In April 2011, at the age of 62, Prince Charles became the longest serving heir apparent. He has held the title since he was three years old, and for more than seven decades he has juggled duty, expectation and all the scrutiny that comes with his role. In 2018, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, a toast by Queen Elizabeth II paid tribute to her son: “Philip and I have seen Charles become a champion of conservation and the arts, a great charitable leader – a dedicated and respected heir to the throne to stand comparison with any in history – and a wonderful father.”
Charles, Prince of Wales: a biography
Full name: Charles Philip Arthur George
Born: 14 November 1948, Buckingham Palace
Parents: Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
Married to: Camilla Parker Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall (m. 2005–present); Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales (m. 1981–96)
Children: Prince William (born 1982) and Prince Harry (born 1984)
Grandchildren: Prince George (born 2013), Princess Charlotte (born 2015), Prince Louis (born 2018), Master Archie (born 2019)
Siblings: Princess Anne (born 1950); Prince Andrew (born 1960); and Prince Edward (born 1964)
Prince Charles’s childhood
Charles was born on 14 November 1948, the first child of Princess Elizabeth and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. A late-night news item broadcast the announcement that Princess Elizabeth “was safely delivered of a prince”, with the newsreader offering “royal congratulations” on behalf of the listeners. Prince Philip reportedly declared that the new-born Charles resembled “a plum pudding”. Charles was followed by a younger sister, Princess Anne, on 15 August 1950 who, Dr Ed Owens writes for HistoryExtra, was “cast in the role of energetic and fun-loving playmate to her quieter and shyer brother”.
From his earliest years Charles’s childhood was marked by absence, the Queen splitting her time between the UK and Malta, where Prince Philip had been stationed as a naval officer when Charles was a year old. Charles spent his second Christmas not with his parents, but with his grandparents King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, at Sandringham. It was the unexpected death of George VI in February 1952 that brought the young couple back permanently to the United Kingdom, where Elizabeth acceded to the throne, aged 25, and the Duke of Edinburgh resigned from the navy.
Just 18 months after her accession, Elizabeth II was called upon to tour 13 countries over six months, without five-year-old Charles and three-year-old Anne. The Queen Mother, who once more cared for Charles during his parents’ tour, wrote to Elizabeth: “You may find Charles much older in a very endearing way. He is intensely affectionate, and loves you and Philip most tenderly.”
The two children who were famously greeted with handshakes upon the return of their parents, though the Queen did dispense with some of the more formal traditions – the children were not required to bow or curtsey to their mother while young (etiquette dictates that all royals are expected to curtsey or bow to the sovereign). But their childhoods were spent largely in the care of nursery and other staff, and Charles “must have been baffled by what a natural mother-son relationship was meant to be like”, as the Queen’s private secretary Martin Charteris once put it.
Both Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip agreed that their children should not be hampered, as they saw it, by the social and educational constraints of home-schooling, which had previously been the norm for royals. After early education at Hill House School and Cheam, Prince Philip wished Charles to be sent to Gordonstoun school in Scotland, hoping to make his son in his own image. Charles was a sensitive and shy boy “easily cowed by the forceful personality of his father”, noted a 1994 authorised biography of the Prince of Wales written by Jonathan Dimbleby, and the school – which championed physical and mental fortitude – was intended to toughen Charles up. Its students took cold showers, slept on hard beds and went on morning runs, whatever the weather. The Queen Mother, with whom Charles had a very close relationship, worried that her grandson “would be terribly cut off and lonely up in the far north”.
The same Dimbleby biography described the bullying and “crushing loneliness” Charles experienced at school, and a childhood characterised by long periods of his mother’s absence. Charles was said to feel “emotionally estranged” from his parents and yearning for affection that, in his view, they were “unable or unwilling to offer”. The book also declared Charles’s bonds of affection to be much stronger with his nanny Mabel Anderson and detailed how the Queen would spend short windows of allotted time with her son in the morning before his daily walk and before bedtime.
Becoming the Prince of Wales
Despite once calling Gordonstoun “a prison sentence”, Charles once said: “I believe it taught me a great deal about myself and my own abilities and disabilities. It taught me to accept challenges and take the initiative.” From Gordonstoun, Charles went to Cambridge in 1967, where he read Archaeology and Anthropology at Trinity College, and also performed as a member of the university’s famous amateur dramatics club, the Footlights. He changed to History for the second part of his degree, and in 1970 was awarded a 2:2.
But during his time at Cambridge, Charles began another significant relationship in his life, with Wales. Though he had held the title of Prince of Wales since July 1958, when he was just nine years old, Prince Charles was not yet officially invested. It was decided that Charles would study in Aberystwyth for a nine-week course to learn about the Welsh language and culture.
