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Charles at 70: How the prince regained the trust of the public as he waits to be king

Once seen as the villain in the breakdown of his marriage to Diana and preoccupied with the planet and planning, Prince Charles, at 70, is now regarded as a worthy heir to the throne. By Emily Hourican

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Charles and Camilla

Charles and Camilla

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Charles on his wedding day to Diana back in July 1981

Charles on his wedding day to Diana back in July 1981

Getty Images

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Charles and Camilla

If ever a man was defined by the women in his life, it is Charles, Prince of Wales. His relationships with his mother, his first wife and his second wife have dominated him so completely that it is mainly in response to them that we see him - Charles the heir, Charles the heartless, and finally Charles the husband.

Charles has been his mother's heir, next in line to the throne, since he was three years old, when Queen Elizabeth II began her monarchy in 1952.

Now 70 - his birthday was on Wednesday - he is still waiting to begin the job he was born for, well past the age when most people retire. Seen like that, his looks like a lifetime of disappointment - the one formal purpose for which you exist constantly out of reach; a carrot on the end of a string that comes no closer. You wonder at what point did he feel William's hot breath on his neck? Even though there is no constitutional possibility of William superseding him as king, it must have been galling to have the idea so often mooted as a popular move.

As well as eternal heir, Charles has been public villain number one, so cast by Princess Diana's smart manipulation of their marriage breakdown and later, her tragic death. Only in the later stages of his life, as partner and then husband to Camilla and now as a grandfather, has he found some kind of redemption in the public mind, settling into an almost elder statesman role now, in which his occasionally snappish response to the 'bloody' press, or piece of anachronistic foolishness, is viewed as cause for indulgence rather than outrage.

On a recent visit to Ireland, where he and Camilla stayed at Ballyvolane House in Cork, instead of tales of 'the pampered prince' - Paul Burrell, Diana's gossipy ex-butler recently claimed that: "His pyjamas are pressed every morning, his shoelaces are pressed flat with an iron, the bath plug has to be in a certain position, and the water temperature has to be just tepid," adding that "On one occasion, he rang me from his library and he said, 'Oh Paul, a letter from the Queen seems to have fallen into my wastepaper bin. Would you pick it out'?" - the prince's host, Justin Green, owner of Ballyvolane, said: "It was a huge privilege having them here and it was an incredible few days. They were utterly charming. The Prince of Wales presented us with a bottle of Highgrove Organic Gin and we gave him a bottle of Bertha's Revenge Gin by way of a cultural gin exchange."

Partly, the softening of the public mood towards Charles is undoubtedly down to careful media manipulation by the palace - after all, this man will be king - but partly too it has been his good luck to survive the worst of his own errors of judgment, and live down the more humiliating episodes (tampongate, anyone?).

So whether Charles is the meddling, helpless, leery, hopelessly out-of-touch ditherer portrayed by Harry Enfield in The Windsors - the slow-burn to Haydn Gwynne's portrayal of Camilla as a whip-smart, cold-hearted schemer - or an affable sort whose love of nature and old-school values suddenly puts him on the right side of history, the point is his successful reinvention.

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Charles was never his mother's favourite - that, apparently, is Andrew - but he was very close to his grandmother, the Queen Mother, delivering an emotional tribute at her funeral in 2002: "For me, she meant everything and I had dreaded, dreaded this moment… Somehow, I never thought it would come. She seemed gloriously unstoppable and, since I was a child, I adored her."

His relationship with his mother was more distant - the Queen took on her full royal duties when he was just three - and has been characterised as 'prickly' while Charles has described his father, Prince Philip, as 'harsh' and 'hectoring'. Philip himself said that Charles is "a romantic 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".

Philip was responsible for sending Charles to school at Gordonstoun in Scotland, which he hated, saying it was "a prison sentence… Colditz with kilts". He became a target for bullies in the excessively spartan dormitories where his fellow pupils 'throw slippers all night long or hit me with pillows… last night was hell. Literal hell. I wish I could come home', he wrote when he was about 15.

Charles was always old for his years - he was distinctly middle-aged by 40 - and, despite being astonishingly fit and healthy, has always lacked the kind of macho virility that Prince Harry, for example, has an abundance of.

And yet there was a brief period in his 20s when Charles was pitched as a kind of playboy prince. He was young and free, a desirable bachelor with realistic prospects (despite the longevity of the Windsors, no one expected Charles to be still a prince at the age of 70). He had glamorous girlfriends, a career in the Royal Navy, polo, hunting, a kind of almost-jet-set existence - skiing, Barbados, the South of France. He was dashing - various photos of him stripped to the waist showed him looking toned and buff despite his leanness - and had a sense of humour. In those days, he would have the odd laugh with the usually respectful photographers and reporters who hung around the polo grounds. That was before the press turned nasty. Before Diana.

But, slightly lame jokes aside, the playboy prince was an identity at odds with his rather serious and thoughtful personality - he seems to suffer from an excessive sense of responsibility, like his mother, and, in family terms, has always done most of the heavy-lifting (after the Queen of course) in terms of public appearances and duties.

