One thing has always been known about Charles: he was the man born to be king. Today, he becomes the 40th monarch to receive a coronation at Westminster Abbey, a tradition dating back to 1066; our new Carolean era will officially commence. But aside from that fact, known since his birth, we will only learn in the coming days, months and years, what kind of king he will be.
Of course, many clues are already there. The public has had a long time to get to know the man before he became king – at 74, he is the oldest heir to ever take the British throne. In his many decades as heir, not only did the public get to know a man who is passionate, sometimes political, gregarious and occasionally grumpy, but the monarchy became more visible and photographed than ever – the latter not least because of a number of Charles’s own personal crises, including his divorce.
Over the years, he has been vocal and enthusiastic about his interests. In the past, Charles was teased for talking to his plants, but his eco-conscious mindset, love of gardening, and all things green, now looks prescient in a world tackling climate change. His dislike of ugly buildings is well noted: he famously described an extension to London’s National Gallery in 1984 as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. He loves the arts, and is an ardent fan of Shakespeare – his favourite play is Henry V. His appetite for intellectual pursuits might, in fact, have even torpedoed the honeymoon of his first marriage: he was apparently more interested in tomes by South African writer Laurens van der Post than hanging out with new wife Princess Diana.
His bold personality may, perhaps, be to blame for occasional rumours that paint him as a quirky and privileged eccentric. According to someone close to Charles, no, he doesn’t travel with a custom toilet set. The King himself told my source “it’s crap”, while they were on a walkabout in Brisbane. Nor, as claimed in Jeremy Paxman’s 2006 On Royalty, is Charles served seven boiled eggs in a line, so that if an egg was too runny, he can knock the top of the next one, hoping it will be just right. A former royal butler recently debunked this, telling The Independent that “it made no sense” as the King “hates waste”.
It is true that the King is a fan of eggs – coddled, baked and mashed into salad leaves. But not, we have learned, leaking fountain pens, as seen in the viral video of him losing his temper over a malfunctioning one, while signing a guestbook at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland last year.
“Oh god, I hate this [pen]!” Charles says, standing up and handing the pen to his wife Camilla, the Queen Consort, who looks well-practised at swooping in to steady the ship when Charles has a moment of frustration.
There are certain facts about Charles, though, that do suggest kingly habits. He doesn’t do lunch and that a pre-mixed Martini (said to be 50/50 gin and dry vermouth) is carried by aides in a plastic container for evening receptions or dinners; he loves a mutton pie when on a shoot; and runs his vintage DB6 Volante convertible on wine and cheese… literally. “My old Aston Martin, which I’ve had for 51 years, runs on – can you believe this – surplus English white wine, and whey from the cheese process,” he told the BBC in 2021.
He’s “a mixture of extravagance and thriftiness”, according to another source. “He’ll keep an old tweed coat and darn it loads of times to keep it going.” Yet he’s a seeker of quality. “It’s the details – [from] a cushion cover to the chime of a clock – that matter,” the source adds.
Charles is hardworking, verging on workaholic – something Camilla has to keep in check. He can often be found slumped at his desk asleep late at night. He’s very hands-on: he famously writes by hand to everybody, as well as all the memos to staff. “He’s an endless organiser. There is an obsessive element of control which is good and bad.”
But, eggs, Aston Martins and architecture aside, what do we know of the private mind of our new monarch? “He’s a deeply feeling, spiritual man,” I’m told by the royal correspondent Robert Jobson, the author of Our King: Charles III, a new biography that examines the man behind the crown, including his relationships with his sons, William and Harry. “He doesn’t like confrontation and expects them to act as grown-ups.”
He’s referring, of course, to “the stalemate” between the two, who have fallen out – something King Charles will try to ignore at his coronation on 6 May. Prince Harry will attend his father’s ceremony alone in an “in-and-out job”, while the Duchess of Sussex skips the ceremony to look after Prince Archie on his fourth birthday and Princess Lilibet in California. But, despite the Duchess’s absence from the ceremony, the official souvenir program for King Charles III’s coronation features a 2018 family portrait with Harry and Meghan, taken for Charles’s official 70th birthday.
