The man beneath the crown: Gyles Brandreth reveals his stories of King Charles
When Charles III enters those hallowed halls of Westminster Abbey on 6 May – the scene of every English and British coronation since William the Conqueror’s in 1066 – he will become the oldest monarch to ascend to the throne this country has ever known.
One can’t help but wonder where his thoughts will take him. No doubt they will, at some point, travel back to the coronation of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, when he was a little boy aged just four.
A photograph from the occasion shows him – wedged between his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and his aunt, Princess Margaret – looking thoroughly bored. Perhaps he was wondering what the fuss was all about. Now, of course, he knows.
I was born the same year as the King. As the young prince made his way to the Abbey in June 1953, I was somewhere along The Mall, sitting on my father’s shoulders in the drizzle, trying to watch the procession through a toy periscope made of cardboard and tin mirrors.
What an extraordinary display of pomp that coronation was for austere, post-war Britain, taking place when we still had rationing. Oscar Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland, was married to Thelma Besant, the young Queen’s beauty advisor at the time, and kept a diary in which he spoke of how, even so, nobody baulked at it. Why? Because this was exactly the tonic we needed; it marked the dawning of a new age.
‘In these troubled times, it’s actually rather reassuring to have an older king’
We witnessed a great coming together of dignitaries from around the world; spectacular military displays and extraordinary pageantry – and in the middle of it all was this very young and incredibly beautiful woman being crowned Queen. No wonder we all cheered.
As Holland wrote in his diary in the run up to the great event: ‘It is only the fact of having a young Queen that makes the thing possible at all. With an old goat like Edward VII the situation would become absurd.’
His Majesty King Charles is no old goat. But this summer, seven decades later, we do now have that great contrast of seeing two people in their mid-seventies – Charles and his wife Camilla – being crowned our King and Queen. I can’t imagine how it must feel for them to be starting this new way of life at such an age.
Daunting, perhaps. But, as someone who is lucky enough to have spent a bit of time with them both over the years, and got to know them as much as it is possible to know royalty, I am certain they will be, above all, extremely happy to be taking on a role with which they intend to do great good.
Indeed, I firmly believe this is going to work out rather well – for them and for us. I think that in these troubled times, it’s actually rather reassuring to have an older King.
What defined the late Queen was her consistency: she was crowned a young woman, she aged and became old, and through it all she was true to her vows to serve us her whole life, which people greatly admired. Even those who weren’t monarchists recognised that Queen Elizabeth was someone rather special.
What’s good about King Charles is that he has been around for as long as most people in the country can remember. He was born in 1948; he’s part and parcel of the show. People have a good sense of what they’re getting.
Charles the man
Charles is also a workaholic. I’ve been in his study, which is always piled high with papers and documents. He’s a powerhouse of energy and keeps himself in good shape, able to fit into suits he’s had many years, which I always find impressive.
We know, too, that he is a decent guy. People rather like the fact that some of his early ideas – talking to his plants – made him out to be a bit of an oddball, yet he has since been proved right. (I talk to my flowers. They like it.)
His concerns for the environment – something he began championing in the late Sixties – show he was a forward thinker who many of us are only just catching up with. Fundamentally, we know this is someone who clearly means well.
We also know that, as the Prince of Wales, he was very much a man of ideas and would write his famous letters to government ministers in order to share them. That’s not possible as King, and His Majesty knows that.
But it’s good for us to know that being engaged with what is happening all around him is very much a part of his background – and while as monarch he must now keep his thoughts to himself, this is somebody who cares.
I remember talking to King Charles around the time of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and he was clearly distressed. Always very keen on making proper homes for people, he had expressed concerns about these high-rise blocks of flats for at least 20 years. Knowing what those people went through hurt him as much as it did the rest of us.
King Charles is also a deeply spiritual person, very interested in the cosmos, the universe and what links us all together. He has learnt over the years it’s best not to talk about these things – perhaps in case he gets branded a ‘hippy’ – but they do count with him. There are people who will like him for that.
Over time, two questions were asked over and again. First, ‘Was Elizabeth II going to abdicate?’ And second, ‘Was Charles impatient to become King?’
The questions were considered intriguing enough to become central to the last series of The Crown. Indeed, a meeting in which the then Prince of Wales is seen asking John Major to persuade his mother to abdicate was invented – all branded ‘malicious fiction’ by the former Prime Minister.
But then, The Crown is a TV drama, not a historical documentary series. As a nation, we always knew the Queen would never abdicate – she made that commitment, aged just 21, in South Africa, that her whole life, however long or short, would be devoted to service. She meant it. She was also a committed Anglican who, when anointed with holy oil at her coronation, made a promise not just to the Commonwealth, but to God.
King Charles always knew that, as long as she was mentally able, his mother would keep going. Which she did, having been on duty – seeing one Prime Minister out and another one in – to within 48 hours of her death on 8 September 2022. He also knew that as she grew older he would take on more responsibility, but without her ever fully letting go.
‘People can see that this is a family where the sadness of a broken marriage has evolved into the happiness of a successful second marriage’
I recall being at an event with Queen Camilla last year, when she was Duchess of Cornwall, and discussing how she was recently at Cardiff with the Prince of Wales and Her Majesty. ‘We were there in case the Queen wasn’t well enough to attend,’ she explained.
