The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Charles isn’t unfeeling and cold, he’s highly sensitive
Jennie Bond has been a royal correspondent for 35 years, and knows the King better than most. His love of laughter and gift for empathy will help him reshape the monarchy for the 21st century, she says
“The truth is that Charles would be much happier living in Tuscany, painting the landscape or studying architecture.”
So said Diana, the late Princess of Wales, shortly after her divorce from her husband of 15 years. We were sitting in her drawing room at Kensington Palace talking about the future now that their “fairy-tale”marriage, which had become a living nightmare for both of them, had been officially extinguished.
“I still believe that he’s just not cut out to be King,” she continued. “He has enough problems being Prince of Wales!”
Diana believed that Charles needed time out to reassess his life.
“He’s stuck in a rut,” she told me. “Just take a look at his programme... he’s doing exactly the sort of things he was doing 10 years ago.”
But that was where Diana was wrong. It was precisely by banging on about often unfashionable causes – sometimes in the face of open mockery – that Charles eventually proved that he was a man ahead of his time. From his sometimes uncomfortable rut, he confronted issues most of us hadn’t even considered.
“Over 40 years ago,” Charles said in 2018, “I remember making a speech about the problems of plastic and other waste. But at that stage nobody was really interested and I was considered old-fashioned, out of touch and ‘anti-science’ for warning of such things.”
Our King is a man shot through with paradox and contradiction. A progressive mind with an old man’s soul; a Royal surrounded by servants who says his role is to serve; someone who believes profoundly in promoting harmony and yet whose family life has been punctured by conflict; a man whose values are rooted in tradition but who accepts the need for change.
I’ve been reporting on the
Prince, now King, for 35 years. I’ve observed him from afar and close up, in good times and bad. I have been part of a band of reporters and photographers who have required Charles to perform for the cameras in every corner of the world.
We asked him to wear a Rastafarian hat in Jamaica, an Amerindian headdress in British Guyana, and to dance the samba in Brazil. Usually, he obliged, even though the results were sometimes enough to make anyone squirm.
He has an unsophisticated, down-to-earth sense of humour, which stands him in good stead in the frequent chaos of a royal tour.
On Fraser Island, off the coast of Brisbane, he chastised the travelling press pack for keeping him awake with “that goddamn awful racket”. (We had been enjoying a spot of karaoke in the hotel bar that night, followed by a rowdy Jacuzzi under the stars.)
After a visit to Sea Lion Island, off the Falklands, he laughed long and loud with us about the elephant seals, which had enthusiastically farted and belched their way through a photo call.
“What a problem they had with flatulence!” he chortled.
I have found our King both personable and pleasant to be around. He was tickled by the fact that I liked to wear white stilettos, even when they were quite obviously ridiculous. As I stumbled, in great discomfort, across a stubbly cornfield in New Zealand, he leant out of a Land Rover and said: “Oh, Miss Bond! Wrong shoes again, I see!” And he was equally amused to see my stilettos turn a dirty brown as we tramped across a seed-potato field near St Petersburg.
Twice he invited me to Highgrove for tea and a chat. His private secretary at the time,
He has an unsophisticated, down-to-earth sense of humour
‘All my life, I’ve wanted to heal things. Whether it’s been the soil, the landscape or the soul’
Richard Aylard, said the Prince was mystified by the way he was portrayed by the media. He felt he was badly misrepresented. These meetings, I presumed, were part of a campaign to improve that image.
On my first visit, I was given a chilly tour of his beloved gardens before we sat and talked. But it was made absolutely clear that I was not there to discuss affairs of the heart, which was a marked contrast to my conversations with Diana.
“I always think,” said Prince Charles, “that a brief stroll around the gardens helps people to relax. So often they seem a little overwhelmed to find themselves here, but once they’ve had a walk and got the general feel of the place, they’re far more at home.”
And so we talked about organic vegetables, and the merits of white custard marrows, which my husband and I had recently grown in our London garden. The Prince had never heard of them, so I suggested he grew some for himself.
