Back in the 1970s, some bright spark inside Buckingham Palace had the idea to try and rebrand 20-something Prince Charles as a dynamic action man. Windsurfing! Skydiving! Flying a fighter jet!
Reader, would it surprise you to know this campaign largely fizzled?
The Charles we know and if not so much love as have a certain curious affection for today is a clearly man more interested in reading Jung or penning another lengthy diatribe about the innate superiority of 15th century Tuscan architecture.
Except the events of the last few days have revealed something quite surprising about the new King: The man has cojones, at least when it comes to the handling of the prickly situation of son and daughter-in-law, Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
Charles might never be the sort of sovereign who bravely charges off into battle, though wife Camilla, Queen Consort could certainly find him a strapping stead, but he is proving to be much steelier and hard line in his handling of the breakaway Sussexes. Less than three weeks after assuming the top job, it turns out that the 73-year-old might just have something of a serious backbone under those handmade Anderson & Shepherd suits.
Take the big title question. During Charles’ first TV address to a grief-stricken nation, he not only shocked everyone being a truly gifted orator, but by announcing that he was immediately making his son Prince William the Prince of Wales.
For the very time in history, the heir-apparent would assume the 800-year-old title before the new sovereign’s coronation. Clearly Charles had given this promotion plenty of thought and wanted to be quick off the blocks.
And yet what of his other son, Harry? Nearly three weeks on since then and there has not been a peep out of Buckingham Palace despite the growing confusion and speculation that now surrounds the issue of titles for the Sussexes’ two young ‘uns, Archie, 3, and Lilibet, 1.
Technically, as the grandson and granddaughter of the monarch they automatically became a prince and princess under the 1917 George V Letters Patent. But as we have seen, Charles is (surprisingly) not a stickler for following precedent and there is still doubt about whether the kids will in fact end up with the senior royal titles.
This week, the Times reported Charles is still umming and ahhing on the issue, “heightening tensions” with the Sussexes.
“Harry and his father had a ‘brief discussion’ in the days after the Queen’s death, when the King asked if it was something Harry wanted for his children,” the Times’ royal editor Roya Nikkhah has written.
“Harry is understood to have expressed his desire to let his children decide when they are older, and to have emphasised that would only be possible if they were allowed to retain their titles now. The conversation is understood to have ended unresolved, and to have left the Sussexes dismayed.”
While the royal website was updated within days of Queen Elizabeth’s passing to reflect the Prince and Princess of Waleses’ (and their kids’) new appellations, there has been no such change for Harry and Meghan’s children. That omission has only added fuel to speculation that Charles might decide to update the Letters Patent and might step in to prevent them becoming a prince and princess after all.
Then there is the fact that on Tuesday it was revealed that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have been digitally demoted.
For years, the page on the royal website that details key members has remained largely unchanged, until now. Previously, Harry and Megahn, along with Prince Andrew, were positioned midway, underneath the remaining senior working members of the royal family but before the various elderly cousins of Queen Elizabeth who still open an occasional plaque.
Now, after this week’s update, Harry and Meghan (and Andrew) have been shunted unceremoniously to the bottom of the page, with Harry now coming after 85-year-old Princess Alexandra, who is 56th in line to the throne.
Meanwhile, Archie and Lili remain listed on the line of succession page with only the distinctly plebeian titles of ‘Master’ and ‘Miss.’
This is a situation that surely Charles could rectify any time that he wants. There is no holdup because of some arcane rules or fiddly old royal red tape. If the king wanted to settle this and to immediately quell the growing noise around the title question, all he would have to do is dictate a quick statement in between receiving the Ambassador from Albania and arranging for his prized begonias to be shipped to Buckingham Palace.
The very fact he has not done that would suggest he has little interest in currying favour with the Sussexes or even vaguely smoothing their ruffled feathers after the events of the last few weeks that saw the couple suffer through a series of public indignities, such as being seated in the second row during Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.
Refusing to budge on mollifying his son and daughter-in-law is a ballsy move from Charles, what with the couple gearing up to unleash their assault on the entertainment world.
There is, of course, Harry’s forthcoming memoir. While the manuscript was reported to have been finished and signed off by the lawyers, after the death of his grandmother, it seems nearly unthinkable that Harry would not want to either amend or add to his work to include recent events.
And that in turn means, should he want, he could also add in anything new he might want to say about his father, a father who right now seems oddly willing to infuriate and upset the media-savvy Sussexes.
Despite an awkwardly placed story in the Telegraph this week saying that Charles feels that there were “tremendous flickers of hope” and that he “loves both of his children,” the king seems largely unwilling to try and placate the fractious duo by giving them the titles they would seem to want (and it could be argued, need).
For Charles, that’s quite the gamble.
Harry and Meghan were really just on the cusp of a full scale assault of the entertainment market when Queen Elizabeth died, putting their plans on temporary hold. But with Meghan’s Archetypes podcast series restarting next week, their Netflix doco ticking along, Harry’s book, and any number of public appearances slated, their opportunities to speak their truth as loudly and as peevishly as they want are about to come thick and fast.
With Charles’ reign in its soft-skulled infancy, can he really afford for the Palace to potentially come under renewed prime time attack? His first weeks might have seen him attract more public goodwill than many (myself included) might have predicted but could that support and approval withstand a fresh round of devastating claims of the sort aired during the Sussexes’ Oprah interview?
Nor should anyone lose sight of the fact that Harry and Meghan, with the advent, finally, of their various commercial projects, need to be generating heat and noise. Peppering palace revelations into their interviews and talk-a-thons would be a sure-fire way to nab the sort of global publicity and attention that Netflix, Spotify and Penguin Random House are probably banking on.
With the royal family now officially out of mourning, we will see a slow resumption of engagements on both sides of the Atlantic. Charles might no longer fit into his flying suit but the king is proving to be whilier force than anyone might have thought. Who knows? The man might just have some other tricks up his bespoke sleeves yet.
Daniela Elser is a writer and a royal expert with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.
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