PENNY JUNOR: One woman has made King Charles happier
PENNY JUNOR: Nearly 40 years ago I wrote that the then Prince Charles was one of the saddest people I’d met. One woman has changed all that…
What, I wonder, is going through the King’s mind, with his Coronation – the pinnacle of his career – now so close? What conflicting emotions as he prepares for the beginning of the rest of his life?
Grief still for his mother? Excitement? Terror? Probably all three.
Charles is an emotional man and he felt the loss of his mother deeply. Her funeral, just eight months ago was the last big state occasion in Westminster Abbey. His crowning was always going to have cut both ways, emotionally, and I imagine there will be moments during this stirring ceremony when he will be fighting back tears.
But it will, of course, be an exciting day: the formal beginning of his reign, his opportunity at last to put decades of preparation into practice, to use his position as monarch to truly make a difference to the future of the planet and the lives of individuals today, and to make the years that follow a Carolean Age that the history books will acclaim.
And yet, and yet… Who would want to be king these days? It must be a daunting, if not terrifying, prospect.
By loving him and supporting him, Camilla gave and continues to give Charles strength and confidence that he never had before, writes
Fundamentally shy and unsure of himself, Charles was required to be a very public figure
His mother came to the throne as a popular, pretty young princess, in an age of deference, when no one questioned the status quo. Seventy years on, he is a grizzled grandfather and times and attitudes have changed. He needs to make monarchy be seen to work in today’s utilitarian, egalitarian and transparent world, and to safeguard for the future the institution to which his beloved mother devoted her life.
The moment he feels the weight of St Edward’s Crown on his balding head, the decades of uncertainty and waiting will be over, his destiny fulfilled.
This crown has governed his life. Since he was a small boy he has known that, like it or not, he must one day wear it. It has brought him privilege beyond dreams and wealth that few can contemplate. But it has also brought him heartache and sorrow in equal measure.
Very few people have witnessed a Coronation before, and billions across the world will watch this one, fascinated not just to see the pageantry unfold but to see Queen Camilla, the former Mrs Parker Bowles, crowned alongside Charles. A sight that just 20 years ago seemed impossible, even to Charles and Camilla. Yet that today feels entirely right.
I first met Charles in 1986, and I liked him, admired what he was trying to do, and felt huge sympathy for his situation. He was charming and self-effacing, but desperate to find a meaningful role for himself while waiting for the top job to become vacant.
Fundamentally shy and unsure of himself, he was required to be a very public figure. He was a man constantly seeking the approval of his parents and failing to find it. A man who wanted to be useful, but who was surrounded by courtiers who would have had him condemned to a life of cutting ribbons. And all the while he was locked in an increasingly loveless marriage. Like most people who meet him in person, I became a fan.
Camilla gave Charles praise and encouragement, made him feel good about himself – things neither his parents nor Diana had ever done
Britain’s Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, are shown on their wedding day on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London, July 29, 1981
I met him because I was writing a book about him, having written a biography of Diana five years earlier. I have now been writing about him and his family for more than 40 years, and have supported him since that first meeting through thick and thin. It has not been an entirely comfortable position. After Diana’s untimely death, I wrote a book called Charles: Victim Or Villain about the famously three-cornered marriage, in an attempt to establish the truth.
Was he the victim of a terrible mismatch? Or, as Diana had suggested, had he callously used and abused an innocent young girl while carrying on with his mistress? The conclusion I came to was that there were no villains: they were all victims. Those views were based on the evidence I found, but they did not fit the popular narrative. And so, in the way of these things, I received hate mail; nasty, abusive letters; even death threats. And people spat at me in the streets.
Today, 25 years later, the messages arrive electronically, no longer in green ink on lined notepaper, and they are even nastier.
But as I watched the footage of Charles in Germany last month, on his first foreign tour as King, with Queen Camilla by his side, I felt 100 per cent vindicated. What a star he was.
In those few days in Berlin, he bore himself with humour, humility and dignity, yet spoke with authority and wisdom. It was clear he has assumed his mother’s mantle but is making it his own.
