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18 January 2024

The triumph of King Charles

Robert Hardman’s obsequious biography pays court to a monarch who is enjoying his power over a deferential nation.

By Will Lloyd

The present King, as his father Prince Philip delicately put it, was raised by a coterie of “nannies, nurses and poofs”. But his earliest memory was of a pram, not people. Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor told his first biographer, Anthony Holden, that he remembered “lying in its vastness, overshadowed by its high sides”. That image fits as a metaphor for Charles’s life, and his constitutional position during its 75 years: forever prone, trapped, obscured. For a Prince of Wales adulthood is not a state achieved by escaping infancy.

His job, which was to wait for his mother to die, demanded gigantic stoicism. The oldest joke in his kingdom became how little of that quality Charles possessed. Pushed then pulled by alternating gusts of public adoration, and, more often, public hatred, he seemed to forget himself. Touring Malaysia in the 1980s, a young urchin asked the unhappy prince, “Who are you?” He replied: “I wish I knew.”

He does know now, though, if Robert Hardman’s fussily titled Charles III: New King. New Court. The Inside Story is anything to go by. Hardman, a senior journalist at the Daily Mail, is a powerful figure in royal journalism. His well-scheduled 2022 biography of Elizabeth II, Queen of Our Times, sold 58,000 copies in hardback. The cover flap on his Chaz book boasts that his Liz book was “presented by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky”. What military secrets could the decades of Windsor ribbon-cutting that Hardman describes unlock for Zelensky? Who knows. At 720 pages it was, at the very least, thick enough to stop a Russian bullet.

Several million yards of Windsor books exist. They are usually written by sycophants or axe-grinders, and come with perfume or pitchforks. Hardman belongs to the court-eunuch tradition of Windsor biography. (Prince Harry’s blockbuster Spare was sui generis, an unhinged historic rattler that belongs in its own wretched-amazing category.) Charles III promises a “contemporary portrait” of the new King and his new court. That means we meet our hero as he learns that his mother is dead in September 2022, and leave him at an afternoon church reception in Scotland in June 2023, a month after his coronation. “I have been allowed inside to follow it all,” writes Hardman.

In exchange for access, Hardman leaves his brain at the gates. (His acknowledgments “particularly” thank the team in the Buckingham Palace press office – uh oh…) Charles III becomes interesting, then, for the information that leaks across its pages by accident, like pools of blood seeping from underneath a closed door.

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What does the King do all day? What is it like to finally be a coin? Hardman meets the King in Windsor Great Park, where the monarchy has been torturing animals since 1066. Charles is mucking about with a tree. In the minimal space of two paragraphs, his stenographer manages to compare him to a sponge (“he has had much to absorb”) and a spectacular beast (“the metaphor of the stag as monarch”). Bathetic and sublime: there, inadvertently, is Charles in a nutshell.

When he was still a prince, Charles confessed some throne-yearning to his ex-biographer Jonathan Dimbleby: “Sometimes you daydream about the sort of things you might do…” Decades later Charles III shows us how those daydreams are playing out. He “takes on extra tasks which others might prefer to delegate”. He “shares his late mother’s capacity to absorb endless quantities of paperwork”. He “loves seeing the most intricate tasks performed in the traditional way – by hand”. He “regards correspondence as a form of relaxation”. He could “exist quite happily for the rest of his days on a daily diet of ‘something eggy with spinach’”. He tells Rishi Sunak that “we ought to send you out for a run” after the knife-thin PM overdoses on cakes during a Balmoral tea party.

At all times Charles is surrounded, bodyguarded and attended to by a flotilla of glittering blimps, nannies and ducal nobodies: Ms Tiggy Pettifer, Sir Tony Johnstone-Burt, Edward Fitzalan-Howard, Brigadier Stopford, Sir Tim, Sir Clive, GSM “Vern” Stokes… The court’s roll call reads like a crusty guest list for a country house murder mystery in Edwardian England. Camilla is described, with faint ludicrousness, as “an ordinary person who’s gone through the same things we all have”. Anyway, Hardman breathlessly informs us that Charles “now had the run of more residences than any monarch in modern times”. His “compulsive window-opening” means they are always cold. At his chilly cribs, Charles has replaced all the Queen’s nasty newspapers with back issues of Country Life, and, most majestically of all, “refuses to serve foie gras”. Is that all he wanted to do? Replace foie gras with omelettes at Sandringham?

The waiting heir had suffered infamously bad moods: gloom, self-pity, vanity, table-thumping. “I would never have worked for Prince Charles, not for double the money,” the late Queen Mother’s former equerry Major Colin Burgess admitted once. Now, unshackled from his decades-long adolescence, Charles can finally be what Hardman would no doubt call his own man.

His own King! Friends tell Hardman they notice “a new confidence”, a “serenity” about C-Rex; he “loves not having people always telling him something is too difficult”. They compare Charles to a boy handed a train set: “Suddenly you have a new one and you want to play with everything at the same time.” Hardman’s anecdotes and scenes, which generally involve the King looking at precious-metal hats, or hanging out at a gurdwara, usually end with a sentiment such as “that recurring sense of a King wanting to get on with it”. What is that “it”? Hardman never quite explains.

Two big things happened to the Windsors during Charles’s lifetime. The first began with the decision in 1969 by the Queen to broadcast a documentary about their lives: Royal Family. Gradually, the Windsors became fair game. Whatever was sacred about monarchy became tabloid profanity.

Meanwhile, Britain shrank. Patterns that had once seemed permanent fell into chaos. The home islands fractured; “the factors that provided for the forging of a British nation in the past have largely ceased to operate”, wrote the historian Linda Colley in 1992. Apart from one: monarchy. Britain could still offer, to itself and to the world, a perfect system, a pedigree breeding farm, one that could seamlessly turn a child into a commemorative mug. Royalty dignified and bolstered the awkward process of pulling down the flags and spiking all those guns around the globe. The family, even while it was derided, was still a consolation prize. No other country did royalty better or bigger. Windsorism was our last competitive national export.

The transition rolled heaviest over Charles. His marriage to Diana Spencer – barely mentioned by Hardman – had, in the words of Charles’s own diary, “all the ingredients of a Greek tragedy”. Diana threw herself down the stairs; Diana cut herself with a lemon slicer; Diana threw herself at a glass display cabinet; Diana cut her chest and her thighs with a penknife. For hours she danced alone with her Walkman. Charles read Carl Jung on their honeymoon. Seen in this context, the prince’s outbursts in the 1980s on everything from modern architecture to alternative medicines – which revealed much of his world-view, with its spirits and souls, its forests and soil, its alchemy and astrology – were the displacement of a private instability into the public arena.

By the time it all collapsed in the 1990s, Charles’s approval rating was at 4 per cent. People lobbed bread rolls at Camilla in the car park of a Safeway. Even a decade later, when a 2003 BBC Radio 4 poll asked listeners which Britain they most wanted to deport, Charles placed fourth, then smashed a plate at a dinner party when he heard the news. Modern monarchy was a zoo. Or, as Prince Harry suggested in Spare, a “cross between The Truman Show and a zoo”. These pressures are certainly the reason, as Hardman reports, Charles had his own sanctuary made at his estate in Highgrove. A wattle-and-daub redoubt, “where nobody can get at me”.

But the Windsors, with one Prince Andrew-sized exception, no longer need to hide. In the second great Royal transition of the last 75 years, the family survived the 1990s. By the 2010s, they began to be venerated, not mocked. Windsorism was renewed. National identity was redefined as personal loyalty to Elizabeth II, and not to a nation that no longer seemed to agree about anything. Public buildings were endlessly named and renamed after the Queen: airport terminals, leisure centres, courts, botanical garden gates, clock towers. The ancient House of Windsor offered dignity and stability. Figures such as Alastair Campbell, who had an ambivalent attitude towards royalty when he was Tony Blair’s spin doctor, affected fury when Boris Johnson supposedly “lied to the Queen” during the prorogation crisis of 2019. The Queen, liberal Britain felt, deserved better than this.

The moral authority of the Windsors was deeper than that of any politician. In a fractious multicultural society, the Crown was felt to be more unifying than parliament. This is the role Charles craves: to be a giant crowned umpire among squabbling factions. The monarch, Hardman writes, “can at least play the role of referee, promoting togetherness amid disunity”. As far as the state of the nation goes, this is damning. Nobody ever called for Victoria to hand out yellow cards. The monarch is positioning himself as Franz Joseph I – the Habsburg emperor whose sheer longevity prevented, for a time, his realms’ decay becoming collapse.

Here is the story Charles III dares not properly tell. When he was a prince, Charles had mused, “I think you could invest the position with something of your own personality and interest but obviously within the bounds of constitutional propriety.” What does Charles think that is? Given his beliefs, the worry was that he would be a “political” monarch. It was a well-founded fear. Not even a year has passed since the coronation, and he has already crossed several lines that his mother would have avoided.

Bobbing along on Hardman’s unstoppable tides of trivia are several instances of elected politicians meekly deferring to his authority, or of Charles taking aim at them with no reply. The King did nothing to correct the idea that he despises the Rwanda asylum scheme; he wore a Greek-flag tie to criticise the government over the Elgin Marbles controversy; at a state banquet in France he appeared to use his speech to attack Liz Truss. Many were delighted by his viral put-down of her in October 2022: “Dear, oh dear. Anyway…”

His interventions on controversial subjects such as reparations, immigration and climate change are straightforwardly political. Their positive reception – see the comedian David Mitchell making an ironical and half-apologetic call for absolute monarchy in 2022 as it would be better than a Truss government – would bewilder any observer of the Windsors who fell asleep in 1994 and woke in 2024. They would find the King “recognised as a leader on the most pressing matters affecting humanity”. They would find that deference, once believed to be safely buried, has returned.

The restive melancholy that threatened to define the King is no more. The train set is his, in addition to (another Hardman scoop) his family gifting him “several new ties”. What remains to threaten him? Harry and Andrew, the decommissioned Dukes of Hazard, are leftover embarrassments. Andrew, Hardman reports, is being kept inside the tent, where he can do less damage. Apparently, there are fears for Prince Andrew’s mental health. He should ring his nephew, who won’t stop talking about that subject on Californian podcasts.

Otherwise the King’s trajectory seems cloudless. The Crown is finally over. Charles can say whatever he likes and rearrange the flowers at Buckingham Palace whenever he wants. Charles III is a dutiful extended newspaper feature, not on its subject, but on his mother’s funeral and the coronation that followed. The sheer oddness of the King – he listens to Wagner! He reads serious books! He believes in reincarnation! – eludes Hardman. Charles will likely go down in history as the most exotic animal the Windsor stables ever produced. But that history is waiting to be written. “Who are you?” is an enquiry about the King that still requires a response.  

Charles III: New King. New Court. The Inside Story
Robert Hardman
Macmillan, 464pp, £22

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[See also: Inside the mind of King Charles III]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge