The Lonely Childhood of King Charles III

6 minute read

When King Charles III became Britain’s new sovereign he thanked his “darling Mama” Queen Elizabeth II for her ‘”love and devotion to our family and to the family of nations you have served so diligently all these years.” Yet so complete was her devotion to her royal duties as a young woman that she had far less time than most mothers to spend with her firstborn son and heir, whose shyness and sensitivity as a small child were exacerbated by the frequent absences of both his parents.

When Princess Elizabeth (as she was until her accession to the throne in 1952) joined Prince Philip at his naval posting in Malta over Christmas 1949, leaving their one-year-old son with his grandparents at Sandringham, they missed seeing his first steps and first teeth. Further foreign trips followed in quick succession, and shortly afterwards, when Prince Charles uttered his first word, it was “Nana,” addressed to his nanny, whom he saw more of than any other person.

The same was true of many other aristocratic children in Britain at that time, yet even friends of the young Queen (albeit it must be said not all of them) regarded her as a rather distant parent, undemonstrative with her maternal affection, not unlike her own mother.

As a monarch the Queen’s performance was well-nigh flawless from the outset. Calm, patient, humble, dutiful, compassionate, dignified, graceful, she never did anything to cause embarrassment or political controversy, while demonstrating a progressive readiness to adapt the monarchy to Britain’s diminished post-colonial status in the world. As a mother, as far as Prince Charles was concerned (his sister Princess Anne, a more robust character, recalled a difference experience) her somewhat aloof approach seemed more akin to the 1930s, although she did put an end to the tradition that royal children should bow and curtsey on entering the presence of the sovereign.

With an avalanche of demands on her time, the young Queen had no choice but to leave much of the responsibility for bringing up their children to Prince Philip, however he was a very different character to his son and had his own ideas as to how he wanted him to turn out. By Charles’s first birthday he had already bought him a cricket bat and declared that he wanted him to be ‘a man’s man’.

Prince Philip’s determination that his timid son should learn to stand on his own feet stemmed from the turbulent circumstances of his own childhood, when he had been forced to fend for himself from the age of eight after his mother was taken away to a secure asylum and his father left the family home to live with his mistress in the South of France.

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Having developed a hard-nosed approach to life as a means of coping with these blows, Prince Philip saw it as his responsibility to toughen up his son and prepare him for the rigours of one day becoming king. As his cousin Lady Mountbatten said, the prince ‘could see that Charles was a terribly sensitive boy who was going to come up against a lot of problems, and he thought he should help him not to take to heart a lot of the things that children take to heart, and not rush to pick him up every time he fell over and say “Oh dear, dear have you hurt yourself” but rather, ‘Oh come on that’s not so bad.’ I’m sure he just wanted to help make his character more robust … but in retrospect I think he overdid it sometimes and perhaps he was a bit untactful.”

Charles was the first heir to the throne of Britain to go to school, briefly attending a small pre-prep (Hill House) in Knightsbridge, London, aged eight, before going as a boarder to his father’s old prep school, Cheam, whose rugged regime Prince Philip extolled in a preface to a history of the school: “Children may be indulged at home,” he wrote, “but school is expected to be a spartan and disciplined experience in the process of developing into self-controlled, considerate and independent adults.” King Charles, a very different character, would doubtless demur, having hated his time there. He was later mercilessly bullied at Gordonstoun, where his father had been head boy, describing it as a “hell-hole.”

Neither the Queen nor Prince Philip encouraged Charles to talk to them about his feelings, which instead tended to be bottled up to avoid any awkward conversations. In many ways a very attentive father, Prince Philip was also seen by some courtiers as too controlling of his eldest son, overcompensating, it was surmised, for the fact that there had been no one around to guide him when he was growing up. He often gave Charles the impression that he was not the sort of son he had wanted and could fly into a rage at random aspects of his behaviour, once even rebuking him for reading in bed: “If he wants to sleep, why doesn’t he sleep? If he wants to read, why doesn’t he sit in a chair and read?”

Frightened of his father and starved of attention from his mother while she was busy as the queen, during the 1970s Charles came increasingly under the wing of his great uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten, the brother of Prince Philip’s mother, whose influence was not always especially helpful. For instance his famous recommendation that he should “sow his wild oats” before marrying a young woman without “a past,” which helped propel Charles into his unhappy first marriage to Lady Diana Spencer.

In the decades after Mountbatten’s murder by the IRA in 1979, however, Prince Charles grew gradually closer to both his parents, his Prince’s Trust charity being one of several examples of shared interests with his father (who had earlier set up the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme) being pursued in different ways. At the time of Charles’s 60th birthday in 2008, the Queen expressed “enormous pride” in her son’s work with the Trust, which she described as a “remarkable organization.” When the two of them were photographed together during celebrations to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday, there was no mistaking the warmth of their relationship. And on one of the TV obituary films aired this week by the BBC, the new King said how “very lucky” he felt to have had the Queen as his mother.

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