Inside Prince Charles’ World As He Quietly Takes Charge

19 minute read

The gardens sport a coronet of dew under a rare Scottish sun, but Prince Charles remains indoors, doing what the heir to the thrones of the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Jamaica and 12 other Commonwealth realms has always done–his duty. He’s a champion at enduring windy speeches, toes scrunched in his shoes to keep awake. But this particular duty lies closer to his soul: he’s teaching his firstborn to wield a sword.

Prince William needs to master the key move of granting knighthoods, laying a blade on the shoulders of recipients, ideally without inflicting injury. So on Sept. 26, Charles interrupts a family visit at his Scottish residence Birkhall with his son, wife Camilla, daughter-in-law Kate and the youngest Windsor, baby George, to stage a dress rehearsal, using a sword that has been dispatched to Scotland from London along with George’s Silver Cross pram.

His grandson is “what this is all about,” says Prince Charles, 64, sitting down with Time later that day to discuss his hopes–and profound concerns–for the future. For George, third in line to the throne, that future looks secure enough, a parade of pomp and swords. Britain’s monarchy emerged from 2013’s mass testing of U.K. public opinion, the British Social Attitudes survey, as the only institution to gain in popularity, while others slumped. It did so because it stands for consistency–its opponents would say, for resistance to change–in a world of relentless transformation. Royal rituals and the steady process of transfer from one generation to the next are symbols and mechanisms of that consistency.

The Prince’s own popularity is questionable. Sheltered by his position and exposed by it, the Prince appears a mass of contradictions, engaged yet aloof, indulged and deprived, a radical at the pinnacle of Britain’s sclerotic establishment, surrounded by people but often profoundly alone. The strangulated diction of the uppermost crust–even members of his inner circle can’t resist imitating him–disguises a real magnetism. He’s witty. Dancing with him, says his old friend, actress Emma Thompson, is “better than sex.” His mother works rope lines with regal detachment; the Prince’s advisers build extra time into every schedule to compensate for his habit of striking up meaningful conversations. But you wouldn’t guess any of this from his domestic press coverage, which as often as not reduces these interesting complexities to caricature.

It’s easy to trace the roots of some rancor. When Princess Diana said she wanted to be “a queen of people’s hearts,” she was already a queen of public relations who helped sow one of the greatest misapprehensions about her ex-husband: that he’s a cold fish. But negative images of the Prince predate the failure of his marriage. He’s been excoriated as a spoiled princeling, mocked as a meddler. He’s frequently portrayed as waiting peevishly for his mother to die so he can finally become King.

The Queen is 87 but has no intention of abdicating. Still, she’s finally slowing down. Her eldest is taking on more of her workload, assuming much of the role of kingship without its sparkle. There will be more ceremonials and speeches, more scrunching of toes. On Nov. 15–17, the Prince will for the first time preside in the Queen’s place at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka, the biennial summit of the 53-country organization that she leads and that her successor will helm only if members agree.

He accepts these additional duties joylessly. He believes in the monarchy as a force for good but accepts that people might question its relevance. He prefers not to focus on his accession, which, after all, means losing his mother. And far from itching to assume the crown, he is already feeling its weight and worrying about its impact on the job he has long been doing. For the Prince is a passionate philanthropist, one of the world’s most prolific charitable entrepreneurs and, beyond that, what his friend Patrick Holden, founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust, describes as “an amplifier of messages and a conductor of ideas.” Al Gore calls the Prince “inspiring.” The Prince has more than once been called a British Al Gore, but he casts his ambitions far wider.

A royal activist, he deploys his influence to move the dial on everything from climate change to community architecture, integrated medicine to interfaith relations. Viewed from palaces and limousines and the more profound distance imposed by position and tradition, all these issues appear to the Prince intimately connected with the fate of the earth, which he fears humanity is destroying–“this miraculous entity floating around in space that is linked with the extraordinary harmony of the universe.” (Yes, he does talk like that, gripping the sides of his chair in a rictus of distress.)

His supporters hail him as a visionary; his detractors dismiss him as a privileged crank. Inside the bubble of his strange existence, that notion of privilege is undercut by a sense of his lifelong isolation, a childhood short on parental warmth, a sinew-toughening education that separated him from his three siblings, a culture that still sees many of those close to him bending the knee and calling him “Sir.” A former girlfriend remembers their heads bumping as he moved to kiss her while she curtseyed.

