This Saturday, Carlos III will be crowned King of England, a position for which he has been preparing all his life. The Queen’s consort, Camilla, will be with him. / AFP
Photo: AFP – BEN STANSALL
Perhaps there has never been a more fitting heir to the crown. Charles, Queen Elizabeth II’s eldest son and born to be king, ascended the throne after being the longest-serving heir apparent in the history of the British monarchy. As King Carlos III becomes sovereign of the world’s most important constitutional monarchy, he will be the head of the royal family with the most history and a symbol of continuity in a crisis-ridden country.
As he matured, he went from a clumsy, hesitant young man—and an unhappy middle-aged husband—to a confident, grizzled majesty at age 73, steeped in causes like climate change and environmental protection that were once extravagant but now look keep up with the times. Whether Carlos will ever enjoy the respect or affection his mother received is another question. Arriving on the throne at the age of 25, Elizabeth has reigned longer than most Britons, anchoring her country with stoic dignity as she navigates a tumultuous transition from global empire to reluctant membership of the European Union and its uncertain future after Brexit.
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Carlos’ journey was perhaps inevitably less applauded. His foibles and disappointments were mercilessly dissected by the media; his hobbies, from architectural criticism to organic farming, were often ridiculed; His marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales, which collapsed amid lurid tabloid headlines and mutual accusations of infidelity, remains for many the defining event of their public lives. At the low point of Carlos’ public life, in the mid-1990s, some critics went so far as to say that the scandal-plagued heir had lost his right to be king and that the crown should skip a generation and pass to his eldest son, Prince William, who was untainted by the scandals.
Nothing, of course, compared to his marriage to Diana. The dirty tabloid stories, the TV interviews (“There were three of us in this marriage,” Diana told the BBC, referring to her husband and Camilla Parker-Bowles, whom he later married), the acrimonious divorce and Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris in 1997, all this crystallized the image many had of Carlos as a clumsy scoundrel and of his family as a callous father-in-law.
Between 1991 and 1996, the percentage of people who said Carlos would make a good king fell from 82 percent to 41 percent, according to polling firm MORI. But Diana’s death was a turning point: Charles worked with Tony Blair, the prime minister at the time, to pressure his mother to honor Diana, amid a national outpouring of grief, and then devoted himself to rebuilding of his own image. All in all, he succeeded in his mission. Few Britons now dismiss the prospect of him being King Charles III, even if he sometimes looks more like an old-fashioned uncle than a national patriarch.
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Married to Camila since 2005, with whom he had a romantic relationship before and during his marriage to Diana, Carlos has found stability in his personal life. Last year, with the death of his father, Prince Philip, at the age of 99, he became the father of the Windsor family. Camilla, 74, who will assume the title of Queen Consort, is a solid and respected presence by his side. But Charles takes the helm of a royal family that has been rocked by a series of upheavals: a bitter feud with his youngest son, Prince Harry, and his wife, the American actress Meghan, and his brother Prince Harry’s unsavory relationships. Prince Andrew, with financier Jeffrey Epstein, which led to a civil suit against Andrew in which he was accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl. Carlos struggles to keep wayward family members at bay.
He has also long pushed for streamlining the monarchy, in part to reduce its costs to the treasury. As king, he would be able to put this plan into action. The end of the second Elizabethan era promises to be a momentous transition, not only because of the death of a beloved queen, but because Charles will bring his own ideas to work for which he has been preparing all his life.
“The style will be very different,” said Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at King’s College London who has written about the role of the monarchy in Britain’s constitutional system. “He will be an active king and he will probably use his prerogatives to the limit, but he will not go beyond that.” Charles, he said, was struggling to forge an identity as the Prince of Wales, a role he has held longer than anyone else, but for which there is no job description. He founded great charities such as the Prince’s Trust, which has helped almost a million disadvantaged young people, and championed causes such as sustainable urban planning and environmental protection long before they were fashionable.
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In recent years, she has taken on many of the Queen’s duties, from traveling abroad to the investiture, where knighthoods are given. On Remembrance Day, he laid a wreath at the memorial to fallen British soldiers in his mother’s name. At the opening of Parliament, he accompanied her to the Palace of Westminster.
Carlos also did not hesitate to intervene in sensitive political matters. He has regularly spoken out in favor of religious tolerance and against Islamophobia, and is believed by some to have helped dampen a potential anti-Muslim backlash after a series of deadly terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in London in 2005.
“She could have spent her time in nightclubs or doing nothing, but she found a role,” Bogdanor said.
Sometimes Carlos’ strong opinion gets him into trouble. In 1984 he derided the proposed extension of the National Gallery as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a very dear and elegant friend”. The plan was scrapped, but years later, prominent architects complained that his behind-closed-doors lobbying against projects he didn’t support was an abuse of his constitutional role.
In 2006, Charles caused concern when the British tabloid The Mail on Sunday published extracts from a diary he kept while representing the Queen at the official handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. He described the Chinese officials present as “horrific figures. “of wax” and said that after a “propaganda speech” by Chinese President Jiang Zemin, “we had to watch Chinese soldiers step on stage and lower the British flag and raise the last flag.”
Carlos won a court judgment against the publisher of The Mail for violating his right to privacy.
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As King, Carlos will have to keep his opinions to himself. His mother was so discreet that royal watchers could not decipher her positions even on hotly debated issues such as Brexit. Carlos has also been careful not to comment on Brexit, although he hinted at what he was thinking when he told the German parliament in 2020 that “no country is truly an island” and argued for Germany to continue working with the UK.
It is unclear whether Carlos will continue his extensive philanthropic work. He is a trustee or chairman of over 400 charities, in addition to the Prince’s Trust. But his charity work is not without problems: the chief executive of another Carlos charity, Michael Fawcett, resigned after being accused of knighting a Saudi billionaire donor.
For some, the scandal revealed one of Carlos’ greatest weaknesses: his lack of criteria for those around him. Aides have long questioned the conduct of Fawcett, who served as the prince’s valet before rising to positions of power in his charity network. But Carlos, whose spokesman said he was unaware of the cash-for-honors allegations, stuck by Fawcett. Carlos is still not very popular. Last year, he was voted favorite member of the royal family by just 11 percent of those polled, according to Ipsos MORI, trailing only the Queen; William and his wife Kate; Henry and Meghan; Princess Anne; Prince Philip; and one of the Queen’s great-grandchildren. For now, the future of the monarchy looks secure: 43 percent of people say the country would be worse off without it, while just 19 percent say it would be better off and 31 percent say it won’t matter. These figures hardly changed even after Harry and Meghan gave a sensational interview to Oprah Winfrey, in which they accused the royal family of being insensitive and racist.
For Carlos, perhaps the biggest personal challenge is healing the separation from his son. Enrique told Winfrey that his father had stopped returning his calls for a while. “There was a lot of pain,” Enrique said. There are few signs of a reconciliation and Harry is writing a memoir which those close to Buckingham Palace fear will reopen the wounds of the couple’s estrangement from the family.
Carlos must also deal with the legal consequences of his brother Andres’ relationship with Epstein. “It has grown in recent years,” said Penny Junor, royal historian. “He seems like a much more confident character, happier in his own skin.”