A few months ago I realised that the King of England was having another affair. The story of his first affair with Camilla Parker Bowles is well known. The King loved one woman, then married another. It took several decades for him to work this problem out, when, for most people, a visit to a solicitor, a court fee and six months of wrangling might have solved the issue.
Yet King Charles, even stacked alongside the other Windsors, really is not most people. He’s been called a dabbler and a meddler, a decent watercolourist and an expert plantsman. He’s compared himself to a tampon, and been likened to Arjuna, the mythic hero of the Bhagavad Gita. His attempts to publicise the benefits of eating mutton were less blockbuster than his televised admission, in 1994, of adultery. No figure in British public life has been as mocked, pilloried and abused as Charles. “Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm from an anointed king,” Shakespeare has Richard II claim. Well, with Charles, the rough sea tried. And tried.
Now, as his coronation beckons, that tide is going out. The King has been slowly rehabilitated. Call it the “He Was Right All Along” theory. Unlike the heirs apparent who litter England’s history with their whoring, gambling and drinking, Charles dedicated his time away from the polo field to service. Part of that service was issuing warnings. He warned about climate change; he condemned aerosols; he lamented the illegal methods used to catch the Patagonian toothfish; he presumed that the Iraq War was a grave geostrategic error. “How on Earth did Mr Blair take us to war knowing what he knew?” Charles reportedly asked his closest aides.
Initially, all these opinions earned him a reputation as a crank. To the left, he sounded like some purple-faced country buffer; to the right, he sounded like a hippie academic moping in the Guardian. Yet the King had an intuitive feel for underground national currents that conventional politicians and commentators rarely understood. Time, so the theory goes, often proved that Charles was right.
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Nowhere was he more right than at Cop26 in Glasgow, in November 2021. Charles had been fighting for the environmentalist cause for decades. Now, the rest of the world appeared to have come around to his positions. He was pictured giggling with Leonardo DiCaprio. Jeff Bezos praised his acuity. Boris Johnson, then prime minister, hailed him as a “prophet without honour”.
Not only were the best and the brightest allowing him to take a valedictory lap: they were confirming Charles’s self-image. “Perhaps,” he had mused in a 1982 speech to the British Medical Association, “we just have to accept that it is God’s will that the unorthodox individual is doomed to years of frustration, ridicule and failure in order to act out his role in the scheme of things, until his day arrives and mankind is ready to receive his message.” Cop26 was his first coronation: the heretic was crowned a hero. His warnings, and his message, were gratefully received at last.
Yet that does not mean the King’s message is understood. To accept that message, and to eulogise it, means more than embracing sustainable agriculture and other green policy ideas. What lies beneath the crown is darker and stranger than that.
Few realise how esoteric the King’s depths are. In 2010 he published a manifesto called Harmony. The King’s helpers, reported his biographer Catherine Mayer, “did as little as possible to promote the text because of its unsettling content”, and the book was largely ignored. But its themes are threaded through four decades of public statements. The unorthodox individual’s message, Charles said in that 1982 speech, comes “from a far deeper source than conscious thought”. It used to be the case that the King was far easier to criticise than comprehend. But as he takes the throne, he is easier to celebrate than understand.
This is where the second, lesser-known affair becomes crucial to grasping the reality of Charles. The King has been carrying on, not with another woman, but with another country. Over more than three decades, he has developed a unique relationship with Romania – a nation almost as misunderstood by the British public as the King.
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Charles’s involvement there is unlike anything else in the monarch’s life. If his affair with Camilla was a matter of the body and the heart, Charles’s affair with Romania is a matter of the mind and the soul. He believes the country, particularly Transylvania, holds secrets that may save the Earth from destruction. The key to unlocking those secrets, and the world-view of the King, lies 1,500 miles away from Windsor in the Eastern Balkans. Is Romania the part that explains the whole?
It had been snowing for days and the Carpathian Mountains were blue with ice. This was supposed to be spring in Romania. It was spring in the flat, overworked plains that spread around Bucharest. There the sun shone and trees bloomed. In the mountains, however, the snow fell eerily. The pine forests beneath the peaks looked bone dead. One by one, the mountains passed as the train crawled to Brașov. The passengers were returning home from the capital to Transylvania for Easter. It was Palm Sunday. They chattered among themselves, or jabbed at their phones, ignoring the mountains, the pines and snow outside.
