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Queen Elizabeth II was just 21 when she pledged to devote her “whole life” to service. And as she prepares to turn 95 in April, she remains very much at the helm of the British monarchy. Her remarkable reign, already the longest in the country’s history, deserves much attention, but it is easy to forget that her son Prince Charles has simultaneously made it into the record books as the oldest and longest-serving second-in-command.
Unlike the position of sovereign, the role of heir is not clearly defined, but Charles has had a staggering 69 years to come to terms with, embrace, and ultimately redefine it, a sometimes stubborn combination of maverick and visionary that’s entirely of his own making. He was officially crowned Prince of Wales (the title given to the eldest son of the monarch) at age 20, in 1969, during an investiture ceremony at Caernarfon Castle in Wales, a turning point memorably dramatized in season 3 of The Crown. At that stage “he would have had a pretty good idea that it was going to be a long time before he sat on his mother’s throne,” says Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine.
But far from pining for the top job, he applied his feverish work ethic to finding purpose while next in line, defiantly speaking up for causes like sustainability that few took on, even if some mocked him for saying he talked to his plants. (These days, of course, plant-fluencers are all over Instagram.) His decades-long advocacy is now justifiably considered ahead of its time. With the world more awake than ever to the threats posed to the environment, Charles finds himself lauded as a pioneer for farming organic produce, thanks to Duchy Originals, the Newman’s Own–esque food brand he founded in 1990.
Perhaps his most notable endeavor, however, is the Prince’s Trust, started in 1976 with funds from his Royal Navy pension to support disadvantaged youths. Almost half a century later it professes to have helped more than 1 million young people. “He has never wavered in his enthusiasm, his support, and his ambition for the organization,” says Martina Milburn, chief executive of the trust. For his part, the prince told the BBC in 2018, “I want to be able to take risks.” He added that if it was meddling to “worry about the inner cities,” then he was “proud of it.”
Charles’s tenure as sovereign will be inextricably tied to his journey from Prince of Wales to king. Edward VII is remembered as a monarch, yet he held that role for just nine years, in comparison to the 59 he spent as Queen Victoria’s heir apparent. Similarly, Charles’s reign will be dwarfed by that of his mother. But his formidable legacy as Prince of Wales deserves its own place in history.
In a toast for his 70th birthday, the queen described Charles as “a dedicated and respected heir to the throne.” But it was her closing remarks that perhaps most touchingly summed up his unique character and interpretation of his civic duty. “To my son,” she said, “in every respect a duchy original.”
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