“I wouldn’t be King for a hundred pounds,” says Alice, in the jingle by A.A.Milne which starts, “They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace.”
But if the role of monarch is unenviable, how much harder it must be to wait to be monarch.
And no Prince of Wales has had to wait longer than the present incumbent. In six months’ time he celebrates his 70th birthday, and still he waits.
His manner at the recent royal wedding as he escorted first his daughter-in-law, and then her mother, expressed a perfect affability, welcoming without being over-familiar. Perhaps, like Edward VII, who held the previous record for longevity as Prince of Wales, he will put on the kind of show which enchants a democracy, and which, indeed, is demanded in the age of photography.
Edward VII was not like his mother, Queen Victoria, who reigned for 63 years and 216 days, longer than any of her predecessors, and Prince Charles is not like his mother, Elizabeth II, who on 9th September 2015 broke that record.
She was born on 21st April 1926 at 17 Bruton Street, London home of her mother’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, and had the good fortune, for the first ten years of her life, not to be expected to become Queen. It was presumed that her father’s older brother, the future Edward VIII, would get married and have children, and even if he didn’t, her own parents, the Duke and Duchess of York, might have a son who would take precedence over her.
But they, as it turned out, had a second daughter, Margaret Rose, born four years later. And Edward VIII, who as Prince of Wales had been almost unbelievably popular, in 1936 proved a disaster as King, for he was convinced his happiness lay in marrying (as the courtier Tommy Lascelles described her) “a shop-soiled American, with two living husbands and a voice like a rusty saw”, a choice which neither the Establishment nor the people considered acceptable.
The present Queen’s upbringing (recounted in my book of brief lives of the monarchs since 1066) was that of an upper-class girl who learned good manners, Christian piety, how to dance and speak French, the enjoyment of games such as hide and seek, and a love of animals, especially dogs and horses, and outdoor pursuits. Intellectual life was considered superfluous, if not harmful. The essential thing was to be initiated into a tradition of behaviour.
Prince Charles’s education was different. He was born on 14th November 1948 at Buckingham Palace, with a crowd of over 3,000 people celebrating outside, and from the first it was assumed that in the fulness of time he would become King.
The Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, leader of the great post-war Labour Government, remarked in the House of Commons on “the great responsibilities” which the young Prince might have to carry, and went on:
“We shall watch him growing to manhood with lively interest, knowing that in his own home he will receive a training by example rather than mere precept, in that courtesy and in that gracious and tireless devotion to the manifold duties of constitutional monarchy which have won the hearts of our people,”
But how in this newly egalitarian age should the Prince be trained in the duties of constitutional monarchy? The people watched with lively interest.
There was time for the boy to be photographed on his third birthday with his grandfather, George VI, who soon afterwards died at the age of only 56, his life foreshortened by heavy smoking. Princess Elizabeth ascended the throne, her Coronation in 1953 the first great televised event.
In 1968, Dermot Morrah, Arundel Herald Extraordinary, published To Be A King, an approved account of the Prince’s education on which all subsequent biographers have relied, usually without attribution. In Morrah’s words, the Queen took “the revolutionary step of sending her son to school ten years younger than any of his predecessors for the past five hundred years”.
At the age of eight, the Prince went briefly to Hill House, a private day school in London run by the redoubtable Colonel Townend, which was followed by his father’s old schools, Cheam and Gordonstoun. Morrah defends the Queen against the charge of not sending her son through the state system. But subsequent criticism, at least by the worldly, has tended to be that Gordonstoun, a rather rugged establishment, was preferred to Eton, where the Prince sent his own sons and might have found more congenial companions.
He had not been particularly happy at Gordonstoun, or indeed at Trinity College, Cambridge. It was difficult for this shy and sensitive Prince to mingle on terms of equality with other students. Morrah remarks that “No British prince since the Stuarts has cared more sincerely for the things of the mind and the spirit”, notes “a deep social conscience”, and quotes “one who knows the Prince of Wales intimately” asking: “What on earth are we to do with him for the next 40 years?”
That was 50 years ago. For a few years he went into the Navy, in which his father had served with distinction during the Second World War, while his grandfather, George VI, had fought at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and his great-grandfather, George V, had served until the age of 26.
But the more the Second World War receded into the past, the less central the officer class became in the life of the nation.