On the table before me one recent afternoon were half a dozen photos of Charles, which had been taken during his official visits to Romania. The King owns an 18th century farmhouse in the village of Viscri, and another in Zalánpatak in the foothills of the Carpathians. The shots showed an ageing man in official poses. Charles the Botanist, in search of rare orchids. Charles the Gentleman Farmer, inspecting dozens of local cheeses. Charles, Lord of the Dance, a young, traditionally dressed woman’s hand raised in each of his own.
The King’s properties were both in Transylvania. In Latin the name means “the land beyond the forest”. “Beyond” is right. For two millennia Transylvania was beyond the edge of the world, beyond the edge of empires, beyond the edge of Europe. In countless histories, tireless armies – whether Mongol or Ottoman or Soviet – streamed out from Asia, trampling over these lands.
Marginal and vulnerable Transylvania was settled by the Saxons in the 12th century, during the high Middle Ages. They were invited by the Hungarian King Géza II, who needed a population for this buffer zone on the furthest frontier of his kingdom. The Saxons were a living roadblock – a human mass to slow invaders – but instead they outlasted Géza, and many subsequent foreign incursions.
The Saxons were builders of immense technical genius. They divided the forest into plots and raised Kirchenburgen, towering fortified churches that still dominate the landscape. They were German speakers with no connection to Germany since the medieval period. They were an insular and self-sufficient community, who lived out their epic until the bitter end of the 20th century. The history of what the Saxons did, and what was done to them, is sketchy. Like the rest of Romania, they had no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no Industrial Revolution, no agricultural revolution and nothing like the events of 1968. Serfdom persisted for centuries, until it was finally abandoned in the mid-19th century.
But Saxon Transylvania existed outside the stream of European modernity. This miniature Germanic universe was a great, static, anti-modern achievement. It survived Adolf Hitler, when the Saxons were drafted en masse into the ranks of the Waffen-SS, and found themselves guarding the Third Reich’s concentration camps. It survived Joseph Stalin, who demanded that those same men, if they survived the Second World War, were transported to concentration camps in the outer regions of the USSR. It survived Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist ice age, which never quite frosted the remote redoubts of Transylvania, where the Saxons were able to ignore their nominal master in Bucharest.
Even in the 1980s village life continued as it had for centuries. Leiterwagens still trundled along muddy, crooked roads; congregations still huddled every Sunday in the fortified churches; every August animal fodder was still harvested by hand, using scythes.
The only thing that could destroy Saxon Transylvania was the Saxons themselves. After the Berlin Wall fell, and after Ceaușescu was executed on Christmas Day 1989, they confronted their own precarious position. Who was to say that communism, fascism or something worse would not return?
The West German government was offering the right of return to ethnic Germans behind the crumbling Iron Curtain. So what finished off Saxon Transylvania was a nostalgic fever, a longing for a Germany they had never seen. The community self-liquidated. Overnight, almost every Saxon fled to West Germany.
It was at this odd moment, when eight continuous centuries of tradition were vanishing, that the then Prince of Wales, technically related through Alfred the Great to the ancient Saxon deity Woden, and enduring the lowest ebb of his personal life so far, stepped into Transylvanian history.
The kingdom Charles stood to inherit was ancient, calm and supreme. Like many princes he was lonely, and he was terribly sensitive. “Young to think so much,” was Winston Churchill’s early verdict. The prince was three.
His father was frightening and his mother was a sphinx. Gordonstoun, the school they sent him to in Scotland, became synonymous in his mind with prison. His greatest friend there was a teddy bear that he owned for several decades afterwards.
The prince had no friends but he did have land. At Balmoral, in the freezing north of his kingdom, away from bullies and photographers, he lost himself in intimacy with nature. The prince learned to escape into the Caledonian pine forests. He learned to mark individual trees, and the habits of grouse and red deer, and how to spot the butterflies that haunted the heather. Eagles circled above him. He was taught how to shoot most of these creatures with a rifle. When the prince returned to his castle after a day’s fishing, red-coated footmen bowed to him, just as he bowed to the bronze statue of his great-great-great grandmother Queen Victoria in the grounds. He had everything here. He could sleep soundly. Other boys would not creep up on him, like they did at boarding school and pull at his (already famous) ears.
