But, despite the Duchess’s absence from the ceremony, the official souvenir program for King Charles III’s coronation features a 2018 family portrait with Harry and Meghan, taken for Charles’s official 70th birthday.
On many levels, Charles and Meghan have “a lot in common”, a royal expert tells me. “He likes healthy eating and yoga – they both only eat organic – he shares the holistic side of her.” He used to fondly call her “Tungsten” – the toughest and most unbending natural metal. This “healthy respect for her strength of personality” is “likely to have waned”, however, since the couple’s post-Megxit US TV interview with Oprah Winfrey, when Meghan seemed to accuse the royal family of racism – which Harry later subsequently clarified as “unconscious bias”. Neither did the Sussexes’ Netflix series Harry & Meghan, or the publication of Harry’s revelatory memoir Spare, help relations that were already fraught.
Charles mentioned at his first address to the nation as King that he wished to “express my love for Harry and Meghan as they continue to build their lives overseas”, and he occasionally dishes out olive branches – a clear sign he wants a united royal family.
“Harry is Charles’s ‘darling boy’. He’s very fond of him and feels sympathy for the position he’s in,” according to a source. “He wants to keep a path open for his return and is concerned for his mental health and doesn’t want to damage it further.
“But William is Charles’s heir and heir to the crown. William wants the door closed on his brother at this time – and he can be persuasive and forceful with his father. It’s a really tough position for Charles to be in. A tightrope walk for him.”
Jobson agrees. “Now William is much closer to Charles, but he’s bereft that his other son is isolated and so full of vitriol – as any father would be.”
For the ceremony, Prince Harry will be seated behind other senior royals in Westminster Abbey. Charles is sad, as any father would be, about his and Diana’s warring sons. Harry and William have no plans to talk on the big day, according to reports. According to the Duke of Sussex himself, in Spare, Charles said: “Please boys. Don’t make my final years a misery.” The King is known for being a bit soft on his sons – he’s simply not the type to read out the riot act.
“There were so many years when the two boys ganged up on Charles – both were resentful of the institution and rebelled against it but eventually William accepted his fate, and that hurt Harry a lot, and they were no longer brothers in arms,” says a source. “William became aligned with the institution and Harry just couldn’t rally round to join him leaving him isolated.”
In the build-up to the big day, a historic display of pomp and pageantry, Charles will have been trying on the traditional majestic robes and bespoke slippers made of calf leather from Switzerland, and making sure there are no slip-ups. But his priority will be making sure the oath that he swears is exactly what he, as King, wants to say.