Born to Be King: Prince Charles on Planet Windsor

Born to Be King: Prince Charles on Planet Windsor

by Catherine Mayer

Hardcover(First Edition)

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A provocative, surprising, and utterly fresh portrait of Charles, Prince of Wales

He is one of the world's most fascinating and least understood figures: now sixty-six, Prince Charles has spent his entire life preparing to be king while insisting on being his own man. In this brilliant portrait, he emerges as a complex character driven by a painful past, a questing intellect, and a powerful impulse not only to reshape the monarchy but to use the long wait for the throne to work toward high ideals.

Based on exclusive interviews with members of Charles's inner circle and on rare access to the Prince himself, this revelatory biography takes us deep into the royal sphere—a world of its own that Catherine Mayer calls Planet Windsor—and shows us the skullduggery and unintentional comedy of court life. At the same time, it provides a clear-eyed view of Charles's struggles and his achievements as a philanthropist and activist. The book also offers a fundamental reappraisal of one of the most documented episodes in modern history—his marriage to Diana. The reality, as with many aspects of the Prince's story, is more gripping and more poignant than we knew.

Now closer than ever to achieving happiness, the Prince is still far from settled. He remains committed to bringing about social and political change, but in aiming to be a king of hearts, he often creates heartache, for himself and others. Born to Be King explains how and why Charles may redefine the role of the sovereign, even as it reveals the astonishing extent to which the Prince has already left his mark on the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781627794381
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 02/17/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Catherine Mayer is editor at large at Time magazine. In three decades of covering European and international current affairs, she has profiled the leading figures in many fields, including royals, presidents and prime ministers, and cultural and business leaders.

Read an Excerpt

Born to Be King

Prince Charles on Planet Windsor

By Catherine Mayer

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2015 Catherine Mayer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-439-8


His Life in a Day

Every one of the six-thousand-plus residents of Treharris, in South Wales, appears to have decanted onto the sidewalks lining either side of the narrow street outside the butcher's shop, Cig Mynydd Cymru. Inside the small premises, an officer from the Metropolitan Police Service's special protection unit, SO14, completes his inspection. Despite the potential security risk, he asks the proprietors to leave the back door gaping wide. "Keep it cool," advises the officer. "He likes it as cool as possible."

Eight-year-olds Ben and Ryan, swinging from the crowd barriers, wonder what other demands the Very Important Person about to arrive in their midst may make. They are aware that the visitor has special powers. "He bosses people around," says Ben. Ryan—"fully Welsh, no English whatsoever," he proudly declares—expands on the theme. The VIP "tells people what to do and if they don't, he'll behead them," he says. When the Prince's car pulls into view, both boys holler and whoop and the whole crowd, young and old, applauds and waves Welsh flags, demonstrating the sense of local ownership that has always underpinned the strength of the Windsors' global brand. The last Welsh Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, died in 1282. Sentiment against the English Crown still flares in some parts of the country, but Treharris lays on a royal welcome.

This is a typical day for Charles, which is to say, it bears little detailed resemblance to the day before or the day after, but in outline appears numbingly similar, a production line of public engagements and sidebar meetings, small talk, the brief sanctuary of the car, then out again to wave and smile and entertain.

On this particular date, July 3, 2013, the third day of his annual summer visit to Wales ("Wales Week"), he has risen early at his whitewashed farmhouse Llwynywermod. ("'Llwyn' rhymes with ruin," a helpful member of his household e-mails. The double L, technically known as a "voiceless alveolar lateral fricative," sounds "like throat clearing." Y is pronounced "uh"; "werm" and "od" are as you'd expect.) Most mornings Charles undertakes a series of exercises originally devised to keep the pilots of the Royal Canadian Air Force in fine fettle and practiced by the Prince to alleviate his bad back. "Occasionally," says Julia Cleverdon, "in the royal train you hear a frightful bump."

