Twenty-one years ago, on Prince Charles’ 49th birthday, few would have betted the crown jewels on the most hated man in Britain becoming king.
Indeed, the very future of the monarchy seemed at times to be at stake, as public revulsion to the royals swelled in direct proportion to the posthumous adoration doled out to the memory and legend of Princess Diana.
I had just started working in British newspapers that year, and my first job was at the London newspaper, the Evening Standard. Our fancy offices in Kensington were just a few hundred yards away from the sea of flowers which, even two and a half months after Diana’s death, lapped against the wrought iron gates of Kensington Palace. The flow of pilgrims clogged the subway at Kensington High Street and impeded our way to work until after Christmas.
Charles as king? After what he had done? The very notion seemed preposterous.
This week, as a 62-gun salute rang out from London’s Tower Bridge to mark his 70th birthday, only a fool would bet against Charles being the next king. His mother is already handing many significant jobs to her son, and there is mounting speculation that she may formally retire from public life in less than three years, handing the reins to Charles.
At his birthday party on Thursday night, the queen reportedly gave a speech in which she said, “Over his 70 years, Philip and I have seen Charles become a champion of conservation and the arts, a great charitable leader, a dedicated and respected heir to the throne to stand comparison with any in history, and a wonderful father.
“Most of all, sustained by his wife Camilla, he is his own man, passionate and creative. So this toast is to wish a happy birthday to my son, in every respect a Duchy original. To you Charles. To the Prince of Wales.”
It was a tremendous tribute from a mother who, 20 years ago, was about as convinced as the rest of us that Charles would be a good king and refused to attend his marriage to Camilla in protest at the relationship.
There's little doubt that were Charles to announce tomorrow that he had actually decided to pass the crown directly to his son, it would be a wildly popular move.
But that's not going to happen, and while it would be a push to say he is a much-loved figure in British society, there is a (admittedly sometimes grudging) acceptance that he will be the next king.
A recent survey on the popularity of the royals found that Charles was the seventh most popular royal.
It’s not, at first glance, a great ranking for a king-in-waiting. But you have to take account of the exceptionally strong field; the six spots above Charles are filled by his glamorous sons, his mother and their respective spouses.
At least he is far more popular than his brothers Andrew (15th) or Edward (12th); in fact, some 48 percent of the populace say they like him. It’s not a bad result when you consider where he was two decades ago (and that around 20 percent of the population want to do away with the monarchy altogether and replace it with a republic).
The writer Penny Junor, a confidante of Prince Charles’ camp in the 1990s and 2000s who wrote an influential post-Diana biography of the prince, Charles: Victim or Villain, told the Daily Beast that were it not for the outpouring of emotion and which marked the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death last year, he’d be doing even better in the court of public opinion.
“The media engaged in an orgy of nostalgia, and the public were taken, emotionally, right back to where they were 20 years ago. People started to blame him again, and it did knock him,” Junor said.
“He is a very sensitive man, a very emotional man, and he was devastated by the failure of his marriage. He didn’t go into it intending anything other than it to be for life. When the relationship disintegrated, he blamed himself and felt terrible and the anniversary brought a lot of that back.
“But things really have changed in past year. Harry seems to have become much closer to him, and I think Charles really was delighted to be asked to walk Meghan down the aisle. All of that has helped him enormously.
“Ultimately, however, his happiness is all down to Camilla and the fact they are now happily married. Having spent all those years being the wicked other woman, once she became his wife, most people stopped sniping.
“Charles’ problem was always that the story about his private life undermined his work. But once they married, all that was gone. There is no story there anymore. The story has to be his work.”
While it is true, as Junor says, that Charles was hammered by the media around Diana’s anniversary, he wasn't helped by his sons, who steadfastly declined to make even the mildest of conciliatory noises about their dad's role in the Diana story.
Harry, naturally, went the furthest, launching an extraordinary attack on his father (although he didn't identify him specifically) for having him walk behind Diana's coffin at the funeral.
Now, however, his sons have said their pieces, and although there is tension between them, they appear ready once again to toe the official line and make support for the institution of monarchy their first priority; witness Harry’s warm tributes to his hardworking father who falls asleep at his desk and awakens with bits of paper stuck to his forehead, or William saying how great he is with his grandchildren.
The ghost of Diana has defined Charles for so long, and it will likely be an issue he has to contend with every five and ten year anniversary of her death, but it is also true that the media have gone a lot easier on the royals in general since the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking revealed that all the royals’ mobile phones had been routinely hacked by journalists.
Several journalists and shady private eyes had obtained the palace’s ‘green book’—a complete directory of phone numbers of the household and staff—and used them to access voicemails.
Partly in penance for that shameful period, partly due to the fact that most papers now have just one royal reporter rather than a team of them, the media have gone along with the palace’s efforts to portray Charles as an avuncular, slightly eccentric, grandfatherly presence.
Just this week, British headlines were dominated by Prince William’s stories of how his dad allows wild red squirrels to run around his house in Scotland where they find nuts and seeds sequestered in his coat pockets.
This is almost certainly a gross exaggeration. Red squirrels are among the most timid and shy creatures in the British Isles, but that went unmentioned, as did the biological fact that they are notorious transmitters of the deadly disease Leptospirosis.
Maybe it really did happen once, but regularly having red squirrels dancing around your kitchen and going through your pockets for nuts is pure fantasy.
But it suits the new narrative of the prince, a narrative that the public appear ready to at least half believe.
There are areas where the media has not given up attacking Charles.
One of these is his undoubted extravagance. Tom Bower's recent biography of the prince was seized upon by the press for its description of a prince so pampered that he had his own bed and several favorite watercolors sent ahead of him to a friend’s house he was staying at.
Undoubtedly Bower’s book landed several painful contact blows on Charles, but the other favorite criticism of him for being a ‘meddler’ who gets overly involved in unsuitably political causes no longer really hits home, not least because Charles’ concerns have become mainstream.
It was interesting to note that William received no criticism for ‘meddling’ when he waded into the debate about the wickedness of tech companies this week, certainly a more controversial act than quietly talking to one’s plants in the privacy of one’s extensive gardens.
All the evidence is that the general public are rather keen on the same things Prince Charles is rather keen on; can anyone really object to organic food, taking care of the environment and keeping the countryside pretty?
Robert Jobson, the veteran royal journalist and author of a new biography of Charles, Charles at Seventy - Thoughts, Hopes & Dreams, which authoritatively claimed his mother will step aside for him in three years time, told The Daily Beast that Charles’ rehabilitation is at least in part down to the fact that public opinion has belatedly caught up with his views.
“He was labelled the potty prince for so long, because no one cared about these issues, like plastic and gas guzzlers. He is not the kind of character to say, ‘I told you so’, but there is a sense now that he had foresight, and people respect that. He is seen as somebody with credibility.”
And, Jobson says, the way he communicates his messages has changed dramatically in the last two decades: “He has mellowed. The language is less aggressive. And the press are fairer to him now as well. He was ruthlessly caricatured by the media taking snippets of what he said and making him look ridiculous, and there is less of that now. Maybe we have mellowed too.”
While there will always be a hardcore base of Diana fans who will protest his rehabilitation, and whose long memories will never forgive the prince the sins of his younger self, what is undeniable is that Prince Charles’ 70th birthday is his happiest birthday in many decades, maybe ever—and also marks his most successful year yet.