The Prince had a string of girlfriends, but felt he must get married. In 1981, he proposed to Lady Diana Spencer, who was 12 and a half years younger than him and whom he did not know at all well, for he had spent very little time with her, something the attentions of the press would have made difficult.
They had a fairytale wedding, and two sons, but soon realised they could not stand each other. In private life, this unhappy situation quite often arises, but their life was very far from private. Indeed, they invaded their own privacy. The Princess of Wales, who had star quality, told her story to a sympathetic journalist, and complained about the Prince’s continued attachment to a former girlfriend, Camilla Parker Bowles. The Prince in turn told his story. All this was unbearably vulgar, and unbearably distressing.
In 1996, they got divorced, and the following year, at the age of only 36, the Princess was killed in a car crash in Paris while being pursued by photographers. The Queen’s inability to demonstrate that she shared the public’s grief seemed for a day or two to imperil the throne, but at this critical juncture, her Prime Minister, Tony Blair, gave her prudent advice, and in 2005, the Prince at last felt able to marry Mrs Parker Bowles.
Throughout this distressing period, he maintained his interest in “the things of the mind and the spirit”. We know very little about what the Queen thinks on the issues of the day, but quite a bit about the Prince of Wales’s opinions on subjects ranging from architecture to alternative medicine.
And we know he approaches these causes with a kind of agonised sincerity. When asked by Prince Harry, on the Today programme, what issue he would be concentrating on in 2018, Prince Charles replied that “the issue that really does have to be focused on, big time, I think, is this one around the whole issue of climate change”, and expressed the hope that people might be “beginning to realise that what I was trying to say may not have been quite as dotty as they thought”.
The question, however, is not whether the Prince’s opinions are correct. It is whether they will hinder him from playing the role of umpire, above the party political battle and completely impartial between those waging it. If and when he become monarch, will he always accept that he has to take his ministers’ advice?
In 2015, his Principal Private Secretary wrote a letter to The Times on this subject:
There has been ill-informed speculation recently, in your columns and elsewhere, about the attitude of The Prince of Wales to the role of Sovereign. His Royal Highness has always preferred not to comment on matters which relate to a future whose date is unknown, and would arise only after the death of his mother.
After half a century in public life, few could be better placed than His Royal Highness to understand the necessary and proper limitations on the role of a constitutional monarch. Should he be called to the Throne, The Prince of Wales will be inspired by the examples of his mother and grandfather, while drawing also on his own experience of a lifetime of service. He will seek to continue his service to this country and the other Realms, to the Commonwealth and to the wider world.
That looks definitive. Nor can one imagine that having waited so long to become King, the Prince will wish to be anything other than dutiful and committed. An admirer who has observed his work as the saviour of Dumfries House, in Ayrshire, says of him: “A complete wonder. Totally understands deprivation, long-term unemployment – and changes peoples’ lives as a result.”
But others say the Prince, unlike his mother, can get carried away by his enthusiasms, and has a bad record for accepting advice with which he disagrees: “The best people can’t stand it and leave his employ; the worst compete for favour and intrigue against each other.”
He is extravagant, raises money from the super-rich for his charities by granting them access to himself, and is known to worry he will have less money as King than he gets from the Duchy of Cornwall. The Queen preserves a spirit of wartime frugality. He does not. Nor does his household co-operate well either with the Queen’s, or with his sons.
In 1995, Lord Charteris remarked in an unguarded moment that the Prince of Wales is “such a charming man when he isn’t being whiny”. All this could make the Prince a target for criticism. But a paradox of monarchy is that it exists for the benefit of the people rather than the monarch.
And the people have long tended, except during the Abdication crisis in 1936, to be more tolerant of royal failings than one might think from reading the more censorious parts of the press. Ordinary people tend to say, with Bagehot, albeit less eloquently:
“All the world and all the glory of it, whatever is most attractive, whatever is most seductive, has always been offered to the Prince of Wales of the day, and always will be. It is not rational to expect the best virtue where temptation is applied in the most trying form at the frailest time of human life. The occupations of a constitutional monarch are grave, formal, important, but never exciting; they have nothing to stir eager blood, awaken high imagination, work off wild thoughts.”
It is, in short, an extremely tough task to prepare to be a constitutional monarch, or to take on the actual role. People realise this, and do not demand perfection. They like having a hereditary grandmaster of the ceremonies in whose grandeur they can share, and whose weaknesses bring a touch of humanity to the pageant.