Queen Elizabeth had a spot of bother with her stomach in early March, and one imagines that her eldest son spent some time wondering, with a larger measure of hope than fear, if there might not be ... complications. But the Prince of Wales soon heard that Mummy was, as always, fine. Her Majesty, straight-backed and splendid in red, walked out of the hospital with a rather fierce expression of triumph over whatever microbe had committed its act of lèse majesté. No, we are not abdicating. And what’s more, there will be no skipping over the underemployed heir in favor of the already-balding grandson.
For Charles, the queen’s steadfastness has become glaringly inconvenient. The most intent “royal watchers” are now watching as Big Ben ticks its way toward September 19, after which point Charles will be the oldest man to ever succeed to the throne. One begins to imagine him behind an ermine-trimmed aluminum walker, tapping his way up the nave of the Abbey. The queen herself is said to be aware of the problem, but Her Majesty has been aware of it for decades, and she’s continued right on from jubilee to jubilee.
Charles was “invested” as Prince of Wales on July 1, 1969, a day that fell between Stonewall and Woodstock, during the summer of the moon landing and the Manson murders. The queen, wearing what seemed to be a stewardess’s version of Charlie Brown’s winter hat, placed a new, slightly streamlined coronet upon her son’s head. A good many people his age must have watched the ceremony and thought they were having a particularly gentle acid trip. “I ... do become your liege man of life,” he told his mother, making a promise he has been able to keep far better and longer than he kept his first marriage’s vows.
Charles would be easier to assess if he were a purely retro figure, if there were nothing more to him than the double-breasted suits, the razor-sharp part to the wet-look hairstyle, the voice coming out of a mouth that seems to have been stuffed with marbles by Professor Henry Higgins. In fact, he’s a confusing admixture of qualities and eras, a stodgy man of genuine passion who cheated on a beautiful young wife with a non-beautiful older woman, whom he famously declared his wish to serve not as a liege man of life but as a tampon. His “green” side takes a baronial form: All that organic gardening he advocates for happens at Highgrove, a massive Gloucestershire estate (purchased from a former prime minister’s son) where as lord of his own manor—away from Mummy’s own more famous castles— he allows the masses to stroll the grounds and hear the house’s recycled urine burbling healthfully into the pond.
Time & Life Pictures/Getty ImagesPrince Charles in a garden near Middlesbrough in June 2000.
His frankest rearguard action has been on behalf of classical architecture, a campaign for which one can only praise him, since postmodern British accomplishments in this sphere tend to be on a par with the nation’s attainments in dentistry. When he talks to and about architects, Charles can be pushy and patronizing. He sounds almost like a king, a crabby Renaissance one, achieving what he will never again manage should he actually ascend: pissing people off.
One suspects that the monarchy’s own postmodernism—its regular-Joe approachability and pseudo-self-deprecating humor—annoys him even more than contemporary architecture’s. Charles has been guilty of his own please-love-me grovelings before the sovereign demos: doing the weather on Scottish television; taking kisses from the Spice Girls. But he knows that the crown’s phonying-up has been underway since at least the year of his investiture, when the queen sanctioned the filming of a “documentary” called Royal Family, a cheery piece of propaganda that allowed her subjects to watch the Windsors perform such simple-folk activities as a picnic. (“The salmon is ready!” Lilibet tells Prince Philip.)
Charles himself drew the line at certain later, tawdrier efforts, such as 1987’s “It’s a Royal Knockout,” his younger brother Edward’s mock-medieval tournament, televised for charity. Even Princess Anne, the least pleasant and most sensible of the royals, allowed herself to be clownishly co-opted. Last summer, in a film for the Olympic Games’ opening ceremonies, no less than Her Majesty agreed to spend several seconds as the ultimate Bond girl. One senses Charles’s largelyunexpressed disgust at this ever-growing “outreach,” which of course, however slowly, breeds not loyalty but contempt in the hearts of the masses.
Probably the worst thing one can say about the prince is that he looks at the brass throne and still wants it. His will is too weak, and he has played his waiting game for too long, to get up from the table now. He keeps believing it will all have been worth it, that he won’t wind up like his shrunken, baleful Aunt Margaret, once prettier and more clever than her sister, Elizabeth, then dying prematurely in her shadow. He imagines that his long charity-supporting decades as Prince of Wales have been significantly useful in themselves, but if he wants to gauge his impact on Britain, he should pick up Mrs. Thatcher’s hefty memoir, The Downing Street Years, which covers more than a decade of his own adult prime. There’s not a single reference to him in the index.
What, one wants to whisper into his still endearingly jug ears, have you got to lose? If you insist on waiting it out, why not kick over the table once the jackpot is finally yours? If Charles I gave the British regicide, and Charles II gave it restoration, why shouldn’t you, at the moment of coronation, give it at long last a republic? Why not take the crown from the archbishop’s hands—not to set it on your own head, à la Napoleon—but merely to set it aside, a simple and grand refusal? And why not do some advance colluding with your eldest son, who by all accounts quite genuinely loves you, so that, when everyone’s eyes turn in his direction, he simply shakes his head and refuses it, too? At that point, the whole flyblown confection of monarchy will collapse.
The Scots may by then have disappeared over the Highlands, into independence, depriving the United Kingdom of its adjective. Charles could take the king out of the kingdom, the scepter from the isle. He could smash the strongest pillar of his people’s magical thinking and subconscious self-hatred. Then, if he really seeks to restore the greenness of his green and pleasant land, he could—enhanced rather than diminished—jolt the country into taking desperate measures.
Nothing would become his reign like the renunciation of it.
Thomas Mallon’s most recent book is Watergate: a Novel.