Charles at Fifty

Charles at Fifty

by Anthony Holden

Charles, Prince of Wales, turns fifty on November 14, 1998. Since the tragic death of Princess Diana, his public and private lives have been in more turmoil than ever. Britain's leading authority on the prince is Anthony Holden, who has written two previous biographies of Charles. The first, published when Charles was thirty, was a number one bestseller on both…  See more details below


Charles, Prince of Wales, turns fifty on November 14, 1998. Since the tragic death of Princess Diana, his public and private lives have been in more turmoil than ever. Britain's leading authority on the prince is Anthony Holden, who has written two previous biographies of Charles. The first, published when Charles was thirty, was a number one bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic; the second, published ten years later, caused huge public controversy for suggesting—four years before Andrew Morton's book—that the Waleses' marriage was in trouble.
Now Holden continues this unique series with a third, even more dramatic portrait of the ever-changing prince. Holden's first book was a portrait of a lonely, confused bachelor still living at home with his parents; his second was about a driven but still troubled man, the father of two sons, trapped in an unhappy marriage and losing public goodwill. His third book presents a divorced prince, now a widower, facing a stark choice: his children, the love of his life or the throne—or, by trying to have all three, playing a dangerous long-term game that could threaten the future of the monarchy itself.
The tragic triangular love story of Charles, Diana and Camilla has never before been told in such compelling detail. Once close to Charles, and later to Diana, Holden is uniquely placed to present both sides of their marital argument. Offering unparalleled insights into the dramatic events of the last decade, Holden traces the seeds of Charles's adult character in his childhood and youth but does not flinch fromcriticism in recounting how Charles reached his current dilemma as a single parent in love with a woman he may never be able to marry. Though Diana's death has created a wave of public sympathy for him—which may yet see him a popular king—can the private Charles ever find happiness without the help and support of the woman he loves?

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Editorial Reviews
Public opinion of Charles, Prince of Wales, was never lower than in the days immediately following his ex-wife's tragic death, but it now appears that his adoption of her practice of opening up emotionally to the British people has paid off. Anthony Holden, who penned biographies of Charles as he turned first 30 and then 40, now presents the third in the series of biographical looks at the Prince of Wales, Charles at Fifty.
The Observer (London)
Holden has written the Prince of Wales' biography twice already, but never as comprehensively as he does here. What sets him apart from the royal rat pack is not only the range of his sources, but his grasp of the constitutional and quasi-political complexity of Charles' situation. The prince may not like what he reads but he might be wise to heed some of Holden's sharper comments.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The latest in Holden's series of biographies of the Prince of Wales published to coincide with his 30th, 40th and now 50th birthdays, this is a chatty, personal look at a man with whom Holden no longer has anything like a personal relationship. Pulling off this feat may only be possible with a subject who has been as widely scrutinized as the prince--often with unparalleled bias. Journalists of every stripe have divided themselves into two camps--pro-Diana (like Holden) and pro-Charles--as they dig through every last detail of their lives. But as a result, the bulk of this book chronicles well-known facts of Charles's first 40 years as background for the last 10, and then offers little that is about the decade that brought "Camillagate," "Squidgygate" and Diana's death and memorials. Loosely chronological, Holden's account traces Charles's early childhood of rigid traditions and high expectations, which he seemed fated to disappoint, whether in school or, more publicly, in marriage. Holden concludes with a discussion of the choice Charles may be forced to make between the true love of his life (Camilla Parker-Bowles) and the throne he has spent all his days preparing to inherit--a conundrum Holden claims has been made doubly difficult by Diana's death, though increasingly the two don't seem mutually exclusive. Although probably appealing to royalty gawkers, the book is not likely to satisfy those looking for deeper understanding of the Prince of Wales. Agent, Gill Coleridge. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Holden has already done Charles at 30 and at 40, so why not the next decade?
People Magazine
...[Holden] delights in noting Charles' foibles....Yet...also includes wise words on the monarchy's evolving role.
Andrea Higbie
...[I]rksome from beginning to end....With biographers like Holden, why turn on yourself? -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Yet another portrait of the British throne's much-maligned heir, timed for His Royal Highness's 50th birthday on November 14, from a top royal biographer who's the author of several other books on Charles and Diana (Prince Charles).