He was not afraid to raise issues that concern both, if not all, countries – something from which his mother would have pulled back. He was not just a figurehead delivering platitudes. He looked and spoke like a monarch for the 21st Century, a monarch with views backed up by a commendable track record. Camilla was also the perfect consort. Between them, they did Britain proud.
But if these decades have been uncomfortable for me, a mere biographer and commentator, think how much worse it must have been for him. And for Camilla.
Charles and Camilla are the real deal. And all the challenges that they will face in the coming months and years, as Britain and the realms adjust to their new monarch and his controversial Queen, will be borne – as most things in life can be – by mutual support, love and laughter
His mother left very big boots to fill. Charles is not her. She was reliably neutral, a blank canvas who offended no one. He is a figure of controversy, who has charmed and impressed those whom he has helped over the years, but who has also made powerful enemies.
He has a task ahead of him that no sane person would envy. He is 74 years old, and has worked long hours all his adult life, always putting duty ahead of everything else. Most men of his age are retired, something he will never know. Far from slowing down, he needs to find the stamina to up his game even more, and to use his influence and the soft power that he wields – for just as many years as he has left.
The monarchy is fragile. It is blatantly undemocratic and, many would argue, anachronistic. Charles is as aware of that as anyone. He knows that it exists only as long as the people want it, and with Elizabeth II gone, those who oppose it are becoming more strident. He and Camilla have had eggs thrown at them and been greeted by protesters wielding ‘Not My King’ placards on visits and walkabouts.
These protesters are still small in number. What is more worrying, though, is the growing number of people, many of them young, who don’t carry banners but are simply apathetic.
I don’t know anyone who has met Charles, in whatever capacity, and has not immediately warmed to him and appreciated what he has tried to achieve. But not everyone has met him and he has not always had a good press. His messy private life during his marriage to Diana, and the scandals that followed, took their toll on his popularity.
And his meddling has ruffled more than a few feathers. There were the ‘black spider memos’ and accusations of political interference, of using his position to veto multi-million-pound architectural schemes, and more recently, some dubious donations to his charities, with talk of cash for honours and carrier bags stuffed full of banknotes.
Prince William was only four at the time of my first encounter with Charles at Kensington Palace, Prince Harry just two. By that time, Charles and Diana were already leading largely separate lives, but the marriage had not yet imploded. As far as the public knew, the fairy tale was still alive.
Charles and Camilla arriving for the annual Order of the Garter Service at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle
What a way we have come since then. That day, I spent an hour and a half with him: just him, me and his then private secretary, Sir John Riddell, a truly delightful man – as most of the people who do or have worked for Charles are. In those 90 minutes I got a vivid snapshot of his life and its frustrations.
His study, where we chatted, was a small, cluttered room on the first floor, with an imposing portrait of his mother hanging directly over his desk. The symbolism could not have been starker.
On the desk lay a large diary with every hour of the day filled with entries. Within easy reach was a bookcase from which, at one point in the conversation, he took a copy of a work by Paracelsus, the 16th Century physician and alchemist. Charles had recently taken inspiration from it for a speech to the British Medical Association, which went down like a lead balloon – just one of many that caused outrage at that time.
On the carpeted floor were canvasses stacked against the wall: the Prince’s watercolours. As our time together drew to a close, I asked to see them and his eyes lit up. He rummaged in an old canvas fishing bag, repurposed to carry his paints and sketch pads. He found one pad and talked me through the drawings.
I came away from Kensington Palace that day and wrote in the opening page of my 1987 book, Charles: ‘Never have I met anyone who has done so much – largely unrecognised and unrewarded – and yet who feels he has contributed so little. He is one of the saddest people I have ever encountered.’
Would I say the same thing about him today?
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Unequivocally, no. That sadness so evident to me all those years ago has gone. And the reason is Camilla. There is no doubt that if she had walked away when the going got tough in the 1990s, when she was being treated so abominably by the media, or if Charles had been forced by his mother to give her up, which at one time seemed likely, we would be looking at a very different king today and the prospect of a much less promising reign.
