Had Prince Charles’ household ignored Catherine Mayer’s biography, the headlines generated by the book’s serialization – thanks to its suggestions that the prince intends to be an “activist” king and that even the queen worries about how he would redefine the sovereign’s role – might have been the end of the story.
But instead of maintaining their customary silence, royal aides went on the offensive. The prince’s principal private secretary published a letter to the editor criticizing “ill-informed speculation.” Others stressed that Mayer’s account is not an “official” biography and suggested that the Time magazine journalist had overstated her access to the prince. All of which had the predictable effect of inspiring more reports of royal unhappiness with the book.
Born to Be King — published in Britain as Charles: The Heart of a King – has stirred angst partly because of its timing: Its release early in February came as Queen Elizabeth II marked 63 years on the throne. The world’s oldest living monarch, she is to become Britain’s longest-reigning one in September. Charles, meanwhile, is Britain’s longest-serving heir apparent – and is often overshadowed by the attention lavished on his sons, Princes William and Harry, and daughter-in-law, Kate.
Mayer’s work is a study of the aging prince in the context of inevitable generational change. She eschews a chronological narrative, devoting chapters to facets of Charles’ life: his charitable efforts, family dynamics, and how he uses his position to raise awareness or engage donors on favored issues. Exploring the tensions fueled by the prince’s lengthy handwritten letters to government officials and penchant for sharing his personal views, Mayer set off alarms by writing that “Charles is increasingly looking for ways to build his activities into the head of state role rather than tapering them off as the big house envisages.” Whereas his mother maintains a silence above politics, striving to be a symbol of continuity, the prince wades into, and sometimes ignites, public debate. “Some courtiers – and the sovereign herself – fear that neither the Crown nor its subjects will tolerate the shock of the new,” Mayer writes.
And while marriage to his “dearest wife,” Camilla, has calmed the emotional storms to which the prince was prone, his long hours devoted to serious subjects (conservation, job training) often go unreported or are eclipsed by the activities – private and public – of the next generation. Although “he observes William and Harry with intense paternal pride, the emotion is marbled with a little jealousy and a wider vein of frustration, not because he begrudges their popularity,” Mayer writes, but because he would love more attention to his own work.
Mayer portrays Prince Charles as a visitor from “Planet Windsor,” unable to relate to the world around him even as he endeavors to shape it. It’s a useful point – but cheapened by its repeated use, and eventually the concept takes on the feel of a dumbed-down idea for an American audience. Mayer occasionally inserts herself into the book, showing off her mingling with royals. Her affection for Charles is clear, but she still notes that his words and actions sometimes undercut his interests. While covering a lot of familiar ground, the book makes some striking claims, including:
∎ On the eve of his wedding to Diana Spencer, Charles “was desperate. ‘I can’t go through with it. . . . I can’t do it,’ ” Mayer writes, citing an unnamed source. She proposes that Diana and Charles were alike in some ways and that both craved affection, but that after years of being told to bury his feelings, Charles was incapable of meeting the emotional needs of his much-younger wife.
∎ Turf battles among the prince’s staffers are “common and bloody,” and Charles’ tendency to change aides’ job descriptions fosters an environment that a former staffer likened to the treacherous “Wolf Hall” court of Henry VIII depicted by novelist Hilary Mantel. In Mayer’s description, life around Charles was “every bit as brutal as in the days when a twitching arras might signal a hidden assassin.” Infighting eventually sank a plan to organize the prince’s charities under one roof – after “tens of millions of pounds had been spent.” One unnamed businessman, who Mayer says held an event with the prince’s household, suggested that staff members might have obstructed planning to get brownie points with the prince for solving problems.
∎ Charles and Diana mixed with media personality Jimmy Savile for years. But Savile, who was revealed after his death in 2011 to be a pedophile, displayed some questionable behavior in the palace, reportedly licking one staffer’s hand.