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5 February 2024

The King of suffering

Charles III’s cancer diagnosis marks the first, and possibly last, time Britain will understand him.

By Will Lloyd

Suffering was the theme of King Charles’s Christmas broadcast last December. While the top notes of the address were indistinguishable from what his mother Queen Elizabeth used to say – paeans to compassion, service and care – something darker lay beneath the surface. This, Charles said, was “a time of real hardship”. When he gazed from the window of one of his (many) residences, he recognised an era of “increasingly tragic conflict around the world”. He prayed that we could find the strength to “protect” one another. And he asked us “to imagine ourselves in the shoes of our neighbours”.

Buckingham Palace’s announcement this evening that the King has been diagnosed with cancer turns Charles’ words around. The suffering and the hardship that Charles saw everywhere will belong to him now too.

Pain was always the dominant theme in the King’s life. From his sickly childhood, through his spectacularly misfiring first marriage, and into his lonely middle-age, Charles suffered. The British public, who rejected Charles in polls for much of his agonised tenure as the Prince of Wales or devoured newspapers that mocked and kicked at him, have rarely accepted the reality of his suffering. “The essence of British monarchy”, the novelist John Buchan wrote in 1935, “is that the king, while lifted far above the nation, should also be the nation itself in its most characteristic form.” Suffering was not part of Britain’s self-image for most of Charles’s life.

Is it now? Elderly, unthreatening, assailed by pain, and facing a disease that millions of his subjects have endured or succumbed to, during a bleak era; this may be the closest the King comes to representing the “characteristic form” of the nation.

The Palace has not yet disclosed what type of cancer Charles has. He will postpone public duties after beginning treatment for the disease today. The King “looks forward to returning to full public duty as soon as possible”, Buckingham Palace said. Charles had been recovering from treatment for an enlarged prostate when the cancer was discovered.

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Asked last week about his health, Queen Camilla had told reporters “He’s getting on, doing his best”. How serious is the King’s condition now? Well Prince Harry – practically estranged from his family since his decision to publish a memoir, Spare, in 2023 – will fly back to Britain to see his father this week.

The portrait Harry and his skilled ghostwriter J.R. Moehringer painted of Charles complicated an already bewildering figure. Look down the list of Windsors and you will find stolid chain-smoking men in bowler hats, silent grimacing women, and the occasional alcoholic. Charles is not that simple. A peculiar mixture of cultured and philistinic, progressive and reactionary, profound and ludicrous; an aesthete, a mystic, and a friend of the late Ted Hughes. Tony Blair found him simultaneously “princely and insecure”. One source, who worked closely with Charles in Romania where he owns two estates, simply told me: “He has a soul”.

Charles listens to Haydn and quotes Goethe. Can Prince William? (No: he is reportedly a “box-set guy” who struggles to read books for pleasure.) Prince Philip never appeared in front of the British Medical Association, as Charles did, to lecture them on the wisdom of the 16th century healer Paracelsus. Charles, an obsessive gardener who dreams about designing plots, once wrote the foreword to a book called The Hidden Geometry of Flowers. For better and for worse, he will almost certainly be the last British monarch who is both a genuine paternalist and a believer in God.

His more critical biographers tended to regard Charles as a dilettante. Decades waiting for the throne meant he could not make up his mind. His “enthusiasms too often bore the imprint of the last conversation he had held” wrote Jonathan Dimbleby in The Prince of Wales: A Biography (1994). Charles possessed a “tendency to reach instant conclusions on the basis of insufficient thought”. The result was confusion.

Unlike his mother, who was a sphinx, Charles had no clear image. Unable to define or explain what his role was, the press did it for him. He was the “on the fringe” (Daily Mail); “lost in an identity crisis” (Guardian). When Spitting Image caricatured Charles in the 1980s, it imagined Charles attending a seance to contact the spirit of his assassinated godfather, Lord Mountbatten. The words Charles says most to Harry in Spare are “Don’t read it, darling boy”. Charles probably had to learn this skill the hard way. He called the press “demolition experts”; they were “the breed that enjoy breaking things down”. He compared himself to a “performing monkey”, and complained of being “vicarious entertainment” for the nation.

Dignity and something like happiness arrived late for Charles. He is undoubtedly a more respected, if less intriguing figure, in his seventies than he was in his forties. In Robert Hardman’s recent snapshot look at Charles’s first year as a monarch, Charles III, the journalists’ sources compare the King to a boy who has finally been given the toy train set that he had wanted for months. The savage irony of this cancer diagnosis is that Charles may have those trains snatched away before he could get them on the tracks.

Suffering at least offers some clarity. This is the first, and probably the last time, that Charles’ subjects will understand him. Most of us have some experience of this disease. On average each year in the UK more than a third of new cancer cases were in people aged 75 and over. Few of us were really bothered that Charles was an early pioneer of sustainable farming, or that he preserved the gene pool of rare breed Tamworth pigs and Irish mottled cattle, or that Poundbury was not the worst place to live in the country. “I only hope that”, Charles told 60 Minutes in 2005, “when I’m dead and gone, [the British people] might appreciate it a bit more.” He was speaking about Poundbury. It was hard to shake the feeling he was describing himself.

He is more likely to be defined by his struggle with this illness, where the stakes are clear, than anything he actually achieved during his life. “All I want to do is help other people”, Charles wrote in his diary November 1986. A public battle with disease, which might make others more likely to see if they had it and therefore have it treated, might be the way King Charles III fulfils that wish.

[See also: The triumph of King Charles]

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?