By loving him and supporting him, Camilla gave and continues to give him strength and confidence that he never had before. She took an interest in his work, wanted to read his speeches, and to hear his thoughts and ideas. She gave him praise and encouragement, made him feel good about himself – things neither his parents nor Diana had ever done. The two had so much more in common and, crucially, they made each other laugh.
I was asked not so long ago whether I thought Charles felt any guilt about Diana. I said no. There was nothing to feel guilty about. What I thought he felt was a terrible sense of failure: failure to make the marriage work. Charles did everything he could to make Diana happy. He stopped seeing old friends she didn’t like, got rid of staff she didn’t care for, re-homed the faithful old dog he loved because she didn’t want him, cut down his workload to be at home with the children, which brought flak from the media.
Nothing did the trick, because, for all sorts of reasons, they were fundamentally unsuited. So they remained locked together, isolated and depressed in their misery.
Meet Camilla and you immediately understand what Charles fell in love with. See them together and you know that, even after all these years, they have something special.
I first encountered her in 1995, when she was newly divorced from Andrew Parker Bowles, and six years ago wrote her biography. She is no pussycat, but I do not recognise the ‘villain’ that Prince Harry has described in his various attacks from Montecito. In his memoir Spare, he even labelled her ‘dangerous’. She is warm, friendly and funny; not grand, but refreshingly normal and down to earth – and totally grounded by a solid and loving family background.
She also has a rather endearing tendency to get the giggles, not always at the best moments. In 2016 Charles and Camilla were in Croatia, on a tour of the Balkans, and a troupe of local dancers put on a show to welcome them. Dressed in brightly coloured traditional costume, they started hopping about to some very unusual music. It was a highly comical sight, and Camilla couldn’t help herself. Her shoulders began to heave – and a moment later, so did his.
It is clear Camilla is not just a companion for Charles’s old age, his plus-one. She is a strong woman with firm views that she is not afraid of expressing. And she is not cowed by rooms full of pale, stale males, the men in suits. The relationship is very much a marriage of equals – as was that of his parents – and she manages him and his moods, emotions and temper with great skill.
For Charles, every encounter is an opportunity to network: to recruit someone’s help for a charitable enterprise, to thank them for their support in whatever guise, or to introduce people to each other when he senses they might be able to solve some knotty problem between them. He runs his aides ragged, cramming in as many engagements and visits as can be fitted into a day – and then a few more – seldom stopping for coffee, lunch or tea, and ringing them at all hours with a new idea or thought.
He is very good at convening the top people in their field. Not many will turn down an invitation to Clarence House or Buckingham Palace. Most will magically find room in their diary for a meeting with the Prince of Wales or the King. This is one of the ways in which he has been so effective.
His depth of knowledge is impressive, built over a lifetime of consulting experts. He is passionate about everything he does. In some areas he has been far ahead of the public consensus, especially on climate change and the environment. Also on the importance of inter-faith dialogue. But he is deeply impatient, wanting ideas instantly translated into action. This is nothing new for him, but at 74 there’s an added urgency. Time is no longer on his side.
So he has tended to surround himself with people who have delivered, or people who have told him what he wanted to hear. And having heard it, he has not been particularly fussed about the detail. I suspect this explains how he has been caught up in scandals of one sort or another.
Camilla is a good influence on him, and dare I say it, a better judge of character. She also has her ear to the ground. She spends as much time as she can with her children and grandchildren and hears views that are not always voiced at the Palace.
They are a formidable pair. I once said the same about him and Diana and, before everything fell apart, in public they were. But privately, they were always a disaster.
Charles and Camilla are the real deal. And all the challenges that they will face in the coming months and years, as Britain and the realms adjust to their new monarch and his controversial Queen, will be borne – as most things in life can be – by mutual support, love and laughter.
However, there remains a paradox. On May 6, this exceptional, transformative septuagenarian will formally become head of an institution that many would say is past its sell-by date. He not only has to demonstrate that he is still fit for purpose, as I firmly believe he is, but to convince those who would be rid of it, that so too is the monarchy.
- Penny Junor is a Royal biographer.
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