While Holden's new portrait gives precedence to the prince's private life, readers also get a fair overview of Charles' various public initiatives, from the supervision of city planners and the founding of the ill-fated Institute of Architecture to his attack on the conventional medical establishment. Despite the author's dry and often ironic tone, what he reveals about the prince's endorsement of organic farming, vegetarianism, holistic healing, and environmental protection resonates with numerous concerns relevant for 1990s readers. Holden attributes Charles' inability to express affection—the trait that was the cause of much pain to his late wife—to a childhood devoid of emotional contact with his parents: The prim and prudish Elizabeth II always valued public duty more than her maternal responsibilities. As a result, in one famous instance, Charles insisted on attending a Royal Opera House concert while his son William underwent surgery; the more motherly Diana kept vigil at the boy's hospital bedside.

Overall, Holden's criticisms of the British royalty echo the recent mood of British taxpayers, tired of supporting an expensive monarchy that has lost even its symbolic status as the guardian of national moral and religious values. Charles's adulterous relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles is one focus of the book; so are other royal sex scandals. Without taking sides, Holden portrays Diana sympathetically but also as a manipulator of public opinion and a master of intrigue. He credits the princess, nevertheless, with reforming the now-ever-so-slightly-more-human royal family.

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.49(w) x 9.45(h) x 1.43(d)

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Chapter One

'It Was Not to Be'

Soon after midnight on Sunday, 31 August 1997, as forty-eight-year-old Charles, Prince of Wales slept at Balmoral Castle, the rest of his life was being brutally rewritten by a freak sequence of events 1,000 miles away in Paris. At 12.45 a.m. Charles was awoken by a phone call telling him that his former wife, Diana, had been gravely injured in a car crash that had instantly killed her companion, Dodi Fayed. By dawn the prince was waking his sons, William and Harry, to tell them that their mother was dead.

The scale of the ensuing public grief took Britain and the world, especially Charles and the Windsor family, utterly by surprise. During the week leading up to Diana's funeral, amid scenes unprecedented in modern British history, daily life ground to a halt as millions made flower-laden pilgrimages to Kensington Palace to pay their last respects in wholly unEnglish ways: publicly weeping and waiting; sobbing in the arms of total strangers; lamenting the loss of a tragically young mother as vulnerable as she was inspirational, dead at the age of only thirty-six.

Four months after the landslide election of a populist new government, the mass mourning betokened the loss of a public figure who had somehow remained 'one of us', while ready to rock the boat to knock some sense into 'them'. Diana's crusades for the sick, the suffering and the underprivileged had contrived to transcend politics, and indeed her own fallibility, striking a chord in all but the hardest of hearts. Even those who had never met her felt personally bereaved. Many families the world over mourned as if they had lost one of their own.

At first, Diana's death looked like very bad news for Charles. As he and his family remained in seclusion at Balmoral, apparently reluctant to share the nation's grief, the crowds outside Buckingham Palace grew angrier by the day. This, after all, was the princess the Windsors had banished a year earlier, stripping her of her royal rank and expelling her from the family when her divorce from Charles had become final. Far from retreating in disarray, Diana had since carved her own niche in the life of the nation, leaving Charles an almost marginal figure, rapt in puzzled contemplation of an uncertain future, with only his mistress to console him.

Diana had shown that royalty could be human, could move among its people, could even touch them by way of lending solace to their woes. So stark was the contrasting silence from Scotland that events soon moved beyond royal control. Even when the prime minister persuaded the Windsors finally to come south, after five days of mounting public unrest, and the Queen made an emergency broadcast to show her subjects that she cared, 'Diana's Army' -- the millions who loved her even more in death than in life -- found it hard to forgive. From the beginning of the week, Charles had been the main target of their rage. 'How dare he?' asked one woman in the crowd outside Buckingham Palace on the very day of Diana's death, when her ex-husband flew to Paris to escort her coffin home. 'How dare he go to Paris? He's the man who ruined her life.'