He has found late happiness with his “wonderful wife” Camilla, thriving sons and baby grandson, but this complicated, instinctual, driven man still tries to reach out, to give others the ease of spirit that until recently eluded him. He aims to be a king of people’s hearts, impelled, in his words, to look out for “everybody else’s grandchildren” too. He leans forward, eyes shining. “I’ve had this extraordinary feeling, for years and years, ever since I can remember really, of wanting to heal and make things better,” he says.

Is he succeeding? Any reliable assessment has to start with what he’s done, not with what the polarized voices of monarchists and republicans, fans and critics, allege. He may have been born to reign, but this Prince rarely commands a fair hearing.

Growing Concerns

Near the end of Voltaire’s 1759 satirical novel, Candide, after the eponymous hero has endured multiple privations, an old woman who has suffered alongside him wonders which is worse–to have undergone these privations or “simply to sit here and do nothing.” Candide replies, “That is a hard question.” He finds redemption in the honest work of cultivating his garden.

Spend any time with Prince Charles, talk to the people who know him best or look back over an existence voluminously if imperfectly documented, and it’s clear that having nothing to do was, for the Prince, torture. “My great problem in life is that I do not really know what my role in life is,” 29-year-old Charles told an audience at Cambridge University. Like Candide, he would discover respite from existential angst in making things grow.

As a teenager, he was shocked by 1960s Brutalist architecture. While his contemporaries envisaged golden times to come, filled with free love and unchained rock music, he foresaw a bleaker world wrought in the name of progress. “I couldn’t bear the physical aspect of destroying town centers and historical places, digging up all the hedgerows, cutting down trees, making terrifying prairies covered in chemicals,” he says now. “All that stuff. I thought this was insanity.”

In the Duchy of Cornwall, an estate created in the 14th century to provide the heirs to the throne with an income, he found a way to promote his vision of the future, emerging as a formidable–and prescient–thought leader on environmental issues. In 1980, under his direction, the estate bought his southwest England residence Highgrove House and the nearby Duchy Home Farm and began transforming the farm into an early model of organic husbandry. He established Duchy Originals, one of the U.K.’s first organic brands, 10 years later. In 1993 work started on Poundbury, an “urban extension” on duchy land abutting Dorchester, also in southwest England. Planned according to precepts held by the Prince to be the basis of successful communities, it is both prototype and laboratory. Its buildings are to human scale, domestic and commercial properties intermingle, wealthier residents rub along peaceably with the less well off, and everything is walkable.

Poundbury makes tangible a big difference between Prince Charles and most folks with opinions. The Prince no sooner conceives an idea for righting a wrong than he starts to make his idea concrete–or, in the case of Poundbury, stone and slate.

You can see how tempting it must be to repeat this trick. If the Prince spots a gap in the voluntary sector, he invariably tries to fill it. (Spend time around his staff and you’ll hear them comparing notes on his latest obsessions: “Have you heard about his idea for geothermals?”) He not only serves as patron of 428 charities but over the years has founded more than 25 charities of his own–even his staff has lost track of the exact number–as well as the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation, a grantmaking U.K. body with counterpart organizations in Australia, China, Canada and the U.S. He spearheads nine awareness-raising initiatives, including Accounting for Sustainability, which urges business and the public sector to factor environmental impacts into every decision.

His first charity–the Prince’s Trust, set up in 1976–like its founder took a while to find a core purpose. When riots in London and Liverpool in 1981 highlighted the deepening social and economic divisions of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, the trust began exploring ways to help a young underclass excluded from the affluence fostered by Thatcherite reforms. Not for the first time and most certainly not for the last, the Prince pushed the boundaries of Britain’s constitutional monarchy, under which royals are expected to give a wide berth to anything that might smack of politics.

His motives weren’t ideological. “A few people are lucky enough to know exactly what they want to do. 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,” he says of the young people he hoped to help. For all his empathy, he seems unaware that he’s also describing his own struggle.

Over its 37-year span, the Prince’s Trust has given 650,000 young men and women financial and practical assistance to start businesses or embark on careers. A £1,500 ($2,410) grant from the trust enabled 16-year-old Idris Elba to join Britain’s National Youth Music Theatre. He repaid that faith with interest, going on to star in hit TV shows The Wire and Luther and the forthcoming biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. James Sommerville co-founded the design company Attik in 1986 with a £2,000 ($3,210) loan, eventually selling the business to advertising giant Dentsu. “If [Prince Charles] was in industry, he would be a [Richard] Branson or the late Steve Jobs,” says Sommerville, now vice president of global design for Coca-Cola.

