Once upon a time there was a fairy-tale prince who caught the eye of noblewomen, commoners and starlets alike. Later that same prince became a subject of ridicule, better known for his big ears. Finally, he took on the role of a two-timing cad, outraging the world by cheating on a woman seen as the fairest princess of them all.
But what’s happened to Charles, the Prince of Wales, since then?
Now 63 years old and the longest serving king-in-waiting in British history, Queen Elizabeth II’s oldest son is being largely overshadowed by his own sons, William and Harry, and of course, Will’s attention-grabbing bride, Kate.
While Charles has played many roles in his lifetime, experts and those who have met him agree the real Charles — the Charles of today and the Charles who will be king — isn’t really understood in the public realm.
For the past 20 years, Charles’ public story has been largely a negative one, focused on the breakdown of his marriage with Diana and his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, says Robert Finch, the dominion chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada.
“The story of the progressive Charles, the ‘green’ Charles, the man who bridges the religious divide, the man who raises millions of dollars for underprivileged children — that’s the story a lot of people just don’t know,” Finch says.
“I believe Charles will be a major force for modernizing the monarchy just based on his views of the world. A lot of people just don’t appreciate that side of him.”
How Charles portrays himself on his Canadian visit this month — part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebration — has the potential, some contend, to help rebrand how the Commonwealth perceives the man who will someday sit on the throne.
“When he comes to Canada, it is an opportunity to cement that image and to portray himself as that modern, forward-thinking Prince of Wales,” Finch says.
“It’s an opportunity to reach out to all Canadians, but particularly young Canadians, and to really tell the story of Prince Charles.”
It wasn’t always such a rough ride in the public eye for Charles. Though it may seem strange to a younger generation, he was once every bit the rock-star royal.
“He was one of the boys when he was here,” says Elbridge Wilkins, the former mayor of Fredericton.
Wilkins, now 85, was the mayor of New Brunswick’s capital city from 1974 to 1986, a period when Charles visited several times, for both official business and for pleasure.
Charles undertook some of his military training in the mid-1970s at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, and came into Fredericton on several occasions. And, “more than once,” he stopped in at a popular dance club, The Cosmo, Wilkins says with a chuckle.
“He danced with a girl one night, at least a couple of times. And she asked him what his name was, and he just said ‘Charles,'” Wilkins says.
“And she didn’t realize until after he had left who he was, and she got a real kick out of that.”
In the 1970s and up until his 1981 marriage, Charles was, in fact, considered the world’s most eligible bachelor.
Handsome and heir to the throne, Charles dated and was admired by glamorous women all over the world. In 1977, on a visit to the U.S., television star Angie Dickenson called Charles “a beauty.” Lauren Bacall said she was “enchanted” by him. The New York Times reported that “‘He has a lover’s voice’ as one English woman puts it, and deep blue eyes that fix a woman steadily as he talks and listens.”
During that same tour in the autumn of 1977, young women — and their mothers — threw themselves in his path, according to the 1979 biography H.R.H.: The Man Who Will Be King by Tim Heald and Mayo Mohs.
Even Margaret Trudeau was charmed by both Charles and his brother Andrew, according to Heald and Mohs.
“Of course I found them attractive. Wouldn’t you?” she said to the authors.
Even after his marriage to the much-loved Diana, in their earlier, happier days, Charles was still very much the fairy-tale Prince. In 1983, the royal couple arrived in Canada for a visit, the first after their nuptials, and the country went mad — not just for her, but for him.
“He’s gorgeous! He shook my hand,” shouted a pair of teenage girls to a television reporter in Newfoundland.
That public sentiment would soon change, Wilkins says.
“I’m sure people don’t have the same respect for him as they did, you know, before it all broke loose.”
FAIRY TALE ENDS
By the time that Charles became best-known for “two-timing one of the most well-loved women of the 20th century,” as biographer Anthony Holden put it, his popularity had plummeted and the public’s interest in him followed suit.