Charles's problems were largely of his own making. Only six weeks before Diana's death, he had taken his public life in his hands with an overt demonstration of his affection for the woman he had loved before, during and after his marriage -- the 'third person' in their marriage, as Diana herself had famously called Camilla Parker Bowles. On the evening of Friday 18 July the prince hosted a fiftieth birthday party for Camilla at his Gloucestershire home, Highgrove, where she had long since replaced Diana as chatelaine. Was she also to replace the princess on the future King's arm, perhaps even on the throne? The party was the climax of a long-term strategy to win public acceptance for Camilla as his consort, dating back to his televised confession of adultery with her in June 1994.

Mrs Parker Bowles had since become the most reviled woman in the land, so unpopular that fellow housewives pelted her with bread rolls in their local supermarket; but there were signs that Charles's game plan was finally beginning to work. With unfortunate timing, as it transpired, the Camilla question had been manipulated to the top of the national agenda during the weeks before Diana's death. It became the subject of opinion polls, radio phone-ins and TV debates, and it dominated public discussion in bars, pubs and clubs, even after Diana herself took up with the scion of one of the country's most controversial families.

The polls still showed a large majority against Camilla replacing Diana as Charles's future queen, but the tone of the debate was beginning to soften. As one participant put it in a BBC television debate, 'If the state of the nation prevents the marriage of two fifty-year-old divorcees, who have apparently been in love for some twenty-five years, when other such couples get married every day, then there is something wrong with the state of the nation.'

But Diana's death changed all that. Camilla, as one friend put it, promptly 'crawled under her bed with a bottle of whisky and a packet of cigarettes, and wondered when, if ever, she would be able to come out again'. Charles had long since declared Mrs Parker Bowles a 'non-negotiable' part of his life. Even during the week of Diana's funeral, he called her several times a day on his mobile phone, and told friends he needed her 'now more than ever'. But his first priority then, and for the foreseeable future, had to be his two bereft sons.

For the first time in his life, to warm public approval, the prince began to cancel or postpone public engagements to be with them. That November, during the half-term break Prince Harry had been due to spend with his mother, Charles took him to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela and the Spice Girls. There, for the first time, Charles paid brief tribute to his ex-wife's public work, and for the second time thanked the world for its expressions of condolence. To his surprise, he found himself riding a wave of public sympathy -- directed primarily at his sons, but washing over him as their father -- which saw his public popularity begin to climb for the first time in nearly two decades. By Christmas 1997, four months after Diana's death, a poll for The Times officially declared him as popular as prime minister Tony Blair, then still enjoying an extended honeymoon with the electorate after his historic election victory the previous May.

Still the old, insular Charles would occasionally resurface -- defiantly going out fox-hunting, for instance, within days of a huge parliamentary vote for its abolition, amid polls showing overwhelming opposition among his future subjects. But the plight of his sons was disarming criticism. By February 1998 he was cutting back on his charity work to devote more time to them. The following month he took them with him to Canada to brave their first public engagements, amid scenes of mass hysteria, before a photocall on the ski slopes. Prince William, it became clear, could bring his mother's charms to the rescue of the ailing British monarchy. At the age of only fifteen, 'Wills' -- far more than his father -- was the House of Windsor's hope for the future. Or was it the House of Spencer's?

Charles looked on happily as William donned a back-to-front baseball cap and played to the cameras. This time around, he did not resent the comparisons. Where once he had been jealous of Diana's greater popularity, now he could only breathe a huge sigh of relief as their son picked up where she had left off. At the supreme court of the House of Windsor -- his mother, also his monarch -- Charles might at last be relieved of the blame for bringing the Crown into such disrepute.

In his ex-wife's lifetime, Charles would have been appalled at the idea of a 'Dianified', baseball-cap monarchy. Deep down, he still was; but even he could see that this was the only realistic way forward, the key to the monarchy's survival in an increasingly sceptical age. It was time, he was advised, to assert a leadership role by appearing to become the family's prime 'modernizer'. If that involved public disagreements with his father, who had caused him such grief over the years, then, as far as Charles was concerned, so much the better. It was time for him to escape from Philip's shadow -- the bullying father of his childhood, whom he had blamed for 'pushing' him into his luckless marriage, and whose wrathful disapproval could still, even as he approached fifty, reduce him to tears.

