As Prince Charles turns 60, the late princess’s biographer Andrew Morton on why this melancholy man may have permitted himself a small smile of satisfaction.
It is my daughter Lydia’s birthday today. I realized that when I was woken by the sound of the National Anthem playing from the bedside radio in my London apartment. While my daughter’s 23rd birthday is cause for celebration in the Morton household it is not quite an event for national rejoicing. You see, she shares her big day with Prince Charles who has just turned 60.
While she washed and dressed herself, walked to the subway and went to her job in central London, Prince Charles had his clothes carefully laid out by his valet who had earlier run his bath and squeezed toothpaste on his toothbrush. Then before perusing his freshly ironed copy of the Times he chose which of the seven hard boiled eggs was to his liking for his breakfast.
(Now if you think I am exaggerating the Prince’s personal peccadillos then I will only say that you didn’t spend several years listening to Princess Diana pointing out the extravagances of the man who may one day be king.)
No wonder he looks so relaxed and nonchalant in his official birthday portrait. At last the spotlight is just on him.
Before climbing into his chauffeur driven Bentley to visit a youth project in London’s poor East End district, this notoriously melancholy and fretful man may have permitted himself a small smile of satisfaction at the laudatory editorial coverage of a milestone birthday.
For perhaps the first time in 25 years, the analysis focused on him, his achievements, his quirks, his foibles, his interests and his passions. In the past he would have choked on his birthday breakfast, provoked into one of his famous ‘gnashes,’ as he read polls suggesting that he was not fit to be king, that his wife, Camilla Parker Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall, should never be queen and that the crown should skip a generation and go directly to his eldest son Prince William. It seems the British public is now prepared to forgive and forget – a You Gov poll reports that nearly half the population would be happy for him to become king no matter how old he is.
For the first time in a generation there was, in all the national coverage, barely a mention of the dreaded ‘D’ word. This is a remarkable turnaround. Ever since his marriage to Lady Diana Spencer in July 1981, Prince Charles has been defined by his late wife.
In fact even before he met her, the world’s most eligible bachelor was only seriously discussed in terms of whom and when he would marry. Given that the primary function of the heir to the throne is to exist and to procreate this was entirely in the script. So once the Sarahs, Davinas, Lauras and other assorted consorts gave way to the woman who propelled the dowdy House of Windsor to international status, he was relegated to a walk on role, sidelined, derided and defined by his glamorous wife’s frocks. He was listened to as long as he knew when to get out of the way so that the photographers could get a better shot of the real star of the show.
Once the fairytale narrative was transformed by the arrival of the wicked witch, in the form of mistress Camilla Parker Bowles, the hapless Prince was further marginalized, all his good works, thoughtful speeches and passionate crusading a slender redoubt against the tsunami of public hostility that greeted revelations about the furtive betrayal of an adored princess.
His admission of adultery in a TV documentary, their divorce in 1995 and Diana’s tragic death in August 1997 merely solidified those sentiments. Diana’s own belief that Charles would never become king and that her main role was grooming Prince William for his destiny merely underscored the unique irrelevance of the current Prince of Wales.
After her death, the war of the Wales was continued by proxy, her sons William and Harry deemed to carry the banner for the doomed Princess and public opinion polls at the time indicated majority approval for the crown to go directly to William. Any perceived insult to Diana’s memory was defined what ‘the boys’ might think or feel.
But ‘the boys’ have become men, Prince Harry has served in Afghanistan for example, Diana’s sons too escaping from her long shadow. At a dinner at Buckingham Palace to celebrate their fathers’ birthday the two Princes paid tribute to him as ‘an inspiration to us and so many others.’ The ghost of Diana did not haunt the proceedings as she has for so many years.
Of course the female shadow he will never escape is that of his mother, the Queen. The national conversation about whether she should abdicate in her son’s favour seems resolved into an acceptance that the 82-year-old sovereign should stay in post for life.
That debate settled, attention has focused not so much on what Prince Charles might do when he becomes king but what he has achieved as the heir in waiting. So for the first time in his life, Prince Charles is being assessed for who he is rather than with whom he is associated. The birthday focus has been on his charity work, especially young people, his numerous political forays, for example on Tibet, opposition to GM crops and modern architecture and his championing of once obscure causes like climate change, organic food and religious tolerance.
No wonder he looks so relaxed and nonchalant in the uniform of his military regiment, the Welsh Guards, which he wore for his official birthday portrait. At last the spotlight is just on him.
Andrew Morton is the author of Diana, Her True Story.