That Prince Charles will be king when his mother dies is set in constitutional stone. It is a non-negotiable certainty.
The only contingency that would see the crown skip a generation and pass directly to Prince William, despite that being an eventuality an opinion poll this week found the British public would vastly prefer, would be if Charles unexpectedly pre-deceased his mother.
Despite their existence only in the realm of fantasy wish-fulfillment, the popularity of the leapfrog theory still troubles the future king, a sensitive and easily discombobulated man, seasoned observers of the great British national soap opera say.
Penny Junor, a journalist who has written about Charles for over 35 years, often with the palace’s co-operation, told The Daily Beast of the poll: “Knowing him, I imagine he’ll be feeling very disappointed and depressed by what he is having to read at the moment about himself.”
Junor has little doubt Charles is still, if not jealous, at least envious of William’s popularity. “It’s very hurtful and difficult for Charles to see all the attention on his son, and his pretty wife and his lovely children. Charles and Camilla are grandparents. They can’t compete with that.”
Junor added: “I’m sure he’s really proud of William. I’m sure he’s really proud of the incredible work he has done and the success he has made of his marriage and family. But he also doesn’t want to be erased just yet.”
Junor, whose books include Prince William: Born to be King, Charles: Victim or Villain, and Prince Harry: Brother, Solider, Son, said that Charles has faced a perfect storm of adverse publicity in the past few years which may have much to do with his current lack of popularity, recently added to by Harry’s criticism of Charles when he spoke to Oprah Winfrey in his and Meghan’s controversy-creating CBS special.
The 20th anniversary of Diana’s death in 2017 completely derailed rebranding efforts that had been in train for decades. For almost an entire year, Charles had to endure wall-to-wall documentaries as well as newspaper and magazine articles that took the nation right back to the days of August 1997, when Charles was widely blamed for the death of Diana.
Junor added: “The other thing that cannot be underestimated is the impact of The Crown. I would imagine that this survey is massively influenced by the fourth series of The Crown which cast Charles in an astonishingly bad light. We saw a spoiled brat being foul to an enchanting girl. We saw nothing of his good works, nothing of the thousands of people who have a good life today because of what Prince Charles has done for them. Of course we didn’t—it’s a drama. But people lapped it up.”
And then, of course, you have Oprah and the public excoriation delivered by his son who said that his relationship with his father got so bad that Charles stopped taking his calls.
Asked directly about the state of his relationship with his father, Harry told Oprah: “There’s a lot to work through there, you know? I feel really let down, because he’s been through something similar. He knows what pain feels like… Of course I will always love him, but there’s a lot of hurt that’s happened. I will continue to make it one of my priorities to try and heal that relationship.”
Harry added: “I’ve tried to educate [him] through the process that I have been educated.” It was later reported by Entertainment Tonight that Charles initially wanted to issue a detailed statement in response to the Oprah interview, addressing Harry’s claims point by point, but was persuaded it would be counterproductive and only serve to extend the controversy.
Harry claimed in the interview that the royals “literally cut me off financially” in “the first quarter of 2020,” and said this was why they had been oblige to make their lucrative production deal with Netflix and Spotify.
Charles’ camp has pushed back against that characterization of events.
“Harry was incredibly disparaging about Charles and again, many people lapped it up,” Junor remarked, “I know he would be hurt by what Harry said about him and the untruths that were said about him, for example that he cut Harry off financially. So, yes he is having a tough time right now. He is quite vulnerable, he is surprisingly thin-skinned.
“We tend to think that because people are public figures we can say what we like about them and it won’t affect them. But that’s not the case. And it’s bad enough when it it’s random trolls online, but when your son goes on Oprah and says unfair and unkind things about you? Well, yes that’s going to hurt someone like Charles.”
The historian and writer Robert Lacey, whose latest book about the royal family is a clear-eyed and compelling account of the collapse of Harry and William’s relationship, Battle of Brothers, told The Daily Beast it was striking “how gratuitous Harry’s unkindness was to his father. When he was asked about his relationship with William, he had an answer ready—a diplomatic repetition of what he said in Africa, speaking about the distance between them. When he was asked about his dad, he could have said the same sort of thing. But instead he visibly paused and went for the jugular.
“I think it will be particularly hurtful to Charles since he was quite an advocate for Meghan at the start. He walked her down the aisle. He nicknamed her ‘tungsten,’ the hardest metal in the world, and he thought that it was good for Harry to have a really strong woman by his side.”
Lacey added: “Charles’ strength and weakness is that he feels things deeply, and I think he will feel very deeply about what Harry said on Oprah. The personal nature of it must be wounding. The animus to publicly wound his father in a way that was not necessary would likely be very upsetting to Charles.”
The fact that Harry deliberately sought to harm his father’s reputation and popularity in the interview is likely to have rubbed salt into the wound, for unpopularity is an issue which has long plagued Charles although in recent years he has appeared to accept there is little he can do about it.
The British public’s noted coolness on the prospect of the reign of King Charles III is a blow which is at least softened somewhat by the support he has from William.
Lacey said: “I think he is reassured by the knowledge that any speculation that William should be the next to take the crown is not of William’s making. William would be completely opposed to that. He would be the last person to countenance the idea that he should supplant his father. Charles knows and acknowledges that. He understands there is absolutely no danger from William and Kate to his reign.”
It is unknown whether the question of the crown skipping a generation was ever seriously raised by the so-called “men in grey,” the conservative courtiers who manage so much of the palace’s direction.
Lacey for one doubts the concept ever had traction, even in the darkest days of the Diana crisis. “I can’t recall any suggestion of it being made. The truth is that when Diana floated that idea, when she mentioned it to Martin Bashir, she killed it stone dead.”
Junor agreed, saying she considers there is no way that William and Charles would have ever even discussed polls showing William is the more popular choice for the next king than Charles.
“They are all utterly entrenched in the idea of the hereditary monarchy. They all understand if you pick and choose, you lose the rationale,” she said.
Prince Charles’ office declined to comment to The Daily Beast.