He will have consumed a small breakfast, likely "a few grains," according to a staff member, and not a boiled egg culled from a long row of boiled eggs. This will keep him going until dinner. He never eats lunch if he can help it, and the people who work with him quickly learn to carry hidden food supplies for themselves. He'll also have drunk enough water to sustain him but not so much as to require unscheduled pit stops. "He knows exactly how to hydrate his body to just the right degree," says his godson Tim Knatchbull. "It's an incredible talent. As it is to be most of the time—not all of the time, but most of it—an incredibly affable human, happy to listen, talk and be interested. Everyone's always telling him 'you've got to move along here' but he'll get interested and find someone to talk to and do everything at a leisurely pace."

During the first engagement, touring the series set of the BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who at Roath Lock Studios in Cardiff with wife Camilla, the Prince has chatted with other alien species, Ood and Sontaran, and been persuaded to use a voice modulator to address a Dalek in a Dalek voice. "Exterminate!" he called out, laughing, "Exterminate!" But much of the conversation revolved around the succession. The reigning Time Lord, actor Matt Smith, is preparing to make way for a new Doctor Who, and Charles seemed keenly interested in the choreography of the handover. Smith won over doubters after taking over the role in 2010 from a popular predecessor, David Tennant. His successor has big shoes to fill.

It's a predicament familiar to the Prince, who has spent more than sixty years preparing to take over from a popular predecessor. The Queen has lumbered her son with two huge problems. In reigning for so long so successfully, she has fixed public expectations about what sovereignty means. If Charles outlives his mother—and the "if" is not inconsequential; the Queen appears in robust health again after a brief illness in 2013 and her own mother lasted to 101—he will inevitably attract criticism simply for not being her. If he does become King, he'll only have at most one or two decades in which to make the role his own.

In the eternity of the meantime, the Queen has consigned her son to a destiny that is both inescapable and nebulous, like a Sontaran force field. Most jobs come with descriptions and clear parameters. Being heir to the throne has none of these attributes. It is an open-ended contract and, like everything about Britain's unwritten, fluid constitution, is defined by conventions and precedents and how the incumbent decides to play it.

* * *

"A few people are lucky enough to know exactly what they want to do. They've got the talent or whatever it is. There's no problem," says Charles. "But there's a hell of a lot of others who don't really know and may not be obviously academic, who suffer from low self-esteem. I see it absolutely everywhere." His shoulders rise and fall. This isn't a shrug of acceptance but an involuntary shudder. "That's one of the reasons I wanted to make a difference to people's lives," he concludes.

The Prince the people of Treharris are about to meet appears confident to the point of smoothness. He seems to know exactly who he is and why he's on this planet. Yet his youth was scarred by self-doubt and lack of direction, and he still grapples with big existential questions. Like many philanthropists, in helping others, Charles has found a way to help himself.

Many years ago he embarked on a chivalric quest of his own devising, seeking meaning, enlightenment, and happiness. Capturing any of these grails—and he's still trying, though happiness is finally in his grasp—depends on his ability to reimagine the possibilities of princedom. In attempting to do so, he has roused fire-breathing dragons and has more than once breathed fire himself, scorching instead of debating. He has appeared at times a heroic King Arthur, defending core values, at other moments a figure of fun, Don Quixote tilting at wind turbines, which he once called "a horrendous blot on the landscape," only later to recommend their use in Harmony , though he still prefers the offshore variety.

A late developer, as a young man Charles often appeared to have little more idea than Ben or Ryan about what being a Prince of Wales might actually entail, but his instincts were always to push at the limitations of his position. Just as his own sons are intent on establishing their own specialisms and styles, he yearned to do things differently from his parents.

"I want to consider ways in which I can escape from the ceaseless round of official engagements and meet people in less artificial circumstances. In other words, I want to look at the possibility of spending, say, 1. three days in one factory to find out what happens; 2. three days, perhaps, in a trawler (instead of one rapid visit); 3. three or four days on a farm," the thirty-year-old Charles wrote to his Assistant Private Secretary in 1978. He tends to be emphatic in written communications, underlining key phrases and drizzling exclamation points throughout his texts. "I would also like to consider 4. more visits to immigrant areas in order to help these people to feel that they are not ignored or neglected and that we are concerned about them as individuals."