By 1993, just 61 per cent of polled Canadians wanted Charles to become king. By the next year, a long-planned Royal Tour of Australia attracted small crowds and little interest. “Indifference is rising to a fever pitch,” a radio broadcaster announced.
The problem, the monarchist league’s Finch says, is that all of Charles’ missteps have happened in the public forum.
“It doesn’t matter who you are. When that sort of thing happens, you’re going to have to really dig down and start rebuilding your character,” Finch says.
Canada’s support for Charles as king dipped to 51 per cent by 2005, the year he married his longtime love, Camilla. By 2009, the year of Charles’ last visit to Canada, half of Canadians surveyed believed the country should just cut its ties to the monarchy after the Queen dies.
A NEW HOPE
But then a new generation of royals, and a new fairy-tale prince and princess, stepped into the spotlight.
William and Kate’s wedding in 2011 was broadcast around the world, and the newlyweds charmed Canadians during their honeymoon visit to Canada last summer.
By the end of the royal visit, 81 per cent of polled Canadians believed the young couple would help keep the monarchy relevant to Canadians, according to an Ipsos Reid poll conducted on behalf of Postmedia News and Global News.
WHAT ABOUT CHARLES?
While Canada’s public sentiment toward the monarch may have warmed, the popularity of the younger royals pushed Charles further into obscurity. Six in 10 Canadians in the same poll said they wanted succession to skip a generation, bypassing Charles for his oldest son.
An Angus Reid Public Opinion poll released in early May this year found that Charles had been passed over in public opinion again by Commonwealth citizens, who prefer his eldest son, Prince William, for king. Eighty-three per cent of Australians, 82 per cent of Britons and 77 per cent of Canadians said Prince William ranks first in their opinion.
Overshadowed by both a younger generation in a modern era and, on the other end of the spectrum, his mother’s 60-year reign, it’s no surprise that Charles is often overlooked and forgotten by the public, Finch said.
“When you think of the monarchy, you think of the Queen. How do you make a role for yourself in that grand scheme of things?” Finch says.
“People like the Queen because she’s a constant and she’s been around for so long, and they also like that fresh newness that comes with William and Kate.”
Charles’ challenge will be to make sure he stays on the radar, Finch says.
With the spotlight so often focused on his personal life, Charles’ professional achievements have been largely overshadowed. But that may be changing.
Charles is finally starting to come into his own and earn some grudging respect, says royal commentator Marilyn Braun, who publishes a blog and a podcast show about the Royal Family.
“Prince Charles wants to get involved, make a difference,” Braun says from her home in the Toronto area.
“Unlike his great-uncle, King Edward VIII, instead of saying, ‘Something must be done,’ as he did in 1936 after seeing the plight of unemployed coal workers and then abdicating, PrinceCharles actually takes action because he’s in the position to do so.”
Charles has dedicated himself to causes ranging from sustainable agriculture to education to responsible business. His group of charities raise more than $160 million annually. In 1990, Charles combined his interests in business and the environment to found the organic food line Duchy Originals, which makes more than 200 products using sustainable production. Yes, Charles was green before green was on the scene.
“People have certainly started to realize, ‘Hey, wait a minute, he actually knows what he’s talking about,'” Braun says. “People have caught up to him.”
Still, Charles is likely at a point in his life where he realizes he’s not necessarily going to change the public’s view of his past, Braun says. And there’s probably not anything he can do at this point to improve his standing.
There’s also a lot for him to live up to, and plenty of expectations for him when he does become king, Braun says. Already 63, time isn’t on his side to make the same mark as his predecessors.
“He won’t give his name to an era, like Queen Victoria and King Edward VII; he won’t lead his nation in a world war, like King George V and King George VI; and he’s unlikely to earn or command the same level of respect as his mother,” Braun says.
“He will likely have a short reign, so his role and work while Prince of Wales will be his legacy.”