What Is He Supposed To Do?

David Cannadine

  • The Prince of Wales by Jonathan Dimbleby
    Little, Brown, 620 pp, £20.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 316 91016 3

The Prince of Wales was in his mid-forties, with his youth long since behind him, and his throne still many distant, tantalising year away. His childhood and schooldays had been lonely and unhappy, and they were made harder to bear by his distant mother, his disappointed father, and his more robust and much-preferred sister. He had married a woman renowned for her beauty rather than her brains, largely because he had been told it was his duty to do so. By her he had promptly fathered two healthy sons, after which he soon sought comfort, consolation and companionship elsewhere. There was criticism in the press of his wayward and unfocused life, but the idea that he should be given serious employment such as a proconsular posting did not secure the necessary approval. At his country house and in London, the Prince set up what was virtually an alternative court in waiting. The trouble was that his mother remained in excellent health, with every prospect of celebrating both her Golden and her Diamond Jubilees. The most the Prince could realistically look forward to was that he would inherit the throne as an old man, and reign for a few tired, belated, sunset years. But there were some who feared, and others who hoped, that the Queen might outlive her eldest son, so that he would never become king at all.

Such might have been the gloomy midcareer appraisal of His Royal Highness Prince Albert Edward, later (and briefly) King Edward VII. And it is not coincidental that many of the same things are now being said about His Royal Highness Prince Charles Philip Arthur George. For while, in some ways, the British monarchy is constantly developing and evolving, in other respects it is remarkably consistent and unchanging, and one of its most unvarying features during the last three hundred years has been the miserable lot of successive Princes of Wales. To Edward VII and Prince Charles may be added the names of every long-suffering heir since the Hanoverians took over: George II, George IV and Edward VIII, not forgetting poor Prince Frederick, the son of George II and father of George III, who did not survive to reign at all. Whatever their differences of character and temperament, all of them had to confront the same simple yet daunting structural problem, which some could not even comprehend, and none successfully solved: how to keep busy, avoid trouble, stay happy and remain hopeful, while fretting away the best years of their lives waiting for the monarch to die.

Thus regarded, Prince Charles’s present predicament is no exception to this general royal rule. On the contrary, it is very familiar. For all its privileges of rank and wealth, being heir to the British throne is one of the most wretched and frustrating non-jobs around, as salad days merge inexorably and imperceptibly into locust years. To make matters worse, it is not even clear that those who have waited most patiently and been trained most assiduously make the best incumbents when they finally get there. Cruel and paradoxical though it undoubtedly is, the record shows that the most successful 20th-century monarchs have been those who were not actually born to succeed. King George V was 27 before the death of his elder brother, the Duke of Clarence, put him directly in line to the throne. King George VI was 41 when Edward VIII unexpectedly abdicated. And Queen Elizabeth II spent her first decade with no inkling that she might one day be called upon to reign. Taken together, these examples suggest that the best preparation for the job of sovereign is not to be prepared for it at all, or not to be too well prepared for it, or for too long.

There is no evidence in Jonathan Dimbleby’s interim (and interminable) biography that Prince Charles is reflective or self-aware enough to have grasped this sad, simple and vital truth. To be sure, we are repeatedly informed that he is drawn to history, nostalgia, heritage and tradition. But the first of these is not easily reconciled with the rest. Despite having read history at Cambridge, the Prince’s sense of the past is, like that of most royals, romantic, escapist and superficial. He seems to have little understanding of the way in which the British monarchy has changed (and not changed) across the centuries. He shows no inclination to think about his own situation in the context of the Princes of Wales who have gone before him. His view of the military is suffused with regret for the vanished days when the Royal Navy really ruled the waves. And he seems to dislike almost everything that has happened in Britain as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the massive growth of towns and cities, and the liberating decade of the Sixties. But here again, it is the Prince’s typicality and trueness to type that stand out: like most 20th-century British royals, he is visibly ill at ease in his own time, and vainly seeks to put the clock back to an earlier – though invariably unspecified – golden age.

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