As he grew older, the prince learned that he had arrived late. Balmoral was the lonely remnant of a vanished age, when the Highlands were covered with trees, before the devastation inflicted by the clearances of the 18th century, when the pines were murdered for their timber. The prince learned that history had, somehow, gone wrong.
Later, he bought his own estates. Visitors noticed that the gardens the prince designed around them were full of hiding places, shelters and refuges. They were scaled tributes to Balmoral, where he had learned the value of escape artistry. Whenever he returned to Scotland, the prince would stalk around the estate, alone, with his dogs, his sandwiches, his telescope and his rifle. He stayed out until night fell, ignoring snow and rain, lying in the damp undergrowth for countless hours. He told a biographer his dream was to regenerate the forest. To make good all that had been destroyed by the Industrial Revolution. In those lonely years of boyhood, the prince had decided that it was his mission to heal things.
He looked at the soil and the broken landscape, and believed he was looking into his own soul.
On my first morning in Viscri the phone rang. There was a senior British diplomat who happened to be in the village, and they wanted to talk. The Foreign Office had not been informed about this trip, yet here he was. It was so much like a Graham Greene novel that I laughed.
They arrived five minutes later at the old Saxon farmhouse where I was staying, dressed in a puffa-gilet and Gore-Tex walking boots. We talked about Charles for an hour. The King had maintained a pattern of behaviour in Romania unlike his relationship with any other country. He was Romania’s best ambassador. He had preserved the ancient crafts and built heritage of Saxon villages like Viscri. Charles shone on Transylvania, and in his kingly light its NGO sector and eco-tourism had flourished. Major projects… Truly circular economies… Partnerships and funds. But why?
How Charles had folded himself into Romanian affairs was obscure, though public, knowledge. In the late 1980s Nicolae Ceaușescu had grown ever more despotic. He began to destroy anything that resembled national heritage. Bulldozers obliterated whole neighbourhoods, historic churches and monasteries and synagogues. To shape the physical environment was the ultimate means of reminding an immiserated people where real power lay. The policy was called systematisation. The architectural blitzkrieg in the cities would be followed by the destruction of 8,000 villages, and their replacement with industrial-agro towns. Ceaușescu was salting the earth.
This, to Charles, was the enemy in plain view. For one thing, the Windsors despised communism. The aunt of Charles’s paternal grandmother, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia, was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. One account of her death tells of her singing prayers to God after being assaulted and thrown down a mine shaft. The Grand Duchess was not the only martyr. Pan-European royalty, which stretched like a hand from London to St Petersburg, was critically maimed by the 20th century’s revolutions.
Romania was family to the Windsors. The tomb of Claudina, Countess Rhédey, who was the grandmother of Charles’s great-grandmother Queen Mary, was in the Transylvanian village of Sângeorgiu de Pădure. The village was on Ceaușescu’s list. Charles began writing letters – he was always writing letters – to Geoffrey Howe, the foreign secretary. Ceaușescu’s plans were “diabolical”. The situation in Romania was “urgent”. “What,” Charles asked, “did so many of our countrymen die for in the last war?”
Howe moved slowly, so Charles went public. In an April 1989 speech – he was always making speeches – the prince launched a frontal assault on Ceaușescu: “It is difficult, I find, to remain silent as the peasant traditions and ancient buildings of a fellow European society are bulldozed to make way for a uniform and deathly mock-modernity.” Within months Ceaușescu was overthrown and killed as brutally as the Grand Duchess Elizabeth. Systematisation was put on hold.
Charles had a short attention span for most things. But Romania was different. Even with Ceaușescu safely dead, the prince’s interest endured.
The diplomat said something that I had never heard before. The King had first visited Romania in 1993, not 1998 as was often reported, and he had been back every year since. Charles did not have an “interest” in Romania. He had an obsession.
