But, in general, Charles has conducted his role as monarch-in-waiting with laudable earnestness. One need not go so far as to say that he has the makings of a saint—as the Reverend Harry Williams, a former dean of the chapel at Trinity College, Cambridge, once did—to believe that the country could have done much worse. Kings can be dreadful. Until the birth of Prince William, in 1982, the world was just one helicopter accident or foxhunting tumble away from the prospect of King Andrew I.
People who know Charles sometimes describe him as a cuckoo in the royal nest—someone quite unlike the other members of his family. He inherited neither the stoicism of his mother nor the emotional imperviousness of his father, Prince Philip. Charles was born into a family so formal and hidebound that, when the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth ordained that her children would no longer be expected to bow or curtsy when entering her presence, the move was seen as wildly progressive. Whereas his bold younger sister, Anne, used to march up and down in front of the sentries at Buckingham Palace in order to oblige them to present arms, as if darting before automatic sliding doors in a hotel lobby, Charles cringed at his own authority. As a young man, he considered himself “a ‘single’ person that prefers to be alone and is happy just with hills or trees as companions.” Later, Charles was indelibly defined in contrast with his first wife, Princess Diana, who was “the great, emotional, open, sensitive one,” as Catherine Mayer, one of Charles’s more subtle recent biographers, observes. “The irony is that he was seen as this stone creature, but in fact he’s far more like her than like other members of his own family, in many ways.”
Charles readily prioritizes intuition over analytic thought, especially if it’s his own intuition that’s being prioritized. “He doesn’t allow debate,” Tom Bower, the author of a mostly-warts biography, says. “It’s his droit du seigneur—he doesn’t like contradiction, whether within his causes or his office.” He’s not exactly an intellectual, but he is a reader, especially of history, and compared with his parents and his siblings he’s a raving brainbox. A first-gen university student who benefitted from a bespoke affirmative-action program—no other first-year student at Trinity College had his own set of rooms, and a detective on hand—Charles is a passionate defender of the cultural canon. He knows by heart long passages of Shakespeare, which, as he told Dimbleby, can “in moments of stress or danger or misery” give “enormous comfort and encouragement.” (It’s not hard to see how certain stylings of the Bard—“This royal throne of Kings, this sceptred isle”—might buck up a demoralized monarch-to-be.)
Like the works of Shakespeare, or church-organ music, the monarchy is something that once was inarguably valued but now must make a case for its relevance. It is no secret that Charles believes the modern world to have gone to hell, in any number of ways; although such thinking is not unusual for a septuagenarian, few individuals can be as invested in the matter as Charles, whose whole gig is to be a symbol of tradition. Twenty years ago, a letter that he had written emerged in the course of an employment lawsuit brought by a former employee at Clarence House, his royal residence in London, and his words betrayed a similarly intemperate view of contemporary culture. “What is wrong with people nowadays?” he wrote. “Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far above their capabilities?” He went on to blame “a child-centered education system which tells people they can become pop stars, high court judges, or brilliant TV presenters or infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary work or having the natural ability.” He concluded with a grand flourish: “It is a result of social utopianism which believes humanity can be genetically engineered to contradict the lessons of history.” Charles did not dilate further on what those lessons might be. But it’s safe to assume that they’d justify one of the most notorious compromises struck between the claims of the genetic and of the social: the existence of a hereditary sovereign within a constitutional monarchy.
“This is a call to revolution”—so reads the grabby first sentence of “Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World,” a book that Charles published in 2010. The future king was quick to clarify that the sort of revolution he was calling for was not the monarch-deposing kind. He went on, “The Earth is under threat. It cannot cope with all that we demand of it. It is losing its balance and we humans are causing this to happen.” We must, he wrote, embark on a “Sustainability Revolution.”
Charles has long held strong views on environmental matters: in the seventies, he warned of the dangers of pollution, and by the early eighties he had become an outspoken advocate of organic farming and a critic of industrial agribusiness. At the time, he was often dismissed as a crank. A 1984 article in the Daily Mirror imagined the future king sitting “cross-legged on the throne wearing a kaftan and eating muesli”—little realizing how mainstream these activities would become, except for the throne-sitting. In a 1982 speech, Charles lamented, “Perhaps 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.”
Ian Skelly, one of Charles’s two co-authors on “Harmony” and a writer who has helped him with speeches, says, “A lot of people have quietly realized that he was right all along about a lot of this. There’s always a lot of people who did take him seriously, but the vast majority thought he was up there in the trees with the fairies.” Charles’s criticisms of factory farming and of the use of artificial pesticides have become widespread, though the sustainability practices reportedly carried out at Highgrove, his beloved country residence in Gloucestershire, are beyond the capacities of most farmers: according to Tom Bower, a team of four gardeners lie face down on a trailer as it is dragged by a slow-moving Land Rover, so that they can pull up weeds.