Jobs couldn’t have run Apple while also deputizing for the head of state. So, devoted gardener that the Prince is, he has been pruning and merging his charities into the 16 strongest that he can be sure will flourish with less of his attention. “Obviously, these things have grown like Topsy over the years, as I’ve seen what I feel needs to be done,” he says. “I couldn’t do it all at once. I couldn’t at Highgrove just do the whole garden in one or two years. Bit by bit, you go round.”

Courting Controversy

When Charles was still a young man trying to make something of himself, he sought advice widely. He rejected President Nixon’s suggestion that he should be “a presence,” noting in a July 1970 diary entry that “to be just a presence would be fatal. I know lots of Americans think one’s main job is to go round saying meaningless niceties, but a presence alone can be swept away so easily.” He listened closely to his grandmother the Queen Mother and to his great uncle Lord Mountbatten, who lavished encouragement, unlike his parents. (Last year, as the Prince showed Mum and Dad some regeneration work his charities had carried out in Burnley–northwest England’s frayed former center of the cotton industry–his father was heard asking, “Why do you want to save all these terrible old places?”)

But it was Christopher Soames, a politician and diplomat, who alerted the Prince to the life-changing secret of his royal superpower. Soames pointed out that few people reject an invitation to meet the heir to the throne, especially if a fancy dinner and highfalutin guests are added to the mix. In the four decades since that revelation, the Prince has used his unparalleled convening power to summon many of the world’s wealthiest to his table, expertly extracting some of their wealth to fund his charitable endeavors. (Such guests are known as “Bond villains” among mischievous members of his household.) He has taken captains of industry to some of the poorest corners of the kingdom and, in his words, brought together “businesspeople, government and agencies to sit down with NGOs, who normally they might never have talked to, except they shout across a huge chasm.”

An April 2009 photograph taken at St. James’s Palace, part of the complex with Clarence House that forms his London home, captures a summit of the Prince and eight elected leaders–Australia’s Kevin Rudd, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Guyana’s Samuel Hinds, Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Japan’s Taro Aso and Norway’s Jens Stoltenberg–as well as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, four British Cabinet ministers, some nonelected leaders and the heads of international institutions. Convened by the Prince to float the idea of emergency funding to protect rain forests by making them more valuable alive than dead, the meeting sparked an intergovernmental process that the following year created a $6.4 billion fund to help rain-forest countries.

These days, only four of the 13 participating politicians hold office, but the Prince still plugs away at the issue through his think tank, the International Sustainability Unit, which also seeks solutions to such challenges as creating food and water security. That might seem like a thoroughly good thing, but it speaks to a central reason the Prince remains a controversial figure. He cannot be ousted by voters.

About a quarter of Britons will never accept the hereditary principle of monarchy. British republicans see the monarchy as a source and guarantor of the nation’s entrenched inequalities, even if Prince Charles does more than a little good for the victims of those inequalities. Republicans in Commonwealth countries resent their royal hangover from the days of the British Empire. “Camilla, whom I’ve met, is very amiable and talks fair dinkum talk,” e-mails Schindler’s Ark author Thomas Keneally, an Australian. But “amiability does not mean, any more than arrogance, that a British head of state should be our head of state.”

Antimonarchists see in Charles a weak link between his unassailable mother and the glamorous younger generation rendered more vulnerable, not less, by his commitment to making the most of his inherited position. They aren’t wrong. At various times the Prince’s determination to do the right thing has come close to alienating entire professions, most famously architects. He has three times intervened to raise concerns about plans for modernist developments in London: an extension to the National Gallery; a remodeling of Paternoster Square, next to St. Paul’s Cathedral; and a swath of luxury flats on the site of a former army barracks in well-heeled Chelsea. Three times the original plans have been shredded. Some architects say he has sparked a valuable discussion about engaging with the people and communities involved. Richard Rogers–the architect of iconic buildings including the Pompidou Center in Paris and the thwarted designer of the scrapped Paternoster and Chelsea schemes–disagrees. “The Prince does not debate, and in a democracy that is unacceptable,” he told the Guardian newspaper.

Closely handwritten letters from the Prince regularly land on the desks of British ministers and their opposition counterparts. Newspaper reports in August revealed that the Prince had held 36 meetings with Cabinet ministers since Britain’s coalition government came to power in 2010. The same month, Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times alleged that the Prince had placed “moles” at the heart of Britain’s government. Proof positive, say his critics, that he is interfering in the political process.