On many levels, Charles and Meghan have “a lot in common”, a royal expert tells me. “He likes healthy eating and yoga – they both only eat organic – he shares the holistic side of her.” He used to fondly call her “Tungsten” – the toughest and most unbending natural metal. This “healthy respect for her strength of personality” is “likely to have waned”, however, since the couple’s post-Megxit US TV interview with Oprah Winfrey, when Meghan seemed to accuse the royal family of racism – which Harry later subsequently clarified as “unconscious bias”. Neither did the Sussexes’ Netflix series Harry & Meghan, or the publication of Harry’s revelatory memoir Spare, help relations that were already fraught.
Charles mentioned at his first address to the nation as King that he wished to “express my love for Harry and Meghan as they continue to build their lives overseas”, and he occasionally dishes out olive branches – a clear sign he wants a united royal family.
“Harry is Charles’s ‘darling boy’. He’s very fond of him and feels sympathy for the position he’s in,” according to a source. “He wants to keep a path open for his return and is concerned for his mental health and doesn’t want to damage it further.
“But William is Charles’s heir and heir to the crown. William wants the door closed on his brother at this time – and he can be persuasive and forceful with his father. It’s a really tough position for Charles to be in. A tightrope walk for him.”
Jobson agrees. “Now William is much closer to Charles, but he’s bereft that his other son is isolated and so full of vitriol – as any father would be.”
For the ceremony, Prince Harry will be seated behind other senior royals in Westminster Abbey. Charles is sad, as any father would be, about his and Diana’s warring sons. Harry and William have no plans to talk on the big day, according to reports. According to the Duke of Sussex himself, in Spare, Charles said: “Please boys. Don’t make my final years a misery.” The King is known for being a bit soft on his sons – he’s simply not the type to read out the riot act.
“There were so many years when the two boys ganged up on Charles – both were resentful of the institution and rebelled against it but eventually William accepted his fate, and that hurt Harry a lot, and they were no longer brothers in arms,” says a source. “William became aligned with the institution and Harry just couldn’t rally round to join him leaving him isolated.”
In the build-up to the big day, a historic display of pomp and pageantry, Charles will have been trying on the traditional majestic robes and bespoke slippers made of calf leather from Switzerland, and making sure there are no slip-ups. But his priority will be making sure the oath that he swears is exactly what he, as King, wants to say.
“Charles knows this is a crucial time in the history of the British monarchy – this is the moment he has to get people onside,” says Jobson. “The younger generation is not engaged in the same way as they were in the past.” According to a poll, more than a third of Gen Z want the monarchy to be abolished.
But he’s defying critics and achieving public support elsewhere, according to a poll in the Daily Mail. More than half of the country thinks the monarchy is good for Britain and nearly two-thirds believe he will make a good king.
Being crowned king is not without heartache. Charles has been through an unhappy time recently, losing both his parents, who won’t be far from his mind as he prepares for his investiture at Westminster Abbey, just as his mother did in 1953.
In his first speech as the new monarch, the emotion was clearly visible as he signed off with a tribute to his late parents, saying: “To my darling Mama, as you begin your last great journey to join my dear late Papa, I want simply to say this: thank you.”
A slimmed-down monarchy has long been thought to be a priority for Charles. By reducing the amount of money spent on the extended royal family, it will be more cost-effective. But it is also a delicate area that must be handled with diplomacy – and some family members have their own views on the topic. “Well, I think the ‘slimmed down’ was said in a day when there were a few more people around,” Princess Anne said in a rare TV interview this week for a Canadian broadcaster. “It doesn’t sound like a good idea from where I’m standing, I would say. I’m not quite sure what else we can do.” When asked what type of King her brother will be, she joked, “Well, you know what you’re getting because he’s been practising for a bit, and I don’t think he’ll change.”
