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The new autumn edition of PEOPLE Royals is devoted entirely to the life of Charles III, from his childhood as the first son of the sovereign, through his sometimes scandalous past, to his future on the throne that began this week with Queen Elizabeth's death. What follows is an excerpt adapted from that issue, which is available now.
On the same day this summer that Britain's prime minister was announcing his resignation (having owned up to, among other missteps, breaking his own COVID lockdown rules by partying at pandemic cocktail hours) Prince Charles was visiting Narberth, Wales, 230 miles west of the spectacular political flameout taking place in London. He emerged from an electric car, met with shop owners and greeted four Ukrainian refugees who had resettled in the market town of 3,500; he cooed at babies, received armfuls of flowers and gifts of cakes and rum. If you didn't know better, you could mistake the future King for a campaigning politician — and a popular one at that.
Of course, the man now styled King Charles III did not have to win election to his new role — he was born to it, 74 years ago. He didn't need to sell people on his vision. And yet, in the sunset of Queen Elizabeth's seven-decade reign — the longest in British history — a picture began to emerge of what might follow.
"Most of the issues that matter to him — climate change, employment prospects for young people, interfaith relations — are also relevant right across the Commonwealth," notes a source close to the new king. Still, as the longest-serving heir apparent, Charles was familiar to Britons, many of whom regard him as a fussy intellectual — more head than heart. His mother, by contrast, was widely beloved. Charles acknowledged as much while addressing "Your Majesty, Mummy" in a speech for her Platinum Jubilee in June this year: "You laugh and cry with us and, most importantly, you have been there for us, for these 70 years," said he before throngs outside Buckingham Palace. "You pledged to serve your whole life — you continue to deliver."
During a long and productive old age, the Queen, who died at age 96 on Sept. 8, projected stability and coziness. During her Platinum Jubilee week, she took tea with Paddington Bear in a video sketch and after the festivities was back to her duties, among them bestowing in-person honors at Windsor Castle to health care workers. When she did, her oldest son was on hand. For, despite Charles being a shoo-in for the top job, there was something of an unofficial campaign at work. The strategy had been to have him start stepping up, both to lighten the load for his elderly mother, and to have people see him occupy a space that he would soon inhabit.
Hulton Archive/Getty July 1, 1969: Queen Elizabeth II crowns her son Charles, Prince of Wales, during his investiture ceremony at Caernarvon Castle
The State Opening of Parliament earlier this year was a first for him, and the only time in 59 years Elizabeth had missed giving the speech to outline the upcoming year's priorities. Charles read her words dutifully, if somewhat nervously. "She is in the saddle, but this gets people accustomed to his future role as King," notes Sally Bedell Smith, author of Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Mod- ern Monarch. During the Jubilee, she adds, "there was a feeling of celebrating the past and anticipating the new era."
For much of the last 70 years, Charles was overshadowed: by his mother, then by his luminous first wife, Diana, and later by his sons William and Harry and their glamorous wives, Kate and Meghan. Aware since childhood that he would someday be King, Charles has lived his life knowing that his accession could come at any moment. In reality, long decades passed. That time allowed him to evolve past his tabloid image as an adulterer with a predilection for naughty phone calls to one of a grandfather of five settled into a stable second marriage. His wife of 17 years, Camilla — once reviled for being the other woman on the receiving end of those calls — has impressed Britons with her warmth, approachability and humor: At age 75, she shared with Vogue readers her least favorite color, which she dubbed "menopausal mauve."
Tim Graham Photo Library April 9, 2005: Charles and Camilla on their wedding day
Those many years as Prince of Wales have also given Charles time to establish his own interests and a career in philanthropy. In 1976, at age 28, he used his Royal Navy severance pay to set up the Prince's Trust, an organization which has helped more than a million young people gain skills for employment — among them, future actor Idris Elba — and now has offshoots around the world.
"There isn't a previous Prince of Wales who has done what this one has done," says a palace insider. "Not to the scale and consistency over time and with the courage with which he has done them, while trying to stay within the guardrails of the institution." His charitable footprint, while substantial, has not been without scrutiny. It was recently revealed that in 2013 trustees of his foundation received a $1.2 million donation from Osama bin Laden's half brothers (who had disowned the al Qaeda terrorist leader in 1994). Earlier news broke that Charles himself had, nearly a decade ago, accepted millions in cash from a Qatari politician, which he passed to his foundation. An internal audit found no wrongdoing, yet a palace source said it "wouldn't happen today."
Unlike the Queen, who had deftly gone through her reign with only rare acknowledgments of what she really thought about the issues of the day, Charles, as Prince, could be polarizing. "She came to the throne as a young woman, her views not only concealed but largely unformed, and she has largely been able to keep her opinions to herself," says Catherine Mayer, author of the recently updated Charles: The Heart of a King. "He has spent a lifetime developing the detailed — and often surprising — philosophy that drives every aspect of his activism and has prompted his numerous interventions in areas as apparently disparate as architecture, medicine and his campaign to get people eating mutton. Like his favorite meat, he is now mature in years and divides the public."
