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How Prince Charles learned to make the best of waiting

He’s been in line for the throne longer than any heir in history—and he’s worked it to his advantage
John Fraser
LONDON - MAY 18: Queen Elizabeth II presents Prince Charles, Prince of Wales with the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal of Honour during a visit to the Chelsea Flower Show on May 18, 2009 in London. The Victoria Medal of Honour is the highest accolade that the Royal Horticultural Society can bestow. (Photo by Sang Tan/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Game of thrones
Sang Tan/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Throughout most of his adult life, Prince Charles, heir to the throne and king the moment his mother, the Queen, dies and hands on the hereditary torch, has been the principal victim of the media royalty mania. He has been subjected to more ridicule, innuendo, outright fabrication and grotesque invasion of privacy than almost any other individual alive today. Part of the problem, of course, is that he has opinions that some people disagree with. An equal part of the problem is that the women in the house of Windsor live a long time, and he has been in the waiting line longer than any heir to the throne in history.

The longevity of the Windsor women is not a joke, at least not to him. His beloved Scottish grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, the wife of King George VI, ruled our hearts much longer as the Queen Mother than she ever did as queen consort, and lived on till she was past her century. Charles’s own mother, our Queen, looks set to break even that record. Since he was born in 1948 and the Queen won’t reach her centenary until 2026 and, say, we give her two years of grace following that epochal moment, Charles can look forward to wearing the imperial state crown round about 2028 or 2029, at the ample age of 80 or 81. His enemies wonder if he winces when loyalists say, “Long live the Queen,” which shows how little they understand Prince Charles. His flaws, both those that are real and those that are imagined but nevertheless widely ascribed to him, have been trotted out so often and for so long that most people haven’t any real and tangible idea who he really is.

Everything that is decent and good about Prince Charles comes as a shock to those who insist he is a crank or a wonk or a wuss or a doofus or a whatever. His skill at athletics, his bravery during assassination attempts (check out Google for the one in Australia in 1994 if you want a definition of sang-froid), his prophetic wisdom about ecology, his genius as a loving and wise father, his careful aim at arrogant professionals (like architects who enjoy obliterating or desecrating monuments of the past such as the National Gallery in London or the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto), his astuteness as a businessman, his support of corporate responsibility, his effectiveness in fighting social inertia amongst the young and unemployed, his inspired ability to transcend religious differences and animosity, his dutifulness to his mother and sovereign: whenever you hear about these qualities Charles possesses, they always seem to be presented as a footnote to a portrait of either an idiot savant (at best) or—more typically—a meddling, dangerous fool. And still he waits and waits.

Not once, however, has Prince Charles ever complained about the wait—nor even hinted at the frustration of being perpetually second in line. Vice-presidents in the United States can hardly take being in such invidious succession for four years, let alone two terms. In Communist China or the old Soviet Union, to be second in line—under Chairman Mao or Comrade Stalin—was usually a death sentence. Charles is a human being, and we know, from both his friendly and unfriendly biographers, that he has had periods of despondency, but it has not been because he is not yet king, it is because he is subject to the normal range of emotions we all are, in his case attached to the specifics of his fate. He did not wake up one day in his boyhood and suddenly say: “Yippee, I am going to be king,” and spend the rest of his days wondering when that day would be. There was a gradual awareness that a heavy duty had been laid upon his shoulders, and eventually he discovered that part of the weight was that there would be a long wait.

That’s also why, a long time ago, he clearly came to the obvious realization that he would be Prince of Wales, the traditional title for the male heir of the monarch going back to the fourteenth century, for decades, and king for only a few years. And with that realization came the decision that it would be as the heir to the throne, rather than as someone seated upon it, that he would have to make his mark in the span of his lifetime.

The long wait gave Charles more freedom to pursue his interests and causes, and to speak out about them. It has also allowed all the doubters, nitpickers, naysayers, and the rest of the sour brigade amongst the commentariat to pick away at his role, his person, his dreams, and all his solid achievements, along with whatever turmoil and errors are also part of his life, as they are a part of everyone’s lives. As Shakespeare’s Henry V duly observes, he has been subject to “the breath of every fool.”

But what is especially depressing in the attacks on Prince Charles is the shallowness of the research and insight, coupled with what the observers always feel is the irrefutable logic of calling for the end of the monarchy. To me, there are only two legitimate questions here. Is it for certain that Charles will succeed to the throne and be King of Canada? And the other obvious one is: what kind of king will he be?

In a thoughtful column in the Globe and Mail, Michael Valpy noted that the success of the royal tour of Prince William and his bride had brought about commentary to the effect that it would be great if we could bypass Prince Charles as the heir and go straight to William. “In our throwaway, hyper-obsolescence culture, talk in the Queen’s realms has been turning to skipping the next generation—throwing away old and weird Prince Charles from the line of succession—and going straight to Prince William when his grandmother lays down the torch . . . The current charge against [Charles] is that his public policy advocacies go too far beyond the limits of constitutional permissibility for him to be acceptable as a sovereign. So junk him.”