Charles has also been unafraid to criticize powerful bodies of experts such as the British Medical Association, whose ire he earned forty years ago by unfavorably contrasting contemporary medicine with ancient folk healing, in particular homeopathy, and by comparing the modern medical establishment to “the celebrated Tower of Pisa—slightly off balance.” (A doctor with the B.M.A. subsequently declared homeopathy to be “nonsense on stilts.”) He is notoriously hostile to modern architecture, and, in a vitriolic 1987 speech to a gathering of distinguished British planners and designers, he proclaimed, “You have, ladies and gentlemen, to give this much to the Luftwaffe—when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.” Charles’s remarks bring to mind the Internet era’s Godwin’s law, which holds that once an argument escalates online someone inevitably invokes the Nazis; usually, though, the comparison is not in the Nazis’ favor. Once, while on a tour of a fifty-story office building that César Pelli had designed for the Canary Wharf area of London, Charles querulously asked, “Why does it need to be quite so high?” This remark prompted another member of the tour—the art historian Roy Strong—to observe that, if people had thought that way in the Middle Ages, there would be no spire atop Salisbury Cathedral. Charles made no reply—but, then again, we know how he feels about the Tower of Pisa.
Such rampant position-taking was often understood to be evidence of a butterfly mind, flitting from one issue to another. As Dimbleby, his biographer, put it, “He approached new ideas like a swimmer diving among rocks: sometimes he discovered a pearl and sometimes he banged himself on the head.” The press portrayed Charles as “the meddling prince,” suggesting that his interventions—including unsolicited memos to government ministers—both undermined professional expertise and ran counter to his future role. The King now has a weekly audience with the Prime Minister, during which he can quietly offer advice. (“Back again? Dear, oh dear” was Charles’s rather ungracious greeting to the hapless Liz Truss in October.) But the British monarch is, by convention, obliged to sign into law whatever the government puts in front of him, whether he agrees with it or not.
Charles is easy to condemn as out of touch. Bower’s book devilishly recounts an occasion when the Prince’s kitchen staff left him some cold cuts for a late supper. He shrieked with horror and called for Camilla’s aid—apparently, it was his first encounter with cling film. Having spent a lifetime being characterized by the press as a fogy, an oddball, or a nostalgist, Charles had an opportunity, in “Harmony,” to present a self-portrait, and a self-defense. In the book, he seeks to demonstrate how his apparently disparate concerns—architecture, farming, climate change—are in fact linked. Each of them, he argues, is an expression of the absence of “harmony”—a concept that he defines as “the active state of balance which is just as vital to the health of the natural world as it is for human society.” In many ways, the book is profoundly conservative: an idyllic image of crofters’ huts in the Yorkshire Dales is paired with a dystopian shot of tower blocks and industrial chimneys in Dundee, Scotland, as if the former could perform the same function as the latter. But “Harmony” is also surprisingly radical in its rejection of the inevitability of consumer capitalism. “Real wealth is good land, pristine forests, clean rivers, healthy animals, vibrant communities, nourishing food and human creativity,” Charles writes. “But the money managers have turned land, forests, rivers, animals and human creativity into commodities to be bought and sold.”
Ian Skelly says of Charles, “He’s met every expert you can imagine, and is deeply informed about a massive range of subjects.” Skelly notes, “He says he can’t remember anything, but don’t talk to him about sheep! Don’t talk to him about flora and fauna.” Charles’s concern and commitment are transparently heartfelt, even if his solutions can seem arcane: it was recently announced that his vintage Aston Martin has been converted to run on surplus wine and leftover cheese whey.
Charles is known to have some frugal habits—he gets his clothes patched rather than having them replaced. Still, in other respects, his life is one of excess. The Guardian recently estimated that the King’s privately held assets, which include property, jewelry, horses, and vintage cars, have a collective value of nearly two and a quarter billion dollars. (In an indignant response, the Palace said that the figures were “a highly creative mix of speculation, assumption and inaccuracy,” but declined to offer an accurate tally.) And though only the most uncompromising of republicans would deny that a king needs a castle, or two, Charles has access to more palatial homes than the most advantageously equipped plutocrats. His estates range from Windsor Castle to Sandringham House and Balmoral Castle—and those are just the ones that he’s recently taken over from the Queen. The monarch does not pay an inheritance tax. For many Britons, it can feel strange to be lectured on the need to reduce consumption by someone whose family has arrogated so much to itself.