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Friends cheer his sense of social responsibility. Critics deride him as a meddler. He has long been scathing of modern steel-and-glass architecture; in 1984 he loudly opposed early plans for an addition to London's National Gallery that he likened to "a carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend." The scheme was scrapped, in one of his notable victories. When he wasn't making public statements, Charles would attempt to flex influence in private correspondence to government officials. In 2015, after a 10-year freedom-of-information battle launched by The Guardian, the British Supreme Court ordered the release of 44 letters dubbed "the black spider memos" after Charles's scrawly handwriting. The newspaper hoped to expose persistent backstage lobbying by a senior member of the royal family, which some viewed as inappropriate, possibly unconstitutional. Topics ranged from the plight of the Patagonian toothfish to homeopathic medicine — which Charles unsuccessfully pushed to have covered by the National Health Service — to his quixotic campaign against genetically modified crops and salmon.
Will Charles be able to suppress, or at least tone down, a lifetime of vocal advocacy? "I've tried to make sure whatever I've done has been nonparty political," he said in a 2018 BBC documentary. But he allowed that, during the time that he is the heir and not the monarch, he should have leeway to express himself. "The idea somehow that I'm going to go on exactly the same way if I have to succeed is complete nonsense," he said. "If you become the sovereign, you play the role in the way that it is expected." In June news leaked that he had privately derided as "appalling" the U.K. policy of deporting some asylum seekers to Rwanda. And on one crucial topic — the disaster of global warming — he remained unapologetically outspoken, warning at the 2021 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, that time had "quite literally run out."
Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty July 14, 1986: Charles sitting in his garden in Highgrove
But those who know him say that Charles did down his advocacy as the throne neared. "He is operating with more caution," says Mayer. As King "he will enjoy weekly meetings with whomever is the prime minister of the day, and he will exercise in those meetings his rights as sovereign to be consulted, to encourage and to warn — the last of these especially vigorously."
Of equal or possibly more interest will be to watch Charles juggle royal family matters. Just as his split from Diana in 1992 contributed to what the Queen called the "annus horribilis," Charles will inherit the fallout from his younger son Harry's departure to California with wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, including the couple's allegations that unnamed members of family treated her unforgivably and that, for a while, Charles was not taking his phone calls.
RICHARD POHLE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images March 11, 2019: Prince William, Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and Prince Charles chat during a Commonwealth Day appearance
"Only a few years ago, I would have said that conditions for his kingship were set," says Mayer. "Although some people will never forgive or forget his history with Diana, he appeared to be re-creating a new ideal of a happy family within his second, successful marriage and as doting father and grandfather. The rupture with Harry and Meghan has shredded that image and alienated many of his future subjects, irrespective of what you believe his role in these events to be." During a Jubilee church service, Charles appeared to actively avoid his younger son and daughter-in-law. It was later confirmed, however, that he spent time privately with the Sussexes, including meeting 1-year-old granddaughter Lilibet for the first time. "It was a fantastic visit," a source told PEOPLE, adding that it was "wonderful" to have Harry and Meghan back in Britain.
During a Charles reign, expect to see much more of firstborn son William, who is next in line to the throne, and will eventually become Prince of Wales. Charles's activism and foundation-building has meant he has "done a lot of the hard work in establishing the space for the next Prince of Wales to maneuver in," says a source who knows him. "William is more reserved by nature, not in his character but is more careful and considered. [His father] was careful, but he took things on." Another asset is Williams's wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, who is, after the Queen, the second-most popular member of the family, according to a May 2022 poll. (Kate was followed by her husband, with Charles trailing in fifth place at the time.)
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That same poll suggests that, despite lingering affection for Diana, the public had warmed to the idea of Camilla's becoming Queen Consort ahead of Elizabeth's death. She has done "an exemplary job" an insider tells PEOPLE, pointing to her support "for women's rights and those fighting domestic abuse. She has plowed her own field in terms of her duties and been well-liked." When she shared the stage with Charles at the Jubilee concert, "the crowd went with him ... and the mood was right," observes a source close to the household. As Duchess of Cornwall, she lightened the load of public engagements, which she executed with relish, whether visiting school children, sampling local delicacies or picking up dance steps of cultures on virtually every continent — something for which Charles was surprisingly game. And she lightened him. "She is a huge support" says the insider, adding that when he lapsed into occasional "Eeyore moments," Camilla "jollies him up." To watch the two of them together was to have a glimpse into this new monarchy.
Yui Mok/AP/Shutterstock Sept. 9. 2022: King Charles and Queen Camilla outside Buckingham Palace following Queen Elizabeth's death
Ultimately, though, it is King Charles's reign alone, and the road toward it was marked by stops like that visit to Narberth, Wales, where the then-Prince of Wales was greeted with flags, cheers and Welsh-language songs from schoolkids. "The whole community came out to support him," says local butcher Andrew Rees, who showed Charles around. "We gave him a nice hour in the town. Standing back and watching him greet people and seeing the happy faces — and him having time for everyone — was great. He is well-loved."