Diana's disappearance from the scene, in short, was proving Charles's salvation. Now he could reclaim the role of 'caring, compassionate' prince, in which he had been cast before Diana arrived in his life, but which she had hijacked and played so much better. Suddenly there was a spring in the prince's step, despite another painful knee operation, as he chatted amiably with the 'reptiles' of the press for the first time in ten years. In their instinctive decency, the British people were giving him another chance. Moreover, in their loyalty to the monarchy, they were allowing the Windsors surreptitiously to reclaim in death the princess they had banished in life. Even the excesses of the posthumous Diana cult, with her Memorial Fund sanctioning her autograph on margarine tubs and scratch cards, began to work in the prince's favour. All that was left was to win public acceptance for Camilla.

On the weekend of 14-15 March 1998 -- after his return from Canada, and with the boys safely back at boarding school -- Charles hosted a 'cultural' weekend for a dozen loyalists at Sandringham, his mother's country estate in Norfolk, and let it be leaked that Camilla had acted as hostess. The tacit approval of the Queen, who tactfully spent the weekend at Windsor, could be assumed. Among the guests was Peter Mandelson, the government's master manipulator, who was helping his friend Charles to assume the guise of a leadership role in the battle to modernize the monarchy.

To those who knew the private prince -- whose true conservatism in matters royal had been laid bare by his attitude to his marriage -- it seemed wholly out of character that he would wish to preside over a slimmed-down, Scandinavian-style monarchy bereft of the splendour of its post-imperial rituals. It was he, after all, who had led the vain fight to save the royal yacht Britannia, long after the polls had showed a daunting majority of taxpayers unwilling to finance such post-imperial extravagances. But the fortunes of the House of Windsor had sunk so low that both the Queen and the prince were forced to adapt to Tony Blair's newly 'cool' Britannia, gritting their teeth through walkabouts and photo opportunities with pink-haired, nose-ringed rock stars.

And the tactic seemed to be working. On her golden wedding anniversary, ten weeks after Diana's death, a 'rebranded' Queen walked around Whitehall laughing and chatting, even clutching a heart-shaped balloon for photographers. New Labour, new monarchy. By February 1998, when Britain was contemplating war with Iraq and the Northern Ireland peace talks seemed in danger of collapse, the television news and newspaper front pages were dominated by the Queen Mother's hip operation and Princess Margaret's stroke. Normal British values seemed to have been restored.

* * *

Over the last century, since Disraeli masterminded the widowed Queen Victoria's rebirth as Queen-Empress, the British monarchy has survived as the world's pre-eminent hereditary institution by continually reinventing itself. In a secular age, when constitutional monarchs were obliged to sign government legislation whether they liked it or not, the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas changed their awkwardly German name to the cosier-sounding Windsor and cast around for a new role. During the reign of the present Queen's father, King George VI, they found their twentieth-century niche as a 'family' monarchy -- a living exemplar of Christian family values, strong enough to survive another world war.

Charles's own mother has played a major part in the royal family's iconography, sitting for portrait painters over tea at Windsor with her father, mother and sister -- for all the world like any other British nuclear family, albeit a pampered and privileged one that seemed to speak a different language from its subjects, as well as living a different way of life. As Elizabeth II, fast approaching Victoria's record as Britain's longest-reigning monarch, she has kept the theme going strong, encouraging the nation to bill and coo over her children, surrogate offspring of every house in the land. As ex officio head of the Church of England, the monarch was content with the role of custodian of the nation's moral values, and the job of setting an exemplary model for decent-minded citizens to follow.

Throughout the 1980s, as the younger generation came to the fore, the British love of its royals -- reflected in the slavish sycophancy of the press -- reached a crescendo with a succession of royal weddings and births. Amid the harsh realities of Thatcher's every-man-for-himself, devil-take-the-hindmost Britain, the royals fulfilled their primary function by offering some much-needed good news amid all the bad. No wonder, when all those marriages collapsed within a decade, the backlash was all the mightier. The British people had made a huge investment of affection and goodwill -- not to mention money -- in Charles and Diana, Anne and Mark, Andrew and Fergie. As they abused their privileges, broke the sacred vows of marriage, then offended bedrock monarchists by opting for divorce, all viewers of the royal soap opera felt cheated, even angry. What was the royal family for, if not to provide a symbol of stable family life?