Marrying Diana was the end of Charles's youth, which would have been fine if he and his new bride had trod that path together. But they didn't. The increasing distance between them never did show Charles in a good light. Where he aged visibly, becoming careworn, almost bowed by the weight of his responsibilities, Diana was eternally young, eternally mischievous and luminous. Motherhood, if anything, made her seem even younger, almost a child herself as she took roller coaster rides and ski trips with her sons. Charles, in contrast, was the less fun parent, the serious one. You knew he was talking to the boys about the constitutional role of the monarchy and, as was recently revealed, making them pick up litter during their school holidays.

And while an unmarried playboy prince can be appealing, a philandering prince can't, certainly not to a moralistic British public, and where the wronged wife is as beautiful, charming and vulnerable as Diana. She played her role so effectively, with such brilliance, that, as long as she lived, there was simply no room for Charles to be anything except a villain. And a dull one at that. As Sandy Henney, former press secretary to Charles, says in the documentary Reinventing The Royals "if you've got a middle-aged balding man and a beautiful princess, it's a no-brainer as to who is going to get the media coverage".

It didn't help that the object of this middle-aged balding man's affections wasn't any kind of competition for the youth and glamour of his wife, but rather a sensible-seeming rather horsey-faced woman of his own age. In fact, that has turned out to be a strength - the sheer depth of Charles and Camilla's commitment to each other, a genuine love affair of a surprisingly romantic kind - has been the real animating principle.

But back when Diana died, aged just 36, in that Paris tunnel, for a while it looked as if Charles's reputation was damaged to the point where he might become the least popular monarch since his namesake Charles I. Luckily, time was on his side. The lengthy period as heir-in-waiting has allowed for redemption.

Gradually, his reputation was restored. Camilla, instead of being perceived as a home-wrecker - an older, more experienced woman manipulating the fragility of a new bride in a kind of creepy, Dangerous Liaisons-type set-up - became the legitimate love of Charles's life, the woman he should always have married.

They first met in the summer of 1971 and were apparently immediately taken with each other. But it was not, then, to be - Camilla Shand had been the on-and-off girlfriend of Andrew Parker Bowles for more than six years and was therefore not royal bride material. She married Parker Bowles, had two children and then divorced, later reuniting with Charles and beginning the affair that would help to destroy his marriage.

Introducing Prince William to her just 10 months after Diana's death was a bad move, and the Queen has apparently never been a fan, but, by playing it low-key but resolute, Charles and Camilla triumphed.

Finally, on April 9, 2005, almost nine years after the dissolution of Charles's marriage to Diana and eight years after her death, he and Camilla were married at Windsor Guildhall. At the time, it was announced that when Charles became king, Camilla would be known as 'princess consort', which is a kind of royal slight the rest of us can only half-understand. But in recent years, so far has public opinion turned, the hot news is that she will become 'queen consort', a more customary title for the wife of a reigning king.

The 'black spider memos' were another low point - a series of memos and letters written by Charles to government ministers and politicians, and so called for Charles's spidery handwriting and choice of black ink. These were an attempt to put pressure on government - and therefore constitute rather improper meddling on the part of the heir to the throne - on topics close to Charles's heart, including genetic modification, planning and architecture.

However, in comparison with the worst excesses of his siblings, particularly Prince Andrew, Charles began to seem steady and reliable rather than just dull. More recently, his long-standing preoccupation with the environment has gone from being niche, to urgent. Back in the 1970s he was warning about ecological disasters, rainforest and the dangers of plastic. Suddenly, it's a bandwagon everyone is on, and Charles is at the head of a popular movement, rather than on the fringes of dubious or elitist ones.

Asked recently if he felt optimistic about the world as he enters his eighth decade, Charles said frankly: "I would be if we would just stop b*****ing about with the planet. I just worry about the sort of world my grandchildren are going to live in," and later, "I don't really see any value in saying, 'I told you so'."

In contrast to Prince William, who is increasingly petulant and controlling about press interest in his life, Charles has adapted a relaxed, co-operative attitude that is matched by Camilla. In a recent profile, various reporters were quoted as saying, of Camilla, "She's my favourite royal, by a country mile", and "She always gives you a little gleam in her eye and will find a moment to look at our cameras".

Perhaps most telling of all though was the moment when Charles walked Meghan Markle down the aisle at her wedding to Harry, when her own father pulled out, due to ill-health and following a number of dramas, including staged paparazzi photos. In stepping into the breach, and then taking Megan's mother Doria's hand, to escort her to see their children sign the register, Charles caused a social media flutter. To a generation who did not grow up adoring Princess Diana, Charles is a charming, decent, steadfast figure.

And so from being un-crownable, Charles Philip Arthur George has become, at 70, his own man at last. A safe pair of hands. Someone solid and sensible. A worthy successor, when the time comes, to his mother. In fact, right now, it's William we're all worried about…

Charles at 70: How the philandering prince regained the trust of the public as he waits to be king


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