“While Charles’s 1969 investiture ceremony appeared to be steeped in medieval royal history,” writes Dr Carolyn Harris, it was “intended to address very contemporary concerns” including the relevance of the royal family in the modern age and the objections of Welsh nationalists to the investiture of a Prince of Wales who seemed to have little personal connection to Wales.
The event did attract fierce criticism from some quarters as a symbol of centuries of English occupation of Wales – Charles himself experienced protests from nationalist demonstrators, and some held signs in Welsh that read “Charlie, go home”. But opinion surveys showed that around three quarters of those polled were in support of the ceremony. Despite the fear that the investiture could be disrupted, the “hubbub” died down and the ceremony went ahead on 1 July 1969.
In the ceremony, Charles’s sense of duty towards his mother and his role was emphasised. He promised: “I, Charles, Prince of Wales, do become your liege man of life and limb and of earthly worship and faith and truth I will bear unto thee to live and die against all manner of folks.”
His address, which he gave both in English and in Welsh, also paid tribute to his new connection to Wales. He spoke of his “sense of pride and emotion” standing in Caernarfon Castle where he couldn’t be “unaware of the long history of Wales in its determination to remain individual and to guard its own particular heritage”. After a week-long tour of Wales following the ceremony, Charles wrote in his diary: “I now seem to have a great deal to live up to and I hope I can be of assistance to Wales in constructive ways.”
Prince Charles on screen
Prince Charles has been portrayed by Billy Jenkins in series one and two of Netflix’s The Crown, and by Josh O’Connor in series three and four. It is rumoured that Dominic West will take on the role of the Prince of Wales for the final two series of the drama.
Prince Charles himself has also appeared on the small screen: he made a cameo in an episode of British soap opera Coronation Street in 2000, to celebrate the long-running programme’s 40th anniversary.
Charles as a young man
Following his time at Cambridge, Charles flew himself to RAF Cranwell to train as a jet pilot, before undertaking training for a naval career, following in his father’s footsteps. He qualified as a pilot before moving to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, and later served on several vessels and qualified as a helicopter pilot. He left active service with the rank of lieutenant.
In his twenties Charles had a ‘playboy’ reputation. His great-uncle and close confidante Lord ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten had once advised him to “sow his wild oats and have as many affairs as he can” – and he was linked with a number of women in society that the press dubbed ‘Charlie’s Angels’, including Davina Sheffield and Lady Sarah Spencer, elder sister of Lady Diana. (When the 29-year-old heir was first introduced to the “very jolly and amusing” 16-year-old future Princess of Wales in November 1977, he was dating Sarah). But it was Camilla Parker Bowles with whom the Prince would form the most enduring attachment. Having met in 1971, it was an “instant attraction” between the pair, writes Marlene Koenig.
Charles liked that Camilla was very much at home in “the country with horses and hunting” and pursued her with “elaborately worded love notes” and late-night telephone chats. Yet due to Camilla’s ‘history’ (meaning her relationship with Andrew Parker Bowles), Charles was advised against the match by family members, including the influential Mountbatten. A regular advisor to his great-nephew, Mountbatten was no stranger to marital scandals and advised Charles against following his heart, as his great-uncle Edward VIII had done.
Charles was in the West Indies as part of his naval service career when he learned of Camilla’s engagement to Parker Bowles. “I suppose this feeling of emptiness will pass eventually,” he wrote to Mountbatten.
Lord Mountbatten’s death
In 1979, when Charles was away fishing in Iceland, he received the news that Lord Mountbatten had been assassinated, an act for which the IRA took responsibility. Charles had regarded Mountbatten as a pseudo father-figure, someone who had given him affection and support in comparison to the often blunt and, according to some friends of the prince, sometimes belittling comments from his father, the Duke of Edinburgh. The prince felt Mountbatten’s loss keenly, writing in his diary that “life will never be the same now that he has gone”. Charles presented the eulogy at Mountbatten’s funeral in Westminster Abbey, speaking of his mentor as “a constantly active brain which was never allowed a moment’s rest”. In 2015, he recalled that “it seemed as if the foundations of all we held dear in life had been torn apart irreparably”.
Though Camilla was never far from Charles’s life in the following years – they mixed in many similar circles and she remained a close confidant and companion of the prince – in his late twenties Charles threw himself into dating so he could meet the expectation of marrying a suitable bride before he was 30, a deadline encouraged by his father.
Charles’s grief over the loss of his great-uncle would also play a significant part in his most famous union. In 1980, Charles and now 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer crossed paths once more at a house party in Sussex, where she reportedly offered comforting words, saying that the prince seemed forlorn and had looked in need of care during his uncle’s funeral.