‘But of course she came. She always comes if she can.’ So, King Charles always knew she would go on to the end of the road, and there was never impatience on his part to take over. He has only ever been impatient to do good.
Certainly, nobody could become King having been better equipped for the job than Charles III. He has long been briefed by high-ranking ministers, and Prime Ministers too.
The head of his college at Cambridge University and also his great mentor was Lord Rab Butler, the most experienced government minister never to have become Prime Minister – he served as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Nothing about the job is going to come as a surprise to Charles III. We should also remember the King’s grandmother lived to 101, his father to 99 and his mother to 96, meaning we could be in for quite a long reign. I hope he’s going to pace himself.
Times of change
I’m sure changes will come, but that they will be gentle, sensible and subtle. This coronation is expected to be a little shorter, smaller and proportionally less expensive than the last, reflecting the straitened times in which it takes place.
Charles has already indicated he wants to slim down the monarchy to himself and the next two generations – those in the immediate line of succession – with his sister, Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, and his brother, Prince Edward, the new Duke of Edinburgh, continuing with their royal duties.
Kindness and thoughtfulness will be at the fore. After all, our King has experienced the ups and downs of a real life, and one that relates to the modern world.
When I attended my first Buckingham Palace garden party in the Sixties, as part of my work with the Duke of Edinburgh’s charities, divorcees were not presented, such was the taboo around broken marriages.
Now, divorced people are the ones hosting these events. People can relate to that; they can see that this is a family where the sadness of a broken marriage has evolved into the happiness of a successful second marriage, with step-children and step-grandchildren, and everyone making it work.
King Charles has also faced challenges with his own children. Prince Harry has written his book, Spare, in which he airs various grievances.
But in 1994, the then Prince of Wales co-operated with Jonathan Dimbleby in the writing of a book that told his story, his truth, in his own way.
His parents, I know, because the Duke of Edinburgh told me, felt that some of what he said – describing his mother as being emotionally distant, and his father as harsh and hectoring – wasn’t fair.
Certainly the people who knew them in the Fifties who I talked to, told me they were wonderful, loving parents who saw their children much more than many aristocratic parents of that time did. Like anyone else, they did their best.
But, of course, what that book reflects is where he was then – in a rather dark, difficult place as he grappled with the emotional fallout of his failed marriage to Princess Diana. I’m sure he wouldn’t write that book now.
King Charles is a very loving father – in his first broadcast as King he mentioned his love for his children. I have been lucky enough to see him playing with his grandchildren, who rag him and pull him around. He has a lovely, easy and natural relationship with them. I remember being at an event at Highgrove when Princes William and Harry were still boys, and seeing them with the now Queen, I got the same impression of their relationship.
The advantage of being an older animal is that you have seen it all before. And so I’m sure that whatever he is going through with Prince Harry, his father knows that this too will pass.
And truly, there is nothing new in any of this to King Charles. When he was born, the then Princess Elizabeth didn’t issue a photograph of him for several weeks, nor was his name given out. Rumour became rife: is there something wrong with him; is he disfigured; why aren’t they naming him? Is it because he’s going to die?
‘People will see these two decent people who’ve been dealt these strange cards and yet are playing them rather well’
It was simply that the young princess just wanted some private time with her new baby – she wasn’t ready to share him with the world just yet. Thousands of people waited outside Buckingham Palace for news of his birth, singing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow when the announcement was made.
When he was a little boy, he will have seen in the papers various scandalous stories about his aunt, Princess Margaret, and who she was and wasn’t going to marry.
At his mother’s coronation he must have known that his great uncle, who had once been King, wasn’t coming. His own love life came under constant scrutiny.
So, you see, he’s gone through a lifetime of this sort of thing.
There will be more to come, but he won’t complain. Beside him will be the woman he refers to constantly as his darling wife. I first met her when I was 16 and she was 17 – I knew her grandparents and went to their house one day where I spotted this girl in jodhpurs and an Aertex shirt smoking Woodbines in the garden.
One day, without thinking, I told the story in an episode of Radio 4’s Just a Minute, not for a moment considering that the then Duchess of Cornwall might be listening.
But she was, and a few days after the broadcast she happened to bump into my wife – at a flower show for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee at our local church – and said to her: ‘Tell Gyles I don’t deny I was smoking, but it definitely wasn’t Woodbines.’
King Charles is a fan of Just a Minute, too. In fact, he told me he used to leave voicemail messages for William and Harry in the style of Just a Minute, doing his best to say what he had to say in under 60 seconds, without hesitation, deviation or repetition.
The pair of them share a marvellous sense of humour. It’s such good news that we have this great double act, who so clearly get on very well. She’s good for him. We saw how frustrated he became for a moment with that leaky disposable pen last year, and how she soothed him – that was lovely to see.
I’ll be there, at the King’s Coronation, not on The Mall but in a commentary box chatting away. The late Queen’s coronation was the most globally watched event. And now, 70 years later, because of this curious yet wonderful institution called the monarchy, Brand Britain will be personified to the world by a new King and Queen.
I think people here and abroad will see these two decent people who’ve been dealt these strange cards and yet are playing them rather well, and will cheer just as loudly as I did on The Mall all those years ago. It really is going to be a wonderful day.
As told to Rachel Halliwell.