On May 6, 2023, King Charles III is crowned alongside Queen Camilla. How unthinkable that would have been back in 1981 when the fairytale marriage of Charles and Diana was being celebrated across the world. For Charles, this has been a long and tortuous journey finally arriving at the throne he has coveted for so long at the age of 74. His coronation comes in the autumn years of a stormy life.
King Charles III may be privately disappointed at seeing his crowned head on the coins and notes as an old man – but in the past, many thought he would never be king at all. Let’s find out why!
Radical or traditionalist?
As Prince Charles, the heir to the throne was often cast as a radical or disruptive figure, intent on major reforms once he became monarch. In fact, the evidence points more in the opposite direction. In interviews and off-the-cuff comments as a young man he betrayed an early suspicion of modernity and even an aversion to popular, mass politics.
Fifty years ago, he declared: “I’m not the sort of person who might march or demonstrate. I’m very suspicious of mobs and mob influence.” Hardly in tune with the popular protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The prince had no interest in banning the bomb or dodging the draft. By the standards of the time, he was distinctly uncool.
Charles presented to the Welsh people in 1969
Queen Elizabeth II always let it be known that at some point she would present her eldest son to her Welsh subjects as their Prince of Wales. There would be a grand ceremony and she would pop a crown on his head in front of an applauding crowd at Caernarfon Castle. Well, that was the plan. But there was some opposition among the Welsh people.
The problem was…history. Because this position of Prince of Wales was invented by the English as an act of subjugation of Wales in the 13th century. And not surprisingly, many Welsh couldn’t see the reason to celebrate their bondage to the English crown in the 20th century. Especially those in the growing Welsh nationalist movement.
However, on July 1st, 1969, the Queen got her wish. The Investiture went ahead with Charles wearing a very 1960s-style futuristic crown. Aside from one occasion in 1970, he hasn’t worn it since. Possibly because the centrepiece of the crown is a gold-plated ping-pong ball. Yes – a real ping-pong ball! (Article continues after this image of the crown plus ping-pong ball).
DISCOVER: The comical coronation of King George IV
Will he ever settle down?
In 1978 as Prince Charles turned thirty, there was concern in the British press that he might turn out to resemble the royal rogues of the past. On television at the time, there were two dramatisations of the lives of his great-great-grandfather Edward VII who ruled from 1901 to 1910 and his great-uncle the Duke of Windsor who ruled very briefly as Edward VIII in 1936 before abdicating. These royal soap operas had 1970s TV audiences gripped, many of whom could still remember the Duke of Windsor’s exit from power.
These were the monarchs Charles should avoid emulating at all costs. Edward VII was the typical late 19th century rake. Never happier than when attending the theatre and then bedding an actress. Sarah Bernhardt, the French star of the European stage, found herself between the sheets with “Teddy”, as did the darling of the English music hall, Lillie Langtry. Edward VIII was only king for a short while before vacating the throne to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
The future King Charles had to be made of sterner moral stuff!
But the signs were not encouraging. In 1978, polo playing Prince Charles was seen with a string of socialites and princesses, clearly having the time of his life. Public opinion divided between those who thought he should have fun while he still could, while the majority of the nation harrumphed disapprovingly.
The latter, which included the political establishment, recalled that the late Duke of Windsor was still unmarried at 30 and look where that ended up. A marriage to a divorcee and an abdication!
But who to marry?
Journalists perused the list of the prince’s past conquests wondering who he could possibly marry. The problem was that his old flames from his 20s were now getting hitched. Lucia Santa Cruz, a girlfriend at university, had now marched up the aisle with somebody else. Lady Jane Wellesley, a descendant of the Duke of Wellington of Waterloo fame, was also now unavailable.
Rumours that Charles was considering popping the question to Princess Marie-Astrid of Luxembourg proved to be wide of the mark. Plus she was a Roman Catholic which in the 1970s was still very much a no-no for a future queen of Protestant England.
The fake fairytale marriage to Diana
The summer of 1981, when I went to university, was dominated by two major news events: the forthcoming marriage of Charles and Diana, and violent urban riots that hit every major city in the UK. I went to university in Liverpool and saw the devastation of the Toxteth district after two months of fighting between rioters and police. Brixton in London and Moss Side in Manchester had similar disturbances.
On the day of the wedding of Charles and Diana, newspapers in Liverpool were forced to run two stories: the royal marriage next to the death of a local disabled youth, David Moore, in hospital after injuries sustained during rioting. The polarised nature of the 1980s was summed up by that front page.
On balance, the wedding was well received. There was none of the punk protest that had accompanied the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. Some ‘alternative’ comedians demurred but a population weary of economic recession and sky high unemployment was up for a major distraction. So far from finding the glitz and glamour of the royal wedding offensive, it was embraced. Everybody wanted to believe that love was in the air.