Constitutional monarchy, Valpy continues, is not a beauty contest and does not require a pop star or a rocket scientist. “It requires someone committed to the job. The Queen, when she became Queen at 25, pledged to commit her life to the people whose sovereign she was. She has done that . . . No one doubts that Charles would make the same pledge . . . Charles has been trained for the job of sovereign since birth. He’s obviously socially compassionate. His interests are the leading issues of the day. That answers the question of whether he’ll make a good king.”

But exactly what kind of a good king? It’s worth looking at the way Prince Charles has gone about arousing some of the controversies for which he is so famous, if not notorious. Usually they tell you much more about the naysayers and complainers than about himself. His life is much more than an open book: it is an entirely exposed encyclopedia. The first thing it is important to understand is that if he has used his position of prominence to speak out on issues that inflame some observers, he is far from being the dilettante the media so often accuses him of being. He has researched and thought deeply about issues as well as using his position to consult widely and distinctively. More than any other member of the royal family, he understands the multicultural and multiracial world we all now find ourselves in. He has also looked deeply into the stresses of life for ordinary citizens, especially those squeezed into council housing in Britain, and he feels a compulsion to investigate and, where he thinks it important, to speak out. Prince Charles does understand the restraints of his position and the parameters of the permissible. He’s just not prepared to accept other people’s definitions of those parameters, and when he speaks out, it is usually after long consultation and brooding.

Let me anatomize one instance that might have bypassed most people in Canada. In some circles in Britain, it caused near hysteria. A few years ago, when Prince Charles was talking about some of the antique constitutional paraphernalia and baggage he must carry along with his title and fate, he humbly suggested that he would prefer the title “Defender of Faith” rather than the traditional title of “Defender of the Faith,” which all British sovereigns take on at their succession and coronation. He dropped one word. The word “the.” The firestorm of controversy which ensued said much about the challenges Charles faces all the time, trying both to remain true to himself and to nudge the monarchy more fully into contemporary life.

There is a legitimate and pertinent point to be made here.

When Charles becomes king, in Britain he also becomes head of the Church of England.

To be true to himself, the Prince of Wales expressed the notions of his heart with humility and sincerity. Also with some courage. For me, that adds up to a brave man, someone to look up to, someone to be inspired by, someone who is able to transcend his malefactors and keep struggling toward the light and away from the dark. A man no longer young, but quite possibly someone who has become a man for all seasons, someone approaching Geoffrey Chaucer’s “very parfitt gentle Knight.”

But what of Canada? What would he be like as King of Canada? Well, what has he been like? Nothing from any of his royal tours and short-haul trips suggests he would be anything other than a good king. Yet for some time now, certainly a couple of decades, successive Canadian administrations have seemed to try to keep their distance from him. If there was distancing from the Queen herself, the froideur reserved for her heir was more than simply chilling. We found one excuse after another to keep him off our shores. On the occasions when he came, either on a private visit or when he was finally allowed to come with the duchess, on a trip practically designed to keep him away from the people and places that would have ensured a successful visit, he nevertheless charmed everyone who had a chance to meet him, with both his kindness and his courtesy, but above all with his intelligent curiosity.

I met him on two occasions during the immediate past period. One was at an event organized largely by Toronto admirers that included an exhibition of young Ontario artists and was set in the charmingly comme il faut surroundings of the historic Gooderham and Worts Distillery District. It was a toss-up which was more surprising: people’s excitement at being in proximity to royalty, or the amazement that Prince Charles was not the loon they had read about.

I met Charles, briefly, during the last trip. It was at the vast reception tendered by the government of Ontario at the Carlu, in downtown Toronto. I knew one young civil servant, or at least I vaguely remembered him after he came up to me and rather gleefully pointed out that I had been his Sunday school teacher at St. Clement’s Anglican Church in Toronto. We were thus in the midst of a kind of reunion when the Prince was suddenly about to reach us as he was being perambulated around the large room. My former student, brasher even than me, got to shake his hand first and then introduced me to Charles by saying I had been his Sunday school teacher. A hilarious discussion then ensued about the state of Sunday schools in Toronto (dismal) and about how good a teacher I might have been (or not), and concluded with a sweet compliment about working in such beleaguered barricades of the faith.

I thought to myself, well, if he’s prepared to put up with dismal receptions like this, prepared to talk to superannuated Sunday school teachers, prepared to take on the whole business of appreciating Canadians for whatever honest endeavours or voluntary work they do, prepared to speak out on issues that he feels need some special attention because they will affect all of us, then he will do very nicely as a king of Canada. His own outlook on the world is dramatically different from that of, say, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but that in itself seems to me a plus and an argument to put up against those who think the Harper administration’s championing of the monarchy will identify the institution with partisan politics. I think Prince Charles, as king, would know exactly how to handle all this, and I also think we’d be lucky to have him and he’d be lucky to have us.

Excerpted from The Secret of the Crown: Canada’s Affair with Royalty by John Fraser © 2012. Excerpted with permission of House of Anansi Press. All rights reserved.