If that hints at possible tensions within the royal family, Charles at least knows Camilla will be his rock. “Camilla is not fazed by the trappings of monarchy – all the sorts of nonsense that goes with the territory,” says Jobson.
Majesty Magazine’s Ingrid Stewart tells me that Charles and Camilla have the kind of relationship “a lot would envy” because “they laugh a lot together”. “Since he’s been with her, he seems so much happier. They are really fun together.”
Camilla revealed to Vogue last year that her marriage with Prince Charles is sometimes like “ships passing in the night, but we always sit down together and have a cup of tea and discuss the day”.
Camilla “understands him” and “listens to his ups and downs”, says Jobson. “As a King, I think it’s a very lonely path… she’s a great protector of him.”
Charles and Camilla are “very self-contained people” and “confident in their own abilities”, another close source tells me. “Together they are a stronger unit than apart – but they can function quite happily on their own.”
At Camilla’s private Ray Mill home in Wiltshire, which she bought in the mid-1990s after her divorce from Andrew Parker Bowles – a 15-minute drive away from Highgrove – she can “kick off her shoes”, “cook in her dressing gown”, enjoy a “big G&T” and watch Coronation Street, which Charles loathes, according to reports. She also doesn’t have to worry about how the place looks – “Charles is so fussy about tidiness”.
A long time has passed since 23-year-old Camilla Shand first met the eligible royal heir, then 22, at a polo match in 1970, just one year after Charles’s investiture as the Prince of Wales.
Yet despite their close connection, it took another three decades for the couple to wed. Camilla went on to marry her “naughty ex” Parker Bowles in 1973, while Charles wed Diana in 1981. “He had a love for Diana, but I think he knew that he shouldn’t have married her,” says Jobson. “I think even to this day he regrets not being strong enough to actually act upon his gut feeling.
“I think he tried [to make it work] until the marriage irretrievably broke down… then he went back to the woman who I would simply describe as the love of his life.”
Camilla will be crowned Queen alongside her husband on Saturday, but once the day is over, allegiances pledged and bunting packed away, the pair will be back to the busy day-to-day world of engagements and meet-and-greets. Charles’s down-time will no doubt be highly-prized. But how will he spend it? In characteristically various ways, no doubt. He enjoys the radio humour of The Goon Show, and admires JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books. He’s also known to appreciate the poetry of Dylan Thomas, the music of Leonard Cohen and Hubert Parry, and he adores Bach. He likes to build dry stone walls and paint and is a very good watercolourist, even if he doesn’t have a lot of time to pick up his brushes.
Fortunately for the monarch, Charles is also good at finding respite away from the crowds, particularly at his Scottish residence Birkhall, on the 52,000-acre Balmoral estate by the River Muick in Aberdeenshire, where he likes to go deer stalking. This is where, in the late Queen’s final hours, he foraged for mushrooms in the woods after spending time by his mother’s bedside. When he’s not in London at Clarence House, or nearby at Windsor Castle, he’s ambling about his garden at Highgrove House in Gloucestershire, with its specially designed reed bed sewage system which is used for all the house’s waste.
Charles has pledged to stay out of politics, yet as Prince of Wales, he petitioned ministers on subjects from badger culling to the Iraq War and alternative herbal medicines. He told world leaders at the 2021 Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, that time had “quite literally run out” for the planet. Now, as King, he’s had to curb his campaigning spirit.
Having spent a lifetime as heir, no one could be as prepared to take the crown as Charles. However long his reign may be, it can be said that the nation does know the man who will be walking through Westminster Abbey to his destiny. But let’s hope that on the return journey, as the new King and his Queen rattle about in the elaborate 260-year-old Gold State Coach, his aides are ready and waiting to pour him a very strong Martini.