And then the meltdown…
For the next fifteen years, we watched bemused as the whole Charles and Diana show crashed spectacularly into the ground. What emerged was that Charles had been in love with a woman, Camilla Shand, that he had met playing polo back in 1970. He had been smitten then. And remained smitten ever since. And now she is Queen Camilla. While Diana is no more.
What a story! Few would have predicted that things would unfold so decisively as they have done. Even the final manoeuvring of Camilla into the role of fully fledged queen.
Charles could conceivably have married Camilla in the early 1970s but dithered. She got hitched to fellow aristocrat, Andrew Parker Bowles, the Queen’s Silver-Stick-in-Waiting (one of many strange royal jobs). In 1980, their affair was rekindled, then snuffed out ahead of the wedding to Diana, then reignited against in the years after the marriage. Camilla became, in Diana’s eyes, the third party who seemed to know everything that passed between the royal couple.
Diana retaliated with a series of extra-marital relationships that became the stuff of pub gossip through the 1980s and 1990s as I recall. But none of the men she became very close to wanted their relationship with her going public. Instead, the details – with plenty of embellishment – seeped out.
The newspapers could hardly ignore the rumours. The question of divorce began to be raised. And whether it would scupper any chance of Charles becoming king in the future. Some even feared that the monarchy itself would collapse.
The marriage of Charles and Diana ends
Events moved in a most unexpected direction. Diana’s supporters began to almost canonise her as a saintly figure in the early to mid-1990s. She was photographed visiting hospitals, orphans, war zones, and shaking hands with victims of the HIV/AIDS virus. Many LGBT people appreciated this gesture at a time of horrific homophobia in the media.
But other voices, now largely forgotten, saw a public relations battle against her estranged husband. The satirical magazine Private Eye published an imaginary donor health card you could carry stating that should you be incapacitated or killed, you did not wish to be visited in hospital by the Princess of Wales.
In 1996, Charles and Diana divorced. By August 1997, it was clear what the divorcees would do next. Charles would finally marry Camilla, the woman he’d loved all along. While his ex-wife would become Diana Al-Fayed – marrying Dodi Al-Fayed, son of the owner of the Harrods department store, Mohamed Al-Fayed. A prospect that horrified the British establishment but was seen as more or less inevitable.
Until…Diana was killed in a car accident on August 31, 1997 – along with Dodi.
Royal fervour reached a fever pitch that frankly came as a shock to me and many friends. It was a sudden realisation that all around us were devout monarchists who had been largely invisible up until now. I remember walking past the mountain of flowers near Kensington Palace wondering if I’d ever known my own country. This was a very strange and unsettling outpouring of grief. (Article continues after the image below).
DISCOVER: How the tabloid press covered the death of Princess Diana
Rehabilitation but also growing indifference
In the two decades up to the millennium, the Royal Family had some terrible PR – largely of its own making. But the new millennium restored its fortunes. The death of Princess Diana initiated a new phase of relative calm and a rapprochement between the Queen and the public. Jubilee celebrations in 2002, 2012, and 2022 generated genuine affection for the ageing monarch, who now became a kind of matriarchal figure – placed beyond criticism.
Charles, despite very obviously chaffing at the bit to be king, benefited from the royal rehabilitation. Gone was the incessant scandal and soap opera type coverage of the past. But under the surface, a new enemy was approaching. A growing indifference on the part of the younger generations – the Zoomers and many Millennials – towards the institution of the monarchy.
Punk Boomers in the 1970s had rebelled against the Silver Jubilee. But the monarch was never under any serious threat. The public were engrossed by the rise and fall of the royal marriage of Diana and Charles in the 1980s and 1990s but again, the monarchy endured. It was an unshakeable constant in British life.
Today though, it’s a “meh” attitude from a younger generation that’s less deferential, better educated, and more transactional in its attitude to public institutions, which poses a real threat. The media has noted a lack of significant enthusiasm for the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla – and the royals in turn have scaled it down and kept the PR to a minimum.
Back in 1969, the BBC and ITV exercised a TV duopoly and both had blanket coverage of the Prince of Wales’ Investiture for hours on end. Today, there are umpteen TV channels and the internet on top of that. No obligation to sit and watch pomp and circumstance all day. So, it can be fairly assumed that most young people under the age of 35 will be otherwise engaged on the day of the coronation.
Worse, the monarchy is seen as part of Britains’ imperialist, colonialist, and racist past. Despite the efforts of King Charles to paint it in a very different picture. Maybe what will eventually sink the British monarchy will be indifference. Not a revolution. Nor mass protests. But a public that just doesn’t care anymore.