Charles took the brunt of the backlash. He was, after all, the future king; but he had also two-timed Britain's most popular princess, the world's most famous woman, loved as much for her faults as for her strengths. The prince who at thirty had promised to be a 'New Age' husband -- present at the birth of his sons, changing his fair share of nappies, sharing the upbringing of the children -- had reverted to royal type, marrying Diana as a brood mare, and expecting her to take charge of the nursery while he openly kept a mistress. Had Diana been the brainless bimbo he thought he had married, so in love with being a princess that she would turn a blind eye, Charles might have got away with it. But she turned out to be a thoroughly modern woman, and at the same time a deeply traditional one, by insisting on her own rights within the ideal of a strong family unit. Unlike some of her predecessors as royal brides, she was not prepared to look the other way. When this Cinderella stamped her glass slipper, with a crash that echoed around the world, she transformed herself from mere jet-set clothes horse to potent feminist icon. Diana became the potential instrument of Charles's destruction.

Now, realizing the scale of the mistake he had made, the prince looked on helpless as his wife set about attempting to remove him from the line of succession, winning public support for a direct transition from his mother to their son. The law, of course, was on the prince's side; it would take a constitutional upheaval, plus his mother's agreement, for the succession to be altered. But he was in serious danger of losing the public consent by which any monarch reigns. He had forfeited respect and affection -- the two public gifts indispensable to a successful monarch. Diana was at her most vengeful in the second half of 1991, when she made the tape recordings that blackened Charles's name via Andrew Morton's book Diana: Her True Story. Since the divorce she had softened, working out a modus vivendi with her ex-husband for the sake of their sons. She had agreed to make a joint appearance with him aboard Britannia, the scene of their ill-fated honeymoon, during the royal yacht's poignant farewell voyage around Britain in the autumn of 1997. It would have symbolized the civilized way in which they were rebuilding their separate lives; and it would have boosted Charles's public ratings, then largely in Diana's control. But Dodi Fayed and fate intervened.

Now that she is dead -- and Charles has a chance to regain the respect, if not the affection, of the nation -- it becomes forlornly clear what might have been, what Britain and the Commonwealth might have had. 'We would have been the best team in the world,' as Diana herself put it, only weeks before her death. 'I could shake hands till the cows come home. And Charles could make serious speeches... But' -- she shook her head sadly -- 'it was not to be.'

What kind of man could throw away such a pearl, such a rare combination of private happiness and public triumph? Even before her death, a friend of Diana spoke with equal eloquence of what might have been:

His indifference pushed her to the edge, whereas he could have romanced her to the end of the world. They could have set the world alight. Through no fault of his own, because of his own ignorance, upbringing and lack of a whole relationship with anyone in his life, he instilled this hatred of himself.

The turnaround in the fortunes of the monarchy during the half-century of Charles's lifetime is stark to behold. Three weeks before Diana's death, during the dog days of August 1997, an ICM opinion poll showed its popularity at an all-time low, commanding the support of less than half the Queen's subjects for the first time in British history. 'Solid support' for the royal family, according to the poll, would 'literally die out' with the over-sixty-fives, the only age group to show a clear majority in believing that Britain would be worse off without them.

Yet when Charles was born, in November 1948, the thousand-year-old institution was as popular as it ever had been, with a third of Britons believing the monarch was personally chosen by God. The prince himself must shoulder much of the responsibility for the decline in the fortunes of the institution that he was born to serve. Another poll in August 1997, just before Diana's death, showed 46 per cent of Britons were 'dissatisfied' with his performance as Prince of Wales, 4 per cent more than professed themselves 'satisfied'. A majority wished him to step aside, for the throne to pass to his son Prince William.