The diplomat prepared to leave. But it was still not clear: why did the King keep returning to Transylvania? The diplomat blinked. Wasn’t it obvious? All I had to do was see what Charles saw. The secret to how we live on this planet without destroying it was all around us.
Royal men and women used to be considered divine. When Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, a third of her subjects believed she was placed on the throne by God.
The definitive break with the past came in 1969. Elizabeth II and her advisers were devising a way to celebrate Charles’s investiture as the Prince of Wales. A ceremony with the Welsh Guards and a set of commemorative stamps would not cut it. The Palace believed the nation was modernising. So they commissioned a documentary, Royal Family, which aired in 1969. Everything about the film, which Elizabeth later banned, appeared innocuous.
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Since the 19th century theorists of monarchy have stressed the importance of the Royal Family as an extension of our own family ties. “Transfigured by a peculiar enchantment,” Roger Scruton once wrote, the Windsors’ role was to signify a cross-generational link between the past and the future.
Maybe they were that, once. But in 1969 the Windsors were no longer symbols; they were content. As the BBC prepared to broadcast, David Attenborough warned Royal Family’s producer Richard Cawston that he was in danger of “killing the monarchy”.
Royal Family did not kill the Royal Family, but it did hasten its transformation into a pedigree human breeding farm: elaborately maintained, pruriently scrutinised and easy to talk about when other topics failed. Britain no longer had an empire, but it could gift the world something else: the Windsors. Here was Britain’s last world-beating system. No other nation on Earth could turn a new baby into celebratory chinaware so quickly.
During her long reign, it became apparent that the Queen did not rule over her subjects. Rather, she was a form of entertainment put on for them, like one of those hard-working orcas at SeaWorld. Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and Prince Charles; their valets, toadies, groomsmen, fixers, leakers, gardeners, lovers, and toothpaste holders – they became our subjects. However many ribbons they cut, however many charities they fundraised for, their constitutional role in Britain, by the late 20th century, was to exist for the encouragement and maintenance of scandal and jokes.
This was nothing so cerebral as republicanism, and it never threatened the institution of monarchy itself. It was a society-wide change in perspective. From the later part of Victoria’s reign until around 1969, the British esteemed their royals. Now they looked down on them.
The Windsors knew this, and Charles, who, during his marriage to Diana Spencer was plunged into the national cesspit more than the others combined, knew it well. His healing powers were rejected. Britain wanted the orca to jump through hoops. The prince understood his role, but hated it. “I’m not very good at being a performing monkey,” Charles sadly admitted to Jonathan Dimbleby in 1994, unaware that his utter discomfort was precisely what made him such a bankable amusement.
To the prince, the public realm was a magnified Gordonstoun. Whether it was his marriage or his charities, his mistress or his speeches, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the bullies tugged his ears. In Spare, Prince Harry writes of his father murmuring darkly about “survival” while discussing his school days. How did he survive Diana? With great difficulty, it seems. In her book The Palace Papers , Tina Brown claims that as his first marriage collapsed Charles developed a spooky preoccupation with the suicide in 1889 of Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the Hapsburg throne. “Wouldn’t the media have a field day if I took the same way out,” he reportedly said.
The prince began to conflate his personal misery with the wretchedness of the world. In his speeches he attacked the 1960s, the decade when “modernity” began to ruin everything – whether it was the crew who filmed Royal Family, the architects who built the National Theatre in London, or the agri-industrial companies that sowed pesticides across Britain’s farmlands. The same forces that had cleared the Highlands in the 18th century had returned to get him, more terrible than ever before.
In January 1993, to clarify what all his gadfly activity added up to, Charles wrote a letter to the director of the Prince’s Trust: “I have always wanted to roll back some of the more ludicrous frontiers of the 1960s in terms of education, architecture, art, music and literature, not to mention agriculture!” The letter posed a question. What exactly would reality look like, were those frontiers rolled back?
That same year, the Prince of Wales made his first visit to Romania.
There is a story about Viscri’s past that remains alive and passionately discussed to this day. Consider that a new house has not been built here since the 18th century, roughly around the same time that ceramic tiles were introduced to the village. Things, the buildings in Viscri say, should never change much.
