AN extraordinary photograph of Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, appeared late in March. The Prince, hair awry, has his mouth wide open, and is plainly laughing his hat off, as they say in the East Riding. Alongside him, her hat pulled well down, the Duchess is showing more restraint, but only just.
The image, taken during a visit to Ascot races, is gripping. The heir to the throne and his wife have always seemed to fit well together. Here they are manifestly happy in each other’s company, a settled couple now looking forward to celebrating 10 years of marriage, for their tin anniversary (or perhaps they prefer the alternative, aluminium) tomorrow.
Many years ago, when he learned that his friend Camilla Shand (as she was then) had become engaged to Andrew Parker Bowles, Charles wrote to his friend and confidant Earl Mountbatten: “I suppose the feeling of emptiness will pass eventually.”
That photograph provides an assurance that it is long gone.
Charles has a knack of dividing opinions. Lord Bragg (Melvyn Bragg, the broadcaster) once said: “If the Prince of Wales hadn’t been born to be King of England, then his work would have seen him made a saint instead.” On the other hand, Sir Max Hastings, a newspaperman and historian, called him “a self-pitying moaner”.
Like him or not, few will envy him. From being a little lad of three, when his grandfather King George VI died in February 1952 at Sandringham, Charles has borne the burden of being heir to the throne.
For 63 years now he has been in this strange limbo, burdened with a yoke he is unable to set aside, or even wish for, because that can only come to pass on the death of his mother and his crowning as King.
Looking through portfolios of photographs of the Prince of Wales, he is rarely seen laughing. In fact he often looks wary.
This is hardly surprising. Throughout his adult life he has suffered a series of buffets. One shock came early, while at Gordonstoun School, which had suited his father, Prince Philip, but certainly did not suit Prince Charles. During a sailing trip from the school, he and his classmates landed at Stornoway on the isle of Lewis and called at the Crown Hotel.
His presence drew a crowd, and soon cameras were clicking. Charles retreated and found himself in the public bar. He explained many years later: “Everybody was looking at me, and I thought I must have a drink.” So he ordered a cherry brandy, and just then a newspaperwoman entered the bar. Thus was born the legend of the heir to the throne who binged on cherry brandy.
Perhaps he suffered his most severe blows during the break-up of his marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales. It was rough and tumble with no holds barred in media manipulation, interception of phone calls, illegal recordings, leaks, disclosures, “Squidgygate” and Camillagate”, and general consternation that relationships between the Royal couple could have reached such a pass.
Prince Charles somehow came through this ordeal. Having served in both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, he devoted himself to charitable work, and the achievements of his Prince’s Trust in the country’s least advantaged communities have won immense admiration. Tony Blair described it as “probably one of the most successful voluntary sector organisations in the world, never mind this country”.
Nor is the Prince afraid to let his views be known, as we shall learn due to the Supreme Court’s ruling that his letters to Government Ministers can be published.
Prince Charles has also nurtured and encouraged his sons, and they have matured as men to be proud of, Prince William having graduated with a 2:1 in geography at St Andrew’s University, then demonstrated great common sense in marrying Kate Middleton. Prince Harry may not be as academically gifted, but he has served his country bravely, and is concerning himself actively in the care and well-being of injured ex-servicemen.
Charles became engaged to Camilla in February 2005, with the wedding following on April 9. Public opinion had swung in favour of the match following a sustained publicity campaign. It seemed that barely a day passed without a picture of Camilla in broadsheets as well as “red tops”.
Many wished the couple happiness. To judge from reports that Prince Charles’s life has been transformed, and he is now as content as a man of his temperament is likely to be, and from the supporting evidence of that photograph, those wishes have been granted in full measure.But perhaps for Charles one wish remains: that if and when he becomes King his beloved wife will be alongside him as Queen Camilla.
Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.