Prince Charles holds a cane during a 2000 visit to the Hafod y Llan estate in Wales. Photo: Ken Goff/Getty Images
The King: The Life of Charles III
The latest biography from veteran royal reporter Christopher Andersen digs into the hardships that forged the King's character / BY Leanne Delap / December 16th, 2022
After publishing 35 books about celebrities, political dynasties and the Royal Family, American journalist Christopher Andersen brings us The King: The Life of Charles III just eight weeks after the heir-in-waiting acceded to the throne on Sept. 8, and seven months before his coronation.
Andersen, who has been reporting on the Royal Family for 50 years, witnessed the birth of modern celebrity culture as a former contributing editor of Time magazine and then as a long-time senior editor at People, where he led Royal coverage in the 70s and 80s. He is also the author of the 2021 book Brothers and Wives: Inside the Private Lives of William, Kate, Harry, and Meghan.
Andersen, 73, wanted to take on Charles as a subject because, despite all that is known about the new King, he is still an enigma. “We knew who the Queen was, because she knew who she was. Charles is more complicated than that,” the Connecticut-based writer says in a recent interview. “Even after 70 years of waiting to take on the top job, as Diana called it, Charles is to some extent unsure of himself, and we can see it. He is full of contrasts and contradictions – a work in progress.”
He was popular, even swoon-worthy, when he was a young bachelor and Diana’s husband. But the spotlight, which was always on his mother, moved on to the next generation of young royals – his own sons – as soon as they were of age. So there is, in fact, much texture and detail we don’t know about Charles in midlife, and that is the meat of Andersen’s story.
I have covered the Royal Family since Diana died 25 years ago, and I thought that, after the slew of books and coverage about the Queen around her Jubilee and death, there was little left to learn. I got really into this book, however, because details of Charles’ life felt fresh and new to me. There aren’t any bombshells, but there are quiet moments of revelation.
It was with some relief that I realized, halfway through The King, that Andersen was going to glide over the Diana years, or, as he calls them here, “a 17 year blur.” When asked why, Andersen says he has also been there and done that. “I’ve written extensively about the marriage of Charles and Diana in my No. 1 New York Times bestseller The Day Diana Died. While I definitely deal with it in The King, it’s 17 years – albeit important years – in a 74-year saga still in the making.”
As Andersen writes in the book, Charles was the product of an institution whose motto was: “Be hard. Be detached. Be, in every conceivable way, simply above it all.” The author says the King was shaped by a “very lonely and heartbreakingly sad childhood,” and a life where women always overshadowed him. “Over the years, Charles has frequently asked, ‘Why don’t they love me the way they love her?’ For years, this comment was aimed at Diana. After her death, Charles was talking about his mother.”
That’s why King Charles III wants his subjects to respect him, and “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.”
Ironically, “it is precisely because he was emotionally abandoned by his parents that Charles is the man he is. Recently, they were somewhat affectionate toward one another. But for nearly all his life, Charles described his mother as cold and aloof and his father as overbearing and hectoring – a bully who often berated and belittled the Prince of Wales in front of others, reducing him to tears. He was sent away to a boarding school he likened to a German POW camp. “Unbearable,” “pure torture,” “hell on earth” – these were the words he used to describe his years away at [Gordonstoun] school, where he was routinely beaten and abused by older students.” The only people he could count on were the Queen Mother and his nanny, Mabel Anderson.
Charles has had several “near misses” that could have changed the course of history. I ask Andersen about a parachuting incident during his RAF training, and how it changed the future King. “There are so many times when Charles cheated death,” he responds. “An emergency appendectomy at 13, being struck by a bus outside the library at Trinity College, getting tangled in the lines of his parachute during RAF training. If he had died as a result of any of these incidents, Andrew would now be sitting on the throne.”
Fast cars and risky sports were also a factor. “After marrying Diana, Charles was nearly killed in an avalanche that took the life of his close friend, and was nearly killed when his car almost went off a cliff in Majorca just weeks before the crash in Paris that took Diana’s life. If he had died then, William would be sitting on the throne.”
Charles can seem somewhat prickly to North Americans, but Andersen explains Charles’ need for deference. “People keep complaining that the royals have an unearned sense of entitlement. But that is the very definition of royalty, and of Britain’s aristocracy. They don’t have to actually do anything. They demand respect because, to one degree or the other, they are historically regarded as the physical, living, breathing embodiment of the state.”
He calls it a “well, duh” moment. “Of course he feels entitled. Charles is King of England. He is also a human being, and throughout has often felt ignored and sidelined while he waited for the other shoe to drop. He’s waited 70 years to be seen, as it were, and he will accept nothing less.”
Charles may sit atop a monarchy that has existed for more than a thousand years, but Andersen says he is intensely aware “how precarious his position is. If the monarchy survives and flourishes, it will be because of Charles III. If it crashes and burns, it will be because of Charles III.”
Wives and Lovers
So, now to the gossipy bits. I had no idea Charles had so many girlfriends and conquests; he was quite the man about town, but his dalliances never made the headlines. Andersen says some of that secrecy can be attributed to his caution, and because he had others arranging his assignations. Andersen reports, via one of his former flames, that, in those days, Charles did not use protection. So how did he keep that from exploding into scandals? Andersen simply says: “He expects others to handle things.”
Camilla emerges as the real through line in Charles’ life, from the moment he first became enamoured with her in his 20s. They are opposites in many ways: he is neat as a pin; she’s shabby chic, he’s introverted; she’s outgoing. At the same time, Andersen says they are “two peas in a pod” with tremendous chemistry who share a love of the outdoors. “They also share a sense of humour that I have to say even their critics must see as quite endearing. They are exchanging glances and laughing all the time, and that connection comes across.”
For Andersen it comes down to Camilla’s deep understanding of Charles’ world. “There are differences, yes. But I think Camilla has a huge respect for the aristocracy and how it works. She is an aristocrat, after all – the granddaughter of a baron. She aspired to be the mistress of a king, like her great-great grandmother, Alice Keppel, was. She didn’t bargain on becoming queen. I think she is absolutely terrified at the prospect of being crowned queen.”
Her job is critical, though. “Camilla is down to earth on some levels, but she also knows how the Firm works,” says Andersen. “Charles is a world-class whiner and complainer with an explosive temper. Camilla is one of the few people who can tamp that down a bit.
At the end of the day, her strength is the linchpin. “Camilla lets a lot roll off her back; Charles is inclined to stew and feel sorry for himself. She isn’t into playing the role of victim the way he is. I think at a certain deep level, however, they share a deep sense of insecurity. She can tremble with nerves, as she did when she first met William. I think she will be shaking like a leaf at the coronation, and is already dreading the very thought of it.”