After some months of dating Diana (which included a weekend at Balmoral with the wider royal family) Charles, as he put it, “began to realise what was going on in my mind and hers, in particular”. Ahead of the proposal, he wrote in a letter to a friend that he wanted to “do the right thing for this Country and my family”.
The couple’s engagement was announced in February 1981 and – despite Charles’s now infamous “Whatever love means” response to one interview question – the couple’s celebrations were celebrated widely, as a picture of soon-to-be-wedded bliss.
Just over five months later, their lavish wedding in St Paul’s Cathedral on 29 July 1981 captured the imagination of the nation, and though believed by many to be a fairy-tale match, the union was not a happy one, even from the start. A 2017 biography of the prince by Sally Bedell Smith tells of Charles weeping on his wedding night while “the extremely turbulent” Diana was battling bulimia. He “thought he could grow to love Diana,” writes Bedell Smith, “just as the arranged marriage of his grandmother and King George VI later grew into love.”
The couple went on to have two children, Prince William and Prince Harry, and though this was for the most part a happy time for the couple, it slowly became obvious that they weren’t a good match. Charles reportedly grew increasingly jealous of the attention paid to his glamorous wife, believing that she was overshadowing worthier causes close to his heart. “They’ve come out to see my wife, they haven’t come out to see me,” he reportedly told aides during a trip to Wales early on in their marriage.
The pair led increasingly separate lives and by 1987, Charles had once again become romantically involved with Camilla Parker Bowles. Following press speculation of mutual infidelity in a year that the Queen famously dubbed an ‘annus horribilis’, the royal couple separated in December 1992, and finalised their divorce in August 1996.
What is Prince Charles’s relationship with his mother like?
In Netflix’s The Crown, much has been made of Charles’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth II, the drama imagining some of the distance that might have arisen from having a duty-bound mother who was governed by the burden of queenship. As Bedell Smith put it, “in the manner of the upper class, neither [parent was] physically demonstrative” during Charles’s childhood.
Yet Charles has paid tribute to the Queen on many occasions. During celebrations for her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, he talked of how his mother’s life had been changed so irrevocably when George VI died. “As a nation this is our opportunity to thank you and my father for always being there for us. For inspiring us with your selfless duty and service and for making us proud to be British.”
His sister Princess Anne said in 2002: “We understood what the limitations were in time and the responsibilities placed on her as monarch, in the things she had to do and the travels she had to make.
“But I don’t believe that any of us, for a second, thought she didn’t care for us in exactly the same way as any other mother did. I just think it’s extraordinary that anybody could construe that that might not be true.”
The Queen’s relationship with her son’s second wife has not always been straightforward. Royal biographer Penny Junor has written of how, in 2002, “instructions from the Queen were to sever Charles’s relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles because it was a mess and was detracting from his work”. However, the Queen has since given the relationship her blessing. During their wedding in 2005, while neither she nor Prince Philip attended the civil ceremony, they attended the reception, where the Queen toasted: “They have come through and I’m very proud and wish them well. My son is home and dry with the woman he loves.”
What is Prince Charles like as a father?
From the moment the first of his two children arrived, it was clear that Charles wished to be a more modern type of royal father. In keeping with more usual traditions of the mid-century, Prince Philip was not in the delivery room during the arrival of his first three children. In comparison, Prince Charles was present at the birth of both of his sons, and after the birth of William in 1982 he wrote to his godmother: “I am so thankful I was beside Diana’s bedside the whole time because by the end of the day I really felt as though I’d shared deeply the process of birth and as a result was rewarded by seeing a small creature which belonged to us even though he seemed to belong to everyone else as well!” (Diana’s biographer Andrew Morton reported that Charles made a less tactful remark at Prince Harry’s birth in 1984: “Oh God, it’s a boy… and he’s even got red hair.” The comment was later claimed by Diana as evidence that “our marriage, the whole thing [was going] down the drain”.)
As the Prince of Wales, duty inevitably claimed much of Charles’s time, though he would send his sons handwritten notes while they were at school and they often spent time together at Broadfield, Prince Charles’s farm. However, in 1991 Charles’s performance as a father attracted particular scrutiny, when Prince William underwent skull surgery at Great Ormond Street Hospital after being hit by a golf club while playing with schoolmates. Though Diana stayed with William for the two nights he spent in hospital, Prince Charles left before the surgery to attend a performance at the Royal Opera House. Charles had in fact been reassured by the neurosurgeon that William was stable and he felt able to attend the prior engagement, though tabloid reactions to the prince’s absence were brutal, including that of The Sun: “What Kind Of Dad Are You?”