One day in the early 1900s a representative from the national rail company arrived in Viscri from Bucharest. The company wanted to build a stop for the village. It would require levelling some hills, extensive earth works, and engineers camped out for months in the fields. The wary villagers received the man politely and said they would consider it.
A few weeks later, a horse-drawn cart, piled high with boxes, pulled up outside the rail company’s office in the capital. It was a delegation from Viscri, with the best cheeses the village had to offer. Hundreds of cheeses. The Saxons gave the cheese to the head of the rail company, and begged him not to build anything near Viscri. Their way of life was precious. The cheese was a bribe, and an offering to modernity: please, do what you need to, but be sure to leave us alone.
This mentality, along with the ordered, squat Saxon homes and the fortified churches and the meadows, is what the King discovered in Viscri, and what he fell in love with. This, Charles believed, was a perfectly bottled model of life before modernity. Somehow, the Britain of his ancestors lived on, physically and psychologically, in this forgotten corner of Transylvania. Botanically, there were flowers, plants and trees that had been destroyed when British agriculture industrialised after the Second World War. Wolves, bears and lynx, long extinct in Britain, prowled the hills and glens, the hornbeam and pine forests. This country was a nostalgic fantasy made real. “It’s the timelessness which is so important,” Charles is quoted as saying on a tourism website for the region. “The landscape is almost out of some of those stories you used to read as a child.”
Every year for decades, Charles has rambled through the pastures and woods that spread over the lowlands and Carpathian foothills of Transylvania. He bought his properties. He emphasised his family links to the area, a meandering bloodline that stretched all the way back to Vlad the Impaler, and dad-joked that he “had a stake in the country”. His cavalcade of charities moved into the region. Charles taught the villagers, naturally suspicious and cynical people, to conserve the historic villages, encouraged them to re-learn rural crafts such as dry stone walling and thatching, and gently lectured them on the dangers of pesticides.
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In Viscri I realised how deep and powerful Charles’s impact was. Everybody knew the King. Nobody talked about him with the scorn his subjects in Britain did. He had been in people’s houses, and tickled their cows in the barn. He had kissed babies and sampled breads. He sent honey to grandmothers in the village, and they sent jam back to him. Men had whittled him spoons, and he had promised to stir the royal porridge with it. (Charles, who doesn’t eat porridge, was telling a white lie.) People welled up as they described the way Charles had saved the village from a deluge of tarmac and concrete. When local charities were ignored, Charles staged grand openings for months-old projects, drawing the Romanian media’s attention. When the village needed a new sewage system, Charles, without advertising it, paid for a new ecological wastewater treatment plant based on reeds, and a new water drainage system for the village (it cost the best part of £2m).
This was kingship on the medieval model (the King had taken possession of the people), rather than the contemporary British model (the people had taken possession of the King). The Romanians looked at their rapacious, cynical politicians with disgust. They looked at Charles, who took nothing from them, and appeared to give them everything he could, with reverence. Would Charles be our King, I was asked, more than once. Frankly, it would have made much more sense than his being the King of England.
But it was not enough for Charles to be loved by the people of Transylvania, nor for this land to be immensely beautiful. For the King, there must be a meaning to things. The rest of the world needed to learn from villages such as Viscri. This was “the last corner of Europe where you can see true sustainability and complete resilience and the maintenance of entire ecosystems for the benefit of mankind”, Charles says in a documentary called Wild Carpathia, which plays on a loop in the barn attic of his property in Viscri (when he is not there, it is open to the public).
Transylvania was everything Britain was not. If Britain was frenziedly modern, Transylvania was enduringly backward. If Britain was rudely democratic, Transylvania was stubbornly feudal. Britain was poisoned; Transylvania was pristine. Britain was chaotic; Transylvania was harmonious. The British mocked Charles, then sent its phone-hacking journalists after him; the Transylvanians displayed their cheeses for him, then awarded Charles an honorary doctorate from the University of Cluj. There were, the King noted on a visit to Romania in 2022, over 200 species of butterflies, compared to a disappointing “40 in my country, the United Kingdom”.