They will, more or less, get their wish. The best Charles can hope for is a brief reign as a caretaker king for the last decade or so of his life. As he turns fifty, his mother is seventy-two years old, twenty-six years younger than her own mother, who is as old as the century and showing every sign of making it to the millennium. All his life Charles has known he will spend most of it waiting in the wings -- 'the longest apprenticeship ever', as it has been -- and has consequently tried to win his place in history as a crusading Prince of Wales.

He can point to a record of achievement in helping disadvantaged youth via the Prince's Trust. His admirers would point to his campaigns for more traditional architecture, alternative medicine, the environment, ecumenism, literacy standards; his detractors would say they have achieved little, and in some cases done positive harm. Here, it appears, is a well-meaning man, decent and civilized, anxious to make something of his position rather than merely living a life of idle self-indulgence, like many of his predecessors. Yet he has made minimal impact, and is best known for two-timing one of the most-loved women of the twentieth century.

What is it about Charles that seems to have made him his own worst enemy? The seeds of the introspective, melancholy soul with a depressive streak, intensely proud of his heritage, yet unable to adapt it to a changing world, can be traced to his childhood and youth in a cold, distant family, bereft of the normal human interaction which fuels most mortal lives. Add the privilege that went with his birth, a cocoon of deference and sycophancy blocking out the real world, and you have all the ingredients of a tortured soul unable to treat other human beings as equals, to appreciate his own frailties, to understand that he can occasionally be wrong.

But if the public Charles has been undone by the private Charles, it is really because he has never been in sympathy with the age in which he lives. Beam the prince back to any previous century and he would be entirely at home, capable of appreciating its public and private values, its art and architecture, its morality and Zeitgeist -- a popular future King with a beautiful wife and two fine sons, whose mistress would have remained a well-kept secret among his intimate circle. Land him in the twentieth century, where he has the misfortune to belong, and Charles is a displaced person, restless and discontented, out of synch with his contemporaries, unhappily resigned to being unappreciated and misunderstood.

The outstanding princes of Wales in British history have been those in tune with the spirit of their times -- patrons of the arts, public benefactors, inspirational and much-loved figures, regardless of their private lives. Charles, by contrast, stubbornly resists even understanding the notion. 'Whatever that might be!' he has said of the phrase 'the spirit of the times', just as he famously said 'Whatever that means!' of another notion he took too casually -- marital love.

During his one brief spell in the real world, at university, he was 'proud to be square', regarding his fellow undergraduates as 'hairy unwashed student bodies...long-haired, bare-footed and perspiring'. Has Charles ever been a man of his time? Even his most sympathetic and like-minded biographer, granted access to his private journals and correspondence, seems confused. At one point the prince is dubbed 'a child of his times' (by virtue, ironically, of not wishing to be unfaithful to his wife); at another he 'stands outside the age in which he lives', raging 'too much at the folly of the world to be wise'.

As Charles himself put it on entering his forties:

The fear of being considered old-fashioned seems to me to be so all-powerful that the more eternal values and principles which run like a thread through the whole tapestry of human existence are abandoned under the false assumption that they restrict progress.

Has Charles's contrary pride in being considered old-fashioned hampered his own progress through the twentieth century? Has the institution he embodies -- clinging defiantly, like him, to the past -- outlived its rational lifespan? Can Diana's death now help him, via his sons' popularity, to find his feet in a new century, a new millennium, bringing new meaning to his birthright as a successful, if short-lived, king? Perhaps. But can Charles manage all this, unlike his great-uncle David, Duke of Windsor, without the 'help and support' of the woman he loves?

Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc. Copyright © 1998 by Anthony Holden Ltd.

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Meet the Author

Bestselling biographer Anthony Holden is a true gentleman of letters. After an award-winning career in journalism, he has become a prolific writer and broadcaster, praised for his translations of the classics and of opera librettos and hailed for his definitive biographies and histories. Best known for his studies of Prince Charles, Laurence Olivier and Tchaikovsky--and Big Deal, his autobiographical account of a year as a professional poker player--Holden is also a weekly columnist for the London Express and a special consultant to ABC News. He is currently writing a life of Shakespeare. He lives in London with his wife and three sons.

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