King Charles III: Longest monarch-in-waiting whose time has finally come

·12 min read
Britain's Prince Charles and Britain's Queen Elizabeth attend the Queen's Body Guard for Scotland (also known as the Royal Company of Archers) Reddendo Parade in the gardens of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland, Britain, June 30, 2022. Jane Barlow/Pool via REUTERS
King Charles pictured with the Queen in June this year. (Reuters)

It is the role he has been destined to fulfil all his life and one that he has waited to occupy longer than any other heir in British history.

Now, following the death of the Queen at the age of 96, the Prince of Wales has become King Charles III. Camilla has become the Queen Consort and William and Kate will now be known as the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and Cambridge.

For many years there was speculation that he would never be sovereign at all. Compared to his mother, who commanded immense respect and loyalty during her 70-year long reign, Charles has rarely enjoyed universal popularity.

Royal officials always maintained the normal rules of succession would apply, and indeed, the coronation of Charles as king will take place imminently. But what will this mean for the British monarchy?

Charles Philip Arthur George was born on 14 November 1948 at Buckingham Palace. He was only three when his mother acceded the throne as Queen Elizabeth II in 1952.

Le Roi du Royaume-Uni George VI avec sa fille la princesse Elizabeth, son gendre le Duc Philip d'Edimbourg et son épouse la reine Elizabeth, après la naissance de son petit-fils, le prince Charles. (Photo by API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
King George VI with then-Princess Elizabeth, Prince Philip and the then Queen Elizabeth after Charles's birth. (PA Images)

As a child, he was sickly and by far the most sensitive of the four royal children — in many ways the least suited to the role of monarch.

Asked years later about the time he first realised he would be king one day, he said that there had been no sudden moment of revelation, just a slow “ghastly, inexorable” dawning.

His relationship with his father the Duke of Edinburgh was said to be "difficult" while his mother was often preoccupied with her royal duties.

Charles complained later that he had been "starved" of parental affection. He was closest to his grandmother, the Queen Mother, who gave him hugs, took him to the ballet, and, as he later recalled "taught me how to look at things".

Aged 13, he was sent to his father’s old boarding school Gordonstoun, in Scotland, but hated it. He once described it as a "prison sentence" and "Colditz in kilts".

He left with six O-levels and two A-levels, yet went to Trinity College at Cambridge University to study anthropology, archaeology and history.

Prince Charles shakes hands with Robert Chew the headmaster of Gordonstoun School on his first day as a pupil there, 1st May 1962. He is accompanied by his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, who also attended the school.  Location: Near Elgin, Grampian, Scotland, UK. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)
Charles shakes hands with Robert Chew the headmaster of Gordonstoun School on his first day as a pupil there, in May 1962. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)
Prince Charles leaves Senate House, Cambridge, after receiving his Master of Arts degree from the university. The Prince spent three years from 1967 at Trinity College, Cambridge, reading archaeology, anthropology and history.
Charles leaves Senate House, Cambridge, after receiving his Master of Arts degree from the university. (PA Images)

During his second year, he also spent some time at University College Wales in Aberystwyth, where he was taught the Welsh language ahead of his investiture as Prince of Wales.

Charles had been created Prince of Wales aged nine in 1958, but was officially invested at Caernarfon Castle in north Wales on 1 July 1969.

The investiture was held amid concerns about the increased visibility of the Royal Family on the TV, discussion about the relevance of them in a modern age, and a surge in Welsh nationalist sentiment.

Broadcast live on TV, it was watched by 19 million people around the UK and more than 500 million abroad.

(Original Caption) Flanked by two policemen, Queen Elizabeth II presents newly invested Prince of Wales, Prince Charles to the Welsh people after ceremonies during which she crowned him here. On the step behind her are (L to R); Princess Anne, Prince Charles, and Prince Philip. Behind them are (L to R); Queen Mother Elizabeth, and Princess Margaret, flanked by officials.
The Prince of Wales, centre, with other members of the Royal Family after his investiture ceremony at Caernarfon Castle. (Getty Images)

Charles began training as a jet pilot in the RAF in 1971 then enrolled at Dartmouth naval college, before serving on a number of Royal Navy ships and training as a helicopter pilot.

