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The life of King Charles III: From boy to reigning monarch

BY Jennifer McShane

3rd May 2023 Life

The life of King Charles III: From boy to reigning monarch

As the eldest son of Britain's longest-reigning monarch is crowned, we look back at King Charles III's life and ponder how the future of the monarchy might look

When King Charles III became the UK’s new sovereign following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, his first public address thanked his “darling mama” for her love and devotion to their family and the family of nations she so diligently served through the years of her reign.

It was clear then, the first child of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was aware of the enormity of what lay ahead as her successor, but also his intent to honour and continue the work she had done so faithfully for decades.

King Charles' early life

King Charles III as a baby with parents Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth IIFrom a young age, King Charles III has known that he would one day inherit the throne from his mother, Queen Elizabeth II

Charles, 73, was born at Buckingham Palace in London in 1948. He was just three years old when he became the heir apparent as his mother acceded to the throne as queen, following the untimely death of her father, King George VI.

For over seven decades, he had known he would sit on the throne as his mother did, but in his case, he had had plenty of time to prepare as he dutifully worked at, as some have called it, “the longest apprenticeship in history.”

From a young age, the future king saw first hand the sacrifices his mother made in the devotion to royal duty as a young woman.

Safe to say, she had far less time than most mothers to spend with her firstborn son and heir, whose known shyness and sensitivity as a small child, alongside the frequent-yet-necessary absences of both his parents, was noted by those closest to him.

When Princess Elizabeth (she was not yet queen until her accession to the throne in 1952) joined Prince Philip at his naval posting in Malta over Christmas 1949, they left behind their one-year-old son with his grandparents at Sandringham, and apparently missed seeing his first steps and first teeth.

"From a young age, the future king saw first hand the sacrifices his mother made in the devotion to royal duty"

Further foreign trips followed without their eldest son, and when Prince Charles uttered his first word, it was apparently “Nana,” addressed to his nanny, whom he saw more of than any other person at that time.

It was not easy for the parents or the child, but over the years, Charles has frequently spoken of admiring them both for their devotion to their family and the monarchy, even when their absence undoubtedly left a gap in the formative years of his childhood.

His mother’s absence meant more time spent with his father, Prince Philip, who noted his young son’s more reserved demeanour (compared to the more robust character of his sister, Princess Anne, for example) and sought to encourage his son.

However, those closest to Charles noted it didn’t always have the desired affect. As Prince Philip’s cousin, Lady Mountbatten said, according to a biography on Philip, the prince, “could see that Charles was a terribly sensitive boy who was going to come up against a lot of problems… I’m sure he just wanted to help make his character more robust… but in retrospect I think he overdid it sometimes".

The school years 

King Charles III as school boyHRH was reportedly a quiet child, who sometimes found his school's rigorous environment tough

He was the first heir to the throne of Britain to go to school rather than getting tutored at the family palace, briefly attending Hill House, a small pre-prep school in London, aged eight, before going as a boarder to his father’s old prep school, Cheam.

Charles, a very different character to his father, has spoken of not enjoying his time there.

The same could be said for his time at Gordonstoun, where his father had been head boy, with Charles being open about its tough environment, though still appreciative of his experience there, particularly into his adult years.

It was also in Gordonstoun where his love of the arts came to the fore and he would act in numerous plays. 

“It was only tough in the sense that it demanded more of you as an individual than most other schools did—mentally or physically. I am lucky in that I believe it taught me a great deal about myself… It taught me to accept challenges and take the initiative,” Charles said in a House of Lords speech in 1975.

Charles grew gradually closer to both his parents. Following Queen Elizabeth’s death, he said in a documentary aired on the BBC that he felt incredibly “lucky” to have her as his mother.

And his Prince’s Trust charity was one of several examples of shared interests with his father (who had earlier set up the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme).

Royal historian Mok O’Keeffe adds that it’s this work with his Prince’s Trust that set into motion what he’ll continue as king, championing the marginalised in society—the foundation of The Prince’s Trust.

“His work with The Prince’s Trust has given many the skills and confidence to improve their lives,” he explains.

In 1970, he graduated from the University of Cambridge with a Bachelor of Arts degree, becoming the first heir apparent to earn a university degree. Cambridge later awarded him a Master of Arts degree.

Meeting Diana Spencer and Camilla Parker Bowles

King Charles III on wedding day with Lady Diana SpencerKing Charles III first married Lady Diana Spencer, with whom he had two sons

He became the Prince of Wales in 1969, after he had spent a term at the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth, where he learned to speak Welsh.

Two years later, Charles took his seat in the House of Lords, and then spent the next few years serving in both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, following in his father's footsteps.

In 1981, the world watched as he married Lady Diana Spencer, who became the Princess of Wales. The couple had two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, second and sixth in line to the throne. Their marriage was to be a tumultuous one and the couple eventually agreed to separate in late 1992 and divorced in 1996.

Tragedy struck when, in 1997, Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris, with the monarchy thrust into the spotlight and closely scrutinised for their response to such a publicly beloved woman’s death.

"Charles and Camilla are also expected to be coronated side-by-side, per Queen Elizabeth's request"

It was among the most challenging times up to that point both for him and the royal family, with Charles no doubt noting the pressure the Queen came under during the previous years, especially her “annus horribilis” of 1992.

Happier times were ahead for the then prince, marrying Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005, who became the Duchess of Cornwall.

He met Camilla at a polo match around 1980 and despite the challenges of their friendship and then relationship widely reported on over the years, the Queen and many others were delighted at this new chapter in his life.

Charles and Camilla, 75, are also expected to be coronated side-by-side, per Queen Elizabeth's request that Camilla become queen consort—the title given to the wife of a reigning king.

Putting his stamp on the monarchy

Charles and Camilla smiling at each otherKing Charles and Camilla will be coronated together, as per Queen Elizabeth II's request

With his reign already begun, all eyes are on King Charles as he prepares to make his own mark on the monarchy.

Reports have suggested his preference for a more “slimmed down” version of the monarchy we know now, and though we’re not privy to the changes he’ll enact, he has already started shifting a few things around.

In his first public address as King, Charles named Prince William to be the Prince of Wales, the title he himself held before the Queen’s death.

Mok O’Keeffe agrees that he has had time to outlay a vision for what he will bring to the monarchy as king, but also that there are challenges ahead.

"He has supported heritage, with restoration of Dumfries House, and a focus on sustainability over the years"

“The King has had significant time to consider what he will bring to the monarchy. At the same time he has supported heritage, with restoration of Dumfries House, and a focus on sustainability over the years—in late 2019, for example, he launched the Sustainable Markets Initiative—with his focus on organic gardening, and rural life through the Prince’s Countryside Fund,” the royal expert continued.

“As the monarch, his role is primarily ceremonial, so he will be unable to be as vocal as he used to be when Prince of Wales, but it's clear from his work to date that he will want all his subjects to feel represented and included".

King Charles will have to be ready for the obstacles to come too. “With family difficulties, particularly involving Prince Harry and his recent book, the rise of republicanism and much more holding of public institutions to account, King Charles will need to navigate a difficult path.

"However, I believe he has brought fresh perspective and a willingness to learn—this has given him a perfect mindset to ensure the royal family continues to be relevant, support global Britain and ensure that it represents the diverse communities of Britain and the Commonwealth in the 21st century".

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