Best of all, he had found a bolthole. At first, nobody followed him to Transylvania. He never brought Camilla here, nor his sons. He was as wonderfully lonely as he had been as a boy at Balmoral. He was dignified. He was home. He was the King.
One night in 1989, the South African author Laurens van der Post introduced Charles to the poet Kathleen Raine, who, like Van der Post, was substantially older than the prince. She recalled thinking: “That poor young man – anything I can do for him, I will do, because he is very lonely.” Van der Post has been described as Charles’s “spiritual guru”. Raine became his surrogate mother.
The pair flattered the prince in ways that his distant parents refused to. They fed his instinct, nurtured since boyhood, to search for wider and higher meanings. They taught him to look beyond the surface of reality, to distrust scientific materialism, and to trust his royal intuition above all things.
Between them they placed Charles in the centre of a natural, spiritual order. Raine, a mystic who worshipped William Blake, told the prince he was involved in a “great battle” against modernity. As his life fell apart in the 1990s, she would say that he was like Prince Arjuna, at the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, facing a breakdown that is actually a breakthrough. She told him, in one of dozens of letters, that he was like the founder of a great religion: “Don’t forget that love has become a word emptied of meaning, and perhaps ‘compassion’ is nearer to what our humanity needs and depends on. Or so the Lord Buddha saw it and he was also a prince of this world.” Charles was not the zoo animal baited by the British media, but well placed to transform the monarchy, society and the planet.
Throughout his public life, the murmuration of ideas and language that swirled around Charles has confused Britain. He cared about inner cities, so why was he banging on dry stone walls? If he called for the restoration of inner peace, why was he using a rifle to blast away the deer that lived on his estates?
The prince was radical but traditional, modest yet assertive. He could seem as shy as the Queen, but he was more outspoken than Prince Philip. The public wanted glamour; the prince patiently tried to teach them beekeeping. He was supposed to be an Anglican, but he refused to give up on his suspicion that reincarnation was real. Though he ought to have been an icon of the cultural right, Charles did not fit neatly on any political axis. He was baffling, simultaneously progressive and conservative in ways that British party politics could not contain.
Raine described him as “one of us”. His beliefs were Traditionalist. That’s not small-t traditionalism, which in the British sense is akin to One Nation Toryism. Traditionalism, which Charles has supported through think tanks and small publications, and referenced in many speeches, is a more esoteric creed. It claims roots in the writing of Marsilio Ficino, a 15th-century Italian priest, but its modern founder was the French reactionary philosopher René Guénon. For Guénon, a pattern emerged when the whole of human religious practice was examined: there was no difference between faiths, only perennial wisdom, and a “primordial” character could link seemingly disparate theologies together.
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Above all, Traditionalism replaces the idea of “progress” with a deep sense of decline. The dynamic of history is not pushing humanity forwards, but dragging it down. Through Raine, Charles, a natural pessimist, found a philosophy that made sense of what he had always thought. “The great experiment,” Charles writes in Harmony, “to stand apart from the rest of creation has failed.”
Modernity tended, in Charles’s words, to forget those “principles of order and harmony that lie at the very heart of the universe”. Our age believes in advancing living standards and social justice. It replaces sacred rituals with spreadsheets. It promises individual rights and emphasises human freedom. The Traditionalist mind revolts against this. Timeless values take precedence over false progress; the spirit is more important than the mind; and equality cannot wish away fundamental distinctions between human beings.
The opening line of Harmony calls for a “revolution” to turn back the modern tide. For Charles, this likely means preferring organic agriculture to food grown with pesticides, and architecture that reflects “sacred geometry” rather than its brutal opposite. Others have taken Traditionalism towards the politics of blood and soil reaction. Charles aside, the most high-profile Traditionalist alive is Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Trump. Another is the Kremlin’s court philsopher Alexander Dugin.
Kathleen Raine was killed by a car reversing outside her house in 2003. She was 95. Charles was a guest at her funeral, and spoke at a remembrance service he organised the same year at St James’s Palace. “She understood what I was about,” he said in his eulogy. “I shall never forget this because it moved me so deeply.” Then he adapted a line from Hamlet: “May God rest her dear departed soul and may flights of angels sing her to her rest.”