After Diana’s death in 1997, Charles was left to bring up his two sons (aged 15 and 12). While some questioned the decision to involve the boys in their mother’s funeral procession, Prince Harry has stated that their father “was there for us” during this difficult time, and always “made sure that we were looked after”. Harry “doesn’t have an opinion” on whether their involvement in the funeral procession “was right or wrong”, he says, but “looking back on it”, he is glad to have been part of the day.
In contrast with the stiff formality that marked his own childhood and teenage years, Charles has often been observed joking around with his two sons. Prince William, reflecting on their relationship in a recent BBC documentary, said: “There are so many things I admire about my father.” Charles has encouraged both princes to dedicate time to in charity work, especially environmentalism, and in leisure time the family ski and play polo together.
As a new generation of royals arrives, Charles has declared himself “enormously proud and happy” to be a grandfather. In 2020, in an article published in The Telegraph to mark Father’s Day in the UK, it was claimed that Prince William had “forgiven his father for the ‘mistakes of the past’ and had ‘woken up to the fact that Charles has been as much of a positive influence as Diana’”.
Duty, purpose and a home at Highgrove
Charles purchased Highgrove, an 18th-century Georgian estate in the Cotswolds, in August 1980, and renovated it in a style to reflect his own interests and personal philosophy of working alongside nature. He and Diana spent much of their early married life there together. The prince installed an organic farm in the grounds to help make the estate self-sufficient, and worked with experts to encourage native plant species. Along with Clarence House in London and Llwynywermod in Wales, Highgrove remains a private residence of the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall.
Though Charles himself is quoted as saying in 2004 that “nobody knows what utter hell it is to be Prince of Wales”, the burden of the role has certainly not been shirked, the prince having worked in support more than 400 charitable organisations. In keeping with Charles’s instinct of looking to the future, he has often been credited with forward-looking attitudes on issues including climate change, architecture and natural remedies, interests that are reflected in the list of the causes which have his patronage.
Some of Charles’s less traditional views have not gone without comment. He is known for his unconventional (at least in royal terms) stance on religious freedom that could be at odds with his future role as the supreme governor of the Church of England; and the bust of Sir Laurens van der Post (d. 1996), an influential mentor, mystic and spiritual advisor to the prince, still sits in the garden at Highgrove. In 1994, Charles expressed a wish to become “Defender of Faith” rather than “Defender of the [Anglican] Faith” on his ascension to the throne, a statement that attracted criticism from the Archbishop of Canterbury. More recently, his opinions on the nature and future of modern monarchy caused waves, particularly following the release in 2015 of the so-called ‘Black Spider memos’ (named for Charles’s ‘spidery’ handwriting), correspondence between the prince and government ministers.
The real history behind The Crown
Want to know even more about the real events from history that inspired the drama? Read more from the experts…
- The Queen’s “rebel sister”: 8 facts about Princess Margaret
- The Crown: the real history behind series 1–3
- Charles and Diana: a history of their marriage
- Why was Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles’s great-uncle, assassinated?
- Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon: why did their marriage break down?
- Princess Diana and Prince Charles’s wedding: everything you need to know
- How did Diana transform herself from dutiful bride to controversial figure?
- Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II: what was their relationship like?
- Who is Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall?
- Lord Mountbatten: Did Prince Philip’s uncle attempt to lead a coup against Harold Wilson’s government?
- Charles, The Prince of Wales’s 1969 investiture at Caernarfon Castle, 50 years on
- “No match for reality”: the missing history in The Crown series three
- Who is Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth II?
- ‘Royal Family’: the fly-on-the-wall documentary the Palace doesn’t want you to see
- Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip: 8 milestones in their marriage
- “Cheap men and expensive bottles”: Princess Margaret’s love affairs
Will Charles become king after Queen Elizabeth II?
Prince Charles has long surpassed the record of longest serving heir apparent (of 59 years, two months and 13 days, which had been held by his great-great-grandfather, King Edward VII, heir apparent to his mother Queen Victoria). But he has said that he doesn’t consider himself “on standby” and he is still working seven days a week on behalf of the royal family.
Speculation continues whether Charles will succeed his mother upon her death. Some believe that the Crown will pass directly to his eldest son, William, while others think that Charles will never refuse a role he has spent a life preparing for and that is his duty to assume. If and when he does step into the role of ruling monarch, he also may not be known as Charles III. Many kings and queens before him have assumed a regnal name different to the name they held privately or as heir apparent. Royal writer Dickie Arbiter has suggested that Charles may use his third middle name and reign as George VII, in a tribute not only to his grandfather, George VI, “but a sort of loving memory to his late grandmother, whom he absolutely adored”.
What is certain is that Charles remains, in his eighth decade, an heir apparent dedicated to duty and his own principles, and as the Queen toasted in 2018, “in every respect a duchy original”.
Elinor Evans is deputy digital editor of HistoryExtra.com