Charles is a rare name among British kings. There have only been two previous kings named Charles, and the first of these was beheaded while the second was one of Britain’s most controversial monarchs. Charles III might turn out to be another controversial king, for as an Arab saying goes, one’s fate comes from one’s name.
Most people have only known the new King Charles through the highly choreographed functions and events he undertook in the decades during which he was his mother’s heir as Prince of Wales. But there is also a deeper, and much more interesting, side to the new king.
When watching the development of Charles over the past half century, circles close to the British Royal Family have tended to focus on his style and mannerisms. In the 1970s, he seemed to be a shy and reserved man who was largely in the shadow of his mother. In the 1980s, at the height of his youth, he had a subtle but noticeably adventurous side to him. For some, this was mixed with a hint of haughtiness, but perhaps that was part of the sculpting of his personality through the release of inner energy.
The 1990s were a tortuous decade for Charles. The complicated situation of his marriage to Princess Diana, a woman who came to personify social stardom and who was an intuitive mistress of the media, while being in love with another woman, exacted a toll on him. Over the past