It was around this time that he started dating Camilla Shand, now the Duchess of Cornwall, but marriage to her was out of the question at the time.

According to historian Walter Bedell Smith, Camilla’s dating history was a strike against her, because the future king needed to marry someone “who at least appeared virginal”.

Charles’s entry to the navy put the brakes on their relationship, and Camilla married Andrew Parker Bowles, her longer-term on and off boyfriend in 1973.

A “more suitable” match was engineered between the Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, whom his uncle Lord Mountbatten called a “sweet charactered girl”.

24/02/1981: On this day in 1981, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announce their engagement  PRINCE CHARLES AND LADY DIANA SPENCER AT BUCKINGHAM PALACE AFTER THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THEIR ENGAGEMENT.  Picture by PA Court Photographer Ron Bell
Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announced their engagement in February 1981. (PA)

Charles was said to feel pressure from his father into proposing after only six months and the couple’s engagement was announced in February 1981. Charles was 31 and Diana only 19.

In their engagement interview, when asked if they were in love, his now infamous reply “Whatever ‘in love’ means” was to set the tone of the marriage.

He is said to have wept on the eve of their wedding in July 1981.

Charles, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Princess Diana (1961 - 1997), wave to the crowds following their wedding ceremony at St Paul's Cathedral, London, UK, 29th July 1981. (Photo by Princess Diana Archive/Hulton Royals Collection/Getty Images)
The Prince and Princess of Wales wave to the crowds following their wedding ceremony at St Paul's Cathedral July 1981. (Princess Diana Archive/Hulton Royals Collection/Getty Images)
21st JUNE : On this day in 1982 Prince William was born. The Prince and Princess of Wales leaving the Lindo Wing,  at St. Mary's Hospital after the birth of their baby son, Prince William.   (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
The Prince and Princess of Wales leaving the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital after the birth of their baby son, Prince William, on 21 June 1982. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Their son and heir, Prince William, was born less than a year later followed by Prince Harry in September 1984.

But even by this point the royal marriage was in difficulty.

In a letter to a friend, Charles wrote: "How could I have got it so wrong?"

In 1986, Charles rekindled his romance with Camilla, admitting later that his marriage had "irretrievably broken down".

Diana, who also took lovers, later told Martin Bashir during the now controversial BBC Panorama interview in 1995: "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded."

Lady Diana Spencer and Camilla Parker-Bowles at Ludlow Races where Prince Charles is competing, 1980. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Archive Photos)
Lady Diana Spencer and Camilla Parker-Bowles at Ludlow Races, where Prince Charles was competing, in 1980. (Express Newspapers/Archive Photos)
Martin Bashir interviews Princess Diana in Kensington Palace for the television program Panorama. (Photo by © Pool Photograph/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Martin Bashir interviews Princess Diana in Kensington Palace for the TV programme Panorama. (Corbis via Getty Images)

After the publication of Andrew Morton’s book Diana: Her True Story in 1992, there could be no doubt that the marriage between Charles and Diana was over.

The couple’s separation was announced in December that year and their divorce finalised in August 1996.

Charles’ reputation was severely damaged. He was portrayed as a bad father and blamed for Diana’s torment. It is a perception he has struggled to shake off.

When she was killed in a car accident in Paris in August 1997, he seemed all too aware how the nation would react. When he heard the news he is said to have turned to his courtiers and said: "They’re all going to blame me, aren’t they?"

However happier times were to follow. Camilla, now the Queen Consort, holds a place in his heart which he has always said is "non-negotiable".

They married in a civil ceremony in April 2005 at the Guildhall, Windsor. Their approval ratings had improved as the public realised their love for each other.

Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales and his new bride Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall pose for their official photograph in the White Drawing Room at Windsor Castle following their marriage. Dress by Robinson Valentine, hat by Philip Treacy. | Location: Windsor, United Kingdom UK. (Photo by © Pool Photograph/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall in the White Drawing Room at Windsor Castle following their marriage. (Corbis via Getty Images)
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA - NOVEMBER 15:  Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Prince Charles, Prince of Wales arrive at the CHOGM Dinner at the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel during the Commonwealth Heads of Government 2013 Opening Ceremony at the Lotus Theatre on November 15, 2013 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The Royal couple are visiting Sri Lanka in order to attend the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.Prince Charles, representing the Queen will open the meeting.   Camilla arrived wearing the Boucheron tiara that once belonged to the Queen Mother and the Queen's Family Order, her highest personal order of merit, pinned to her shoulder. (Photo by Arthur Edwards - Pool/Getty Images)
Charles and Camilla in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 2013, the year he became the longest serving heir to the throne. (Getty Images)

Even the Queen acknowledged their happiness, saying in speech after the wedding – using the language of her beloved horse world: “My son is home and dry with the woman he loves. They have been over difficult jumps – Bechers Brook and The Chair – and all kinds of other terrible obstacles. And now they’re in the winners’ enclosure.”

In early 2022, the Queen expressed her sincere wish that Camilla be known as "Queen consort" when Charles became king.

Charles became the longest-serving heir apparent at 59 years, two months and 13 days – a record previously set by his great-great-grandfather, King Edward VII in 2013, at the age of 65.

Now at the age of 73, he becomes the oldest king in nearly 200 years – the previous record-holder William IV was nearly 65 when he became king in 1830.

Yet Charles remains somewhat unpopular with the British public. Royal biographer Penny Junor believes he is – unfairly – still blamed for Diana’s unhappiness.

"He gets a hard time because his marriage failed," she says. "He’s never been forgiven for that – because Diana blamed him and he never said a word.

"He’s never explained what went on in his marriage. His view has always been that history will judge him."

Britain's Queen Elizabeth delivers the Queen's Speech during the State Opening of Parliament, next to Charles, Prince of Wales, in London, Britain October 14, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville/Pool
The Queen and Charles during the 2019 state opening of parliament. (Reuters)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 13:  (EDITORS NOTE: This is a screen shot from the Gov.UK website) A section of a letter to the former minister for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Elliot Morley from HRH Prince Charles on May 13, 2015 in London, England. Letters written by Prince Charles were sent to seven departments under Tony Blair's government between 2004 and 2005 are now available for the public to view after The Guardian newspaper won a ten year battle over the right to publish them.  (Photo by Photo Illustration by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A section of a letter to the former minister for the environment, food and rural Affairs Elliot Morley from Prince Charles, which was sent between 2004 and 2005. (Getty Images)

As heir, Charles always lived in the shadow of his mother, the Queen, whose well-known mantra is "never complain, never explain". In contrast, he has exasperated some by seemingly using his status to influence government decisions.

In 1987 alone, he sent more than 1,000 letters — nicknamed the 'Spider memos' thanks to Charles’ scrawled handwriting — to recipients including cabinet ministers.

Both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair had occasion to complain about his interference in the legislative process during their respective tenures as prime minister.

Charles admitted that he sometimes felt "swamped with vilification and abuse". Yet the letters also showed he is also charming and he often refers to himself as someone with ‘old-fashioned views’.

However, the crucial question is whether he is able to keep these views to himself. During a documentary about his 70th birthday in 2018, Charles said he wouldn’t "meddle" when he became king.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 14: Prince Charles, Prince of Wales attends an Age UK Tea on the day Prince Charles celebrates his 70th birthday at Spencer House on November 14, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images)
Prince Charles at an Age UK Tea on his 70th birthday at Spencer House, London, on 14 November 2018. (UK Press via Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 22:  Prince Charles, Prince of Wales during The Prince of Wales' 70th Birthday Patronage Celebration held at Buckingham Palace on May 22, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images)
Prince Charles during The Prince of Wales' 70th Birthday Patronage Celebration held at Buckingham Palace on 22 May 2018 in London. (UK Press via Getty Images)

He said: "But I always wonder what meddling is, I mean I always thought it was motivating but I’ve always been intrigued, if it’s meddling to worry about the inner cities as I did 40 years ago and what was happening or not happening there.

"The conditions in which people were living. If that’s meddling I’m very proud of it."

His Prince’s Trust charity has supported thousands of disadvantaged young people across the UK since Charles set it up in 1976. He has also raised awareness about climate change and plastic pollution.