Nineteen years on, at the close of his first televised speech after his mother died in 2022, Charles repeated this adapted line. Was it not odd, in the most important speech of his life, to recycle an old eulogy? Maybe Charles was not conscious of the repetition. Perhaps it was a veiled tribute to a woman he was closer to than the Queen.
I spent a few more days in Viscri. I watched women in headscarves hold lengthy, one-sided conversations with the placid dogs that guarded every home from bears. In the early mornings, I stood at my window and watched cattle being driven down the road. Men chuckled together under the apple trees that lined it, drinking bottles of beer for breakfast. I spoke to them, and phoned academics, and had dinner with tourists who took selfies with horses. I discovered that there was a small plates restaurant in the village that had been featured in an HBO documentary and wouldn’t have been out of place in Hackney.
People told me about the rising property prices, and the difficulties of Charles’s last visit before his mother’s death, when TV crews had camped out for days. Botanists explained that they feared for the plant life in this country. People who knew Romanian politics said that immense pressure was being put on farmers to increase productivity, following the war in Ukraine and so many disruptions to supply chains. What appeared to be “timeless” was no such thing. The supposed serenity of the curving hills, the flower meadows, the green and rosy twilights, masked tremendous upheaval. Viscri was a feudal Disneyland.
I hired a driver, dressed in the black tracksuit all Romanian men seemed to wear. He said Viscri no longer had farmers. They had abandoned the land for tourism instead. As we drove, he explained how happy Romanians were to abandon the past. Why live with a horse and a cart when you could have a car? Why live in a house with two storeys when you could have four?
There was a nearby village called Bunesti. People lived in shacks and had no shoes, their animals lived in the dirt. The driver pointed out the most modern thing: a satellite dish barnacled to every home. Your world is beamed into these houses, he told me. The people here want a slice of your world. And what did Charles want? It was a subtle, uneasy question. He was against the modern world. But if you are against the modern world, you are for Bunesti, because Bunesti is what most of Transylvania looks like. For the people who live there, life is not a page in a childhood storybook. It was startling to realise this was part of the world Charles saw as ideal, and tragic to realise that he did not understand what this place really was.
It was disturbing, too, to consider that if you believe there is a harmonious natural order to things you might be tempted to apply that to society as well. Because if a renewed respect for Nature demands spiritual richness, it also requires material poverty.
A coronation is the chance to fill the cracks in the walls and upholster the drawing room. In 1953 the ceremony looked and sounded right, though it was not. “She is only a child,” said Winston Churchill when Elizabeth II took the throne. Over her reign the institution slid from imperial grandeur back to its 18th-century role. A feuding family, existing to be snickered at.
Nobody today, except perhaps the King himself, believes that God is about to place him on the throne. There is a gulf between the vast theoretical power of the monarch and the practical power they could risk exercising. Will Charles take that risk?
At the least, Charles does have the pyrrhic satisfaction of seeing his apocalyptic prophecies come true. The King’s Traditionalist conviction that civilisation is in terminal decline has become widely held. climate change looks like the ultimate indictment of a society that has fetishised economic growth over “Nature’s necessary limits”, as Charles puts it in Harmony. He was right all along.
“I wonder,” the King writes in Harmony, “if we might see wisdom in the Chinese word for ‘crisis’, which also means ‘opportunity’?” The current crisis is no longer deniable. What kind of opportunity will it prove for the King? Charles is political in a way that few of his subjects understand or are prepared for. A reactionary visionary who idealises Romania more than he does Britain, the King believes things that, were they expressed in the ordinary run of life, would place him far outside convention.
They are more than beliefs. The King, whether in Transylvania, or through his dozens of charities, has implemented his philosophy in practical ways. He has been rehearsing for this moment for decades, steadily outlining a world-view more coherent than any politician’s. After his accession last year, Charles said that he would no longer give the same time to the issues he had focused on as the Prince of Wales. Many in Romania interpreted that as the end of his affair with the country. The coronation is now his marriage to Britain, a place he seemingly loves less. Whether it proves a happy one we will soon discover.
[See also: Is King Charles too left-wing for the Tories?]
This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown