Fit to be Crowned: Assessing the King’s Early Performance as Monarch
This image of the King is an adapted version of the portrait created by Martin Jennings for the Royal Mint for the obverse of the new UK coinage, February 7, 2023. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images
It is not the best of times for a coronation, (Charles’s takes place on May 6) with the British economy at a nadir and King Charles III’s subjects feeling the pinch from tax hikes and rising heating bills and food costs. But the House of Windsor is entwined with dynasties that have handed down the Crown for more than 1,000 years, and these trials are piddly compared to the War of the Roses, which burned down the House of Plantagenet, and the subsequent Tudor reign of terror, marked by King Henry VIII’s predilection for beheadings.
The modern-day monarchy has always provided cheer and a cultural point of pride to rally around in times of strife, so the House of Windsor — which, in the ’90s, endured the Queen’s annus horribilis and the Charles and Diana rift dubbed the War of the Wales — will likely survive a TV show or two and a tell-all book by a second son.
The ceremony is a big deal, but what matters the most is that Charles is doing surprisingly well in his new role. After the flurry of fussy moments during his proclamation as King — remember the tussles with pens? — he has settled into the top job with notable ease. He has a grandfatherly air and has been laughing with crowds, with real warmth radiating from both sides of the rope line. He’s kept his cool when eggs were thrown at his head. He’s even received a couple of hugs, formerly the territory of the Dianas and the Meghans of the royal fold. Most importantly, he has engendered loyalty within the ranks: The Royal Family, senior and otherwise, held a stoic line of silence after the Sussex revelations. It did indeed strangle the oxygen of the gossip fire.
A reckoning will follow the lift provided by the coronation’s festive spirit. If Charles wants to make his mark, pundits say he must move swiftly. There has been a flurry of royal books released after Elizabeth II died in September and the accession of Charles III. In interviews with Zoomer, the authors shared their thoughts on Charles’ chances.
In January, The Times of London royal reporter Valentine Low published Courtiers, the story of the men in grey suits behind the curtains at Buckingham Palace. He says when Charles was Prince of Wales, his household could be akin to Wolf Hall (the Hilary Mantel novel about Henry VIII’s courtier, Thomas Cromwell) in terms of power games, but he was actually very good at getting things done, a skill that bodes well for the future. We have already seen this with swift and decisive decisions around family matters and coronation plans. This skill was developed in the years where Charles’ household was facing off with the Queen’s household in the ’90s.
“Charles was also often at odds with Buckingham Palace,” says Low. “There were very concrete issues of power and influence and strategy that needed to be resolved.” Now that he holds the top job, he will see the view from the other side.
Christopher Andersen, author of The King, published during Charles’ first months on the throne, calls the new King “unknowable and an enigma.” This is in contrast to those who say his life has been lived too out loud, his inner thoughts overexposed to biographers.
“Charles is to some extent unsure of himself, and we can see it,” says Andersen. “He is full of contrasts and contradictions — a work in progress.”
Until he married Camilla in 2005 — a faithful, and very behind-the-scenes mate — Charles was overshadowed by the women in his life, particularly Diana.
“Over the years, Charles has frequently asked, ‘Why don’t they love me the way they love her?’” After her death, Charles could have been talking about his mother. “He wants his subjects not merely to respect him, but to feel that same intangible sense of warmth and affection coming in waves at him from the British people — the same warmth and affection that washed over the Queen during her 70 years on the throne.”
Overriding all of this, Andersen says, is Charles’ keen sense of history and his place in it.
“He sits at the top of a system that has existed for over a thousand years. He is intensely aware of that, but also of how precarious his position is. If the monarchy survives and flourishes, it will be because of Charles III. If it crashed and burns, it will be because of Charles III.”
Lastly, we have celebrity analyst Andrew Morton, who himself has been woven into the story of the past 40 years of royal drama. As Diana’s unofficial/official biographer, he has a remarkably warm view of the new King. Making the rounds to promote his book, The Queen, published just after Elizabeth II died, Morton said Charles “seems very much in control. He is also very much in his honeymoon period.” This juncture, at the transfer of power, he concludes, is “quite profound. After the Queen is gone, it is not as stable.” It is now up to Charles to steady things.
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 2023 issue with the headline ‘Charles In Charge’, p. 24.