The moles were civil servants on routine assignment to ministries. Past and present ministers also put a different slant on the scare stories. They have found meetings with the Prince useful, if surreal. At first meeting, he resembles his cartoon versions: his face, in conversation, like an Irish dancer remains immobile in the upper reaches, with the lower half doing all the work. Then you listen to his words and find yourself surprised again. “You keep pinching yourself,” says one former Cabinet minister, who praises the Prince’s expertise and cites examples of his using convening power to help overcome partisan blockages simply by getting people together in a room. “Those who don’t like the contents of his views allege constitutional impropriety as a way of undermining the views he holds. Those who don’t like his views present them as wacky,” says the minister, who adds, “I took him seriously, and he took me seriously.”

Off With His Headlines

Britain’s mass-market newspapers, which see themselves as the proxies of ordinary people, were never going to give a green-hued, intellectually ambitious Prince with radical ideas a free pass. His temerity in preferring the warmth and cheer of Camilla to a beautiful icon whose image guaranteed newsstand sales deepened hostility. Charles and Camilla married in 2005. By 2010 the Daily Mail claimed the couple were living “separate lives.” The second Mrs. Windsor–made the Duchess of Cornwall at her marriage–couldn’t cope with royal life.

The duchess does struggle. She shares with the Prince a sense of the ridiculous that sometimes makes her lose composure. This summer, during a display of clog dancing at Llwynywermod, their home in Wales, she laughed until her mascara ran. He laughed with her. Their affection is palpable.

Talk to Britons and you rarely find residual anger toward Camilla. Opposition to her may always have been overstated. Palace sources claim journalists manufactured an oft-cited 1993 incident in which Camilla was supposedly pelted with rolls, hiring a look-alike and roll throwers to stage the scene. After revelations about Britain’s press culture in the wake of the hacking scandal at Murdoch’s News of the World, tales of tabloid skulduggery sound less far-fetched. Charles’ sons and members of their household were the first proven victims of hacking.

The Prince’s advisers concluded years ago that there was little point in seeking to correct any but the most damaging calumnies. So when in 2012 his website posted a statement denying that seven boiled eggs of different levels of runniness are lined up for the princely breakfast, you knew the eggs were significant. The anecdote comes from On Royalty, a book by the distinguished BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman, who makes it clear that this is an unverified story. Subsequent reports scrambled the context, presenting the eggs as an example of Charles’ profligate ways.

Petty, yes? Yet such misperceptions matter because Britons, more than Americans, have an innate suspicion of wealthy do-gooders. There’s a cultural predisposition to think you have to walk in people’s shoes before you can understand their experience. Someone whose valet applies toothpaste to brush every morning–another myth–cannot hope to connect with the real world.

The Prince is seriously rich, though he’s nowhere near as rich as his Bond villains and can be royally frugal. Indeed, he keeps his palatial residences frigidly underheated, saves his bathwater for the garden and wears garments so mended, they are more patch than original. He does not own the Duchy of Cornwall but derives from the estate all but a small slice of his total annual income, which amounted to £20 million (about $32 million) in the last U.K. financial year and helps fund official duties carried out by him, his wife, his sons and his daughter-in-law. (Just under £1 million, $1.4 million, came through the taxpayer-funded sovereign grant.) He pays the top tax rate, but the duchy, which operates as a commercial entity, is exempt from corporation tax because it is not defined as a company. The Prince is not allowed to pocket capital gains from assets disposed of by the duchy, so he does not pay capital-gains tax. In July, British parliamentarians summoned members of the Prince’s staff to answer charges that this might be seen as tax avoidance.

His principal private secretary, William Nye, explained that if the duchy paid corporation tax and the Prince’s income tax were adjusted accordingly, the tax take for the Treasury would be pretty much the same. “I do not genuinely believe there is overall an unfairness,” said Nye.

Friends of the Prince, his staff and the Prince himself feel there is an unfairness in the unrelenting swell of criticism against the Prince. “He is both ahead and behind his time. He’s not of his time,” says Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “He’s bigger than the media will make space for.”

A recent rash of articles proposes bypassing the Prince in favor of the shiny younger royals when the Queen dies. King William and Queen Kate would certainly have luster. But Charles is, by instinct and practice, a conservationist. “If you chuck away too many things,” he says, “you end up discovering there was value in them.”

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