WINDSOR, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 08: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 24 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall wear a face masks as they attend an event to thank local volunteers and key workers from organisations and charities in Berkshire, who will be volunteering or working to help others over the Christmas period in the quadrangle of Windsor Castle on December 8, 2020 in Windsor, England. During the event members of the Royal Family also listened to Christmas carols performed by The Salvation Army Band. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo - Pool/Getty Images)
Charles and Camilla in face coverings at an event to thank local volunteers and key workers from organisations and charities in Berkshire, in December 2020. (Getty Images)

He certainly seems intent on being a hard-working monarch. Over the last few years, as the Queen reduced her official engagements, Charles took on more of her duties.

In 2022, he presided over the opening of parliament and read out the Queen's Speech, which lays out the government's legislative programme.

He sat not on the sovereign's throne but on the consort's throne, which used to be taken by the Duke of Edinburgh. William and Camilla sat on either side, in the chair of state.

A space remained next to him, where the Queen’s missing throne is usually located, under the opulent canopy, with the monarch’s Imperial State Crown in front on a velvet cushion.

Alongside Princess Anne and Prince William, he also took the Trooping the Colour salute on behalf of the Queen on the first day of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

The Prince of Wales reads the Queen's Speech during the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords, London. Picture date: Tuesday May 10, 2022.
Charles reads the Queen's Speech during the state opening of parliament in the House of Lords, London. (PA)
The Duke of Cambridge, the Prince of Wales (front) and the the Princess Royal during the Trooping the Colour ceremony at Horse Guards Parade, central London, as the Queen celebrates her official birthday, on day one of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations. Picture date: Thursday June 2, 2022.
The Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge and the the Princess Royal during the Trooping the Colour ceremony at Horse Guards Parade on the first day of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations. (PA)

During the coronavirus pandemic, despite catching the disease himself, he was never put off his work, spending every day of his isolation at his desk.

And he appeared on video messages frequently, sending support from his homes to the charities he would usually be visiting in person.

His role took on a new dimension in April 2021, when his father Prince Philip died, leaving him in more of a head of the family position.

The Royal Family were unable to mourn the Duke of Edinburgh in the traditional ceremonial manner due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Charles led the procession behind the Duke of Edinburgh's coffin, shared thanks with the public for their messages, and showed the emotion of the moment as he cried while viewing flowers at Windsor Castle.

Although his father had been retired for more than four years before his death, there was a shift for the whole family with the loss of its patriarch.

WINDSOR, ENGLAND - APRIL 17: Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Peter Phillips, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, Earl of Snowdon David Armstrong-Jones and Vice-Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence follow Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh's coffin during the Ceremonial Procession during the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on April 17, 2021 in Windsor, England. Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark was born 10 June 1921, in Greece. He served in the British Royal Navy and fought in WWII. He married the then Princess Elizabeth on 20 November 1947 and was created Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, and Baron Greenwich by King VI. He served as Prince Consort to Queen Elizabeth II until his death on April 9 2021, months short of his 100th birthday. His funeral takes place today at Windsor Castle with only 30 guests invited due to Coronavirus pandemic restrictions. (Photo by Pool/Samir Hussein/WireImage)
Charles leading his family in the funeral procession of his father, the Duke of Edinburgh in April 2021. (WireImage)
COVENTRY, ENGLAND - MAY 25: Prince Charles, Prince of Wales reacts as he travels on the heritage boat 'Scorpio' on the Coventry Canal on May 25, 2021 in Coventry, England. (Photo by Hannah McKay - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Prince Charles carrying out an in-person engagement on the heritage boat Scorpio on the Coventry Canal in May 2021. (Getty Images)

Charles then took himself to his Welsh home for some time alone before he returned to his public duties.

Despite ongoing turmoil in his family due to his son Harry's revelations about his childhood and his mental health, Charles has remained stoic and silent in public about his private life.

It was revealed that his plans as king will include greater access to the palaces for the public, with the potential for more rooms in the grand homes to be open to visitors for longer periods of the year.

It's long been speculated that Charles would prefer not to live in Buckingham Palace himself.

For a man who once quipped that, if he so wished, he could “simply go off and spend the rest of my life skiing” it’s clear from his life’s work that his greatest wish is to improve the lives of others.

How this manifests itself during his reign, we will need to wait and see.