“Would you like to see some photos of how the house used to be?” he asked, warming to this domestic theme.
“I’d love to,” I replied. He reached for a photo album and set it on the ottoman. I moved across and sat on the floor as he thumbed through the pictures showing all the changes he’d made at Highgrove over the years. He seemed just like anyone else who’d struggled over making improvements to somewhere they loved.
All in all, it was a thoroughly pleasant afternoon and, as I left, the Prince said: “You must come back one day and see the gardens in better weather.”
A year later, in the summer of 1996, I was indeed invited back, but now Charles seemed a truly tortured soul. After all that had happened in his divorce battle with Diana, his antipathy towards the press appeared to have increased, and his mood was unsettled.
Once again, he offered no opportunity to discuss his private life, but he talked of his growing concern about genetic engineering. It was a topic few were discussing at that time, but he was in the forefront of the debate and he was angry about food production methods.
At one point, he was wanted on the phone. It was brought out to him in the garden by one of his staff, and he took the call where he was. He spoke quietly, in curt phrases.
Later that evening, I discovered that the call had been to confirm a financial settlement with Diana in the divorce proceedings.
Largely because of his fatally flawed marriage to Diana, Charles has been labelled as cold, unfeeling and – by his own confession – unfaithful. But, in truth, he is an extremely sensitive man who has proved himself to be unconditionally and faithfully in love with the woman he should have married in the first place: Camilla. It was his love for her that gave him the courage to stand up to the Palace and his parents and declare that she was “non-negotiable”. It was Charles’s alpha-male moment... and he won the battle. Camilla is now his Queen and they are blissfully happy.
Diana herself recognised the strength of the love between her husband and Camilla.
In one of our private conversations, she told me that Camilla always had been and would be the love of Charles’s life, and that their relationship was stronger than any marriage he might have made. She told me that she accepted that Camilla had been discreet and loyal... and that perhaps she deserved “some form of recognition”.
Whatever Diana would make of the fact that Camilla is now our Queen, it is undeniable that Charles is a much happier man and will be a better King with the woman he always calls his “darling wife” at his side.
He is a man who works hard, thinks deeply and cares passionately. In one of his books about Highgrove, he summed up his philosophy: “All my life, I have wanted to heal things. Whether it’s been the soil, the landscape or the soul.”
And, 20 years ago, he expanded on that theme when he told an audience: “I have come to realise that my entire life has been so far motivated by a desire to heal – to heal the dismembered landscape and the poisoned soul; the cruelly shattered townscape, where harmony has been replaced by cacophony; to heal the divisions between intuitive and rational thought, between mind and body, and soul, so that the temple of our humanity can once again be lit by a sacred flame.”
Today, the King would probably recognise that he is more like his late father, Prince Philip, than he might ever have believed possible. For many years, the two men had a difficult relationship: Philip thought Charles needed toughening up; Charles felt bullied. In later life, Prince Philip acknowledged that there was one great difference between them.
“He’s a romantic,” he told Gyles Brandreth, “and I’m a pragmatist – that means we do see things differently. And because I don’t see things as a romantic would, I’m unfeeling.”
King Charles has made it clear that the monarchy can and must change with the times. He wants a core group of working members of the Royal family, with the rest being as self-sufficient as possible, with some of their houses being reshuffled or repurposed. The optics of a super-rich Royal family during a critical cost of living crisis are important... and tricky.
The Coronation will reflect the man himself: a mix of old and new. Many of the sacred rituals of the ceremony will remain, but will be witnessed by a much smaller and more inclusive congregation. Some of the robes will seem quaint and quite odd, but, for the most part, the King will forsake the bizarre breeches of his forebears and wear modern military uniform. And the procession in the Abbey will be a true blend of many a modern family, with both the King and the Queen’s grandchildren taking part.
In the end, Diana was probably right. Charles might well have been happier sitting in the Italian countryside, painting and communing with nature. But that was not his lot or luck. He was born to what he once described as his “ghastly” destiny: privileged, certainly, but deprived of freedom of choice.