He never did escape the ceaseless round, and although he spends more time on average at each engagement than the Queen, he packs serial appointments into every grinding day. His dream of immersion in real-world experiences remains mostly that, a dream, though he has dipped briefly into other lives. "He's lived in a croft on the outer Hebrides," says Elizabeth Buchanan. "He's been on hill farms, he's been on trawlers, he's been on fishing rigs down in Cornwall. He's been in the inner cities all over the country, inner cities everywhere."

Charles also does quite a lot of things that his mother does, supporting the armed forces and the charitable sector by holding honorary positions and patronages, conducting around half of all investitures, officiating at events, listening politely to speeches, secretly scrunching his toes in his shoes to stay awake during languorous passages, or ranging across the United Kingdom and the Realms to meet as many people as possible, to be seen and believed. He defines this royal role as supporting his mother in acting "as the focal point for national pride, unity and allegiance and bringing people together across all sections of society, representing stability and continuity, highlighting achievement, and emphasizing the importance of service and the voluntary sector by encouragement and example." Yet there are fundamental differences to his mother in approach and content. The aspirations of his 1978 memo foreshadowed the way he has used his position not as the Queen uses hers, to maintain the status quo, but to campaign for change.

Until recently, he accepted that encroaching kingship must necessarily curtail his activism. His charities and causes would take a backseat once and if he ascended the throne or in the case of regency, if his mother grew too infirm to continue as acting head of state. One of his former Principal Private Secretaries, Michael Peat, set out the nature of that change as part of a response issued in March 2007 to the makers of a hostile documentary about the Prince: "It hardly needs saying that the Prince of Wales, of all people, knows that the role and duties of the heir to the throne are different to those of the sovereign and that his role and the way he contributes to national life will change when he becomes King. In other words it is misconceived and entirely hypothetical to suggest that problems will result if the Prince of Wales fulfills his role in the same way when King. He will not."

Charles has already started to cut back commitments in order to take on more of his mother's work. That process also involves an attempt at closer integration with Buckingham Palace, inserting some of his staff into its structures in anticipation of that transition. None of this has been easy for Charles. His independence is hard-won. The mounting pressures emanating from Buckingham Palace have therefore helped to spur him to a reappraisal: perhaps becoming King might in some respects enhance his role as a change-maker rather than bringing it to a close. This is not only because the convening power of a king is surely greater than the convening power of a prince. The most thoughtful member of the royal family, Charles has been pondering long and hard about how the monarchy can best serve its subjects.

This royal train of thought has deposited him in uncharted terrain. Throughout his adult life, people (and most woundingly his father) have dismissed the things he has chosen to do—whether trying to help the socially excluded or save rain forests or preserve dying skills—as time fillers, eccentricities, indulgences. He has come to believe that such activities are not only compatible with his status, but could be integral to royal duty, to reasserting the relevance of the Crown.

* * *

All royal visits within the UK are planned by palace aides in conjunction with local officials. In the Commonwealth Realms, each government takes the lead. On foreign soil, British diplomats negotiate itineraries with the national authorities. But no matter how the details have been finessed, each schedule for Charles is designed in his distinctive image.

So in a single day, Wales will get to see how multifaceted its Prince is, from the joker-royal, game for a laugh on the Doctor Who set, through more serious—and controversial—incarnations as the day progresses until evening when he transforms again, this time into a generous host. All of these Princes are more confident and comfortable than the troubled spirit that first visited these parts after being made Prince of Wales at the age of nine and returned here as a lonely student and later as a lonelier husband and later still as a widower. This is the Charles of Charles-and-Camilla, finally settled with the woman he calls "my dearest wife"—and that epithet is clearly true in both senses. When they are together, they are solicitous of each other, exchanging secret smiles, fleeting touches of the arm and waist. When they are apart, her influence is still tangible to those who knew him before. He has close relationships with his sons and has grown fond of his daughter-in-law and she of him. His grandson delights him. The royal barometer is more often set to fair than rain.

