King Charles’s Belated Reign Can Still Be a Fruitful One

The oldest Prince of Wales in history was kept waiting longer than any other royal heir before he could take his mother’s place on the throne. Many suggested he had become king too late in life and had wasted his days in self-indulgence. The Prince’s marital difficulties and his mistresses were discussed disapprovingly in the press. His contacts with politicians were held to have compromised his neutrality.

If the 73-year-old Charles III seeks a role model, as he ascends to a new job at an age when most people are safely retired, he need only look to his great-great grandfather, Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, the longest-reigning monarch in British history (she ruled from 1837 to 1901) until the arrival of Elizabeth II.  

Edward, known to his family as Bertie, became king at just under 60 — which was, for the time, an advanced age. Yet he was a great success story as a monarch, healing divisions at home and helping end his country’s not-so-splendid isolation abroad, not least by paving the way for an alliance with France. The UK today could similarly do with more friends abroad and some reconciliation at home after the divisions created by Brexit.

On Friday, Charles III made his national TV debut as king. Although his age is not a bar to doing the job well, he starts his reign with a fair amount of baggage as well as goodwill.

His ancestor Edward was accused of being too close to politicians such as the Tory prime minister, Lord Salisbury. However, on his accession he cooperated with a great reforming Liberal government and, unlike his mother, he understood his own constitutional limits when it came to the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. 

Charles, likewise, has been accused of plotting a “meddling monarchy.” His so-called “black spider memos” (on account of his handwriting), letters sent to cabinet ministers in 2004 and 2005 lobbying on policy issues, created paranoia in the press until a freedom of information request and their subsequent publication showed them to be harmless and well-intentioned, if sprawling. Although some express doubts that he can subordinate his strong views, Charles went on the record in a BBC interview to mark his 70th birthday to declare he would give up campaigning when he becomes king — “I’m not that stupid,” he said pointedly.

Although the new king emphasized in his first speech on Friday that he understood the implications of this shift in role, it is not certain how easily a person of strong temperament will adapt to the new constraints. For one thing, he must be prepared to sign laws personally uncongenial to him and accept guests from unlovely foreign governments in his official quarters — all with his mother’s ability to bear an expression which was neither a smile nor a grimace. But then Bertie had to swallow reform of the aristocratic, unelected House of Lords too.

The ancestral connections also extend to the royal marriage. Camilla Parker-Bowles, who became Charles’s mistress and wife, is also the great granddaughter of Edward’s mistress Alice Keppel. The difference is that Edward was opposed to divorce despite his many infidelities, while Charles was prepared to ditch his wife to marry the woman he loved.

There is nothing more he can do to redress the past — what’s done is done where Lady Diana is concerned. The new King doesn’t lack dignity but he must cast off the appearance of gloom and self-pity that dogged his troubled middle years. In early life, his sense of fun was more apparent. On a royal tour in the US many years ago, I cracked a joke or two with him on a visit to Harvard University, but my tabloid newspaper colleagues looked a bit uncomfortable in his presence. Putting his subjects at ease is part of the job.

Like his royal ancestor, Charles has a keen intelligence. As Prince of Wales, Edward was a voracious reader of state papers given to him by sympathetic prime ministers (his mother denied hers to him). Charles, too, displays intellectual curiosity and has insight and sympathy for faith-based religions. He was prescient in his understanding of climate change, for which he receives insufficient credit.

None of these cerebral enthusiasms, however, guarantee popularity. The British are wary of intellectuals and dislike religiosity. The King’s namesake Charles I was a connoisseur of art, but that was hardly appreciated by the rebellious subjects who beheaded him. Richard II, another aesthete, met a similarly grisly end in the Middle Ages, while in the modern era, George IV, the begetter of the splendor of Brighton Pavilion, had spells of great unpopularity.  The late Queen’s love of racing was more to her subjects’ taste.

Edward VII used his contacts in the business world to modernize a decrepit Palace machine. Likewise, Charles should — and I suspect will — radically streamline the monarchy. Far too much prominence is still given to undeserving minor royals. His younger brother, Prince Andrew, must be kept out of the limelight for good after his toxic entanglement with Jeffrey Epstein. The King ought to effect a truce, if not a reconciliation, with his younger son, Harry, who is embittered by his mother’s treatment and prickly about any slights to his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. 

It is a daunting-to-do list, and it would be too glib to say that Charles can pull all of these threads together with ease. But as his ancestor has shown, a belated reign can still be a fruitful one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its chief political commentator.

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