At the end of the Cardiff studio tour, he and the Duchess part company, better to distribute the largesse of their time. He heads to the nearby Prince's Trust Cymru headquarters, newly opened with the aim of helping at least some of the growing ranks of young unemployed—in Wales standing at more than one in four—into training or work. Camilla, who has been developing her own spread of campaigning interests, departs for Porthcawl in Bridgend, to meet a group of activists working to establish an outpost of the homelessness charity Emmaus in the seaside resort hit by sagging visitor numbers and the impact of the economic downturn on an area that never recovered from the closure of the South Wales coalfield in the 1980s.

Such destinations impart a flavor that some palates define as dangerously political. To ask teenagers about their experience of seeking employment in a jobs drought or men and women sleeping rough about how they came to live on the streets is to discuss policy failures as well as personal turbulence. A 1986 documentary followed Charles on a visit to a Prince's Trust project at a holiday camp in Great Yarmouth. As the camera watches him watching a group of kids perform a version of the Pink Floyd track "Another Brick in the Wall," they unexpectedly insert a lyric aimed at the Thatcherite credo of the time: "We don't need no jobs creation / We don't want a fascist nation." The voice-over is deadpan: "Where a politician might have decided this was an appropriate moment to move on, the Prince chose to stay and talk to them."

In visiting the butcher's shop in Treharris, the Prince pursues another of his agendas. All the Windsors are more "country" than "town," brought up to enjoy rural pursuits such as stalking and shooting, to take a hand in estate management, and most at ease when the glow of sodium lamps recedes into the distance. "I'm a countryman—I can't stand cities," Charles once said. In a commentary the Queen provided for the 1992 documentary Elizabeth R—the closest she has ever come to giving an interview—she talked about her involvement with the Sandringham estate and stud farm: "I like farming. I like animals. I wouldn't be happy if I just had arable farming. I think that's very boring." She lives and breathes—and breeds—horses, as her mother did before her and her daughter now does.

Charles used to take an interest in horseflesh (though never as keen as his fascination with sheep). He gave up polo, the sport he described as his "one great extravagance," aged fifty-seven, only after almost as many injuries. He stopped riding out with his local hunt in Gloucestershire after foxhunting with dogs was banned in 2004. But there is much else that binds him into rural life on a daily basis, not least the Duchy of Cornwall, which under his stewardship has diversified and expanded, buying more than twelve thousand hectares of agricultural land from the Prudential insurance company in 2000 to take its total footprint to around fifty-three thousand hectares in twenty-three counties and increasing its capital account from $742.5 million in 2004 to $1.4 billion in the financial year ending April 2014.

The Duchy is Charles's golden goose—and an albatross. Any male who is first in line to the throne automatically becomes Duke of Cornwall. The Duchy operates to generate profits for such heirs, and though it now does so in a thoroughly modern way, as a property developer and landlord, it retains original period features. It is exempt from capital gains tax and it is not subject to corporation tax because it is not legally a corporation. The income enables the Prince to maintain a laboratory for his ideas; the anomalous status of the Duchy fosters resentment against antique privilege.

It is yet another factor that sets Charles apart from most people, yet it also created his connection to constituencies that feel themselves ill represented by metropolitan politicians: foresters, gamekeepers, hedgelayers, small farmers such as the founders of the butcher's shop in Treharris. In securing his own rural base—the Duchy purchased Highgrove House in Gloucestershire and the nearby Duchy Home Farm in 1980—the Prince consummated his love affair with the land. At Highgrove he redesigned the gardens, telling a documentary team in 1986, "I love coming here. And I potter about and sit and read or I just come and talk to the plants." It was one of his jokes but it lumbered him with the label of plant whisperer, especially after the satirical British TV show Spitting Image depicted his latex alter ego inviting a potted fern to his fortieth birthday party.


Excerpted from Born to Be King by Catherine Mayer. Copyright © 2015 Catherine Mayer. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents

Author's Note 1

Introduction 11

1 His Life in a Day 33

2 Mother Load 53

3 A Prince Among Men 74

4 The Knave of Hearts 91

5 Wolf Hall 113

6 Helping and Hindering 131

7 Harmonies and Disharmonies 149

8 A Foreign Asset 169

9 Happy and Notorious 186

10 Kings to Come 198

Conclusion 210

Notes 225

Select Bibliography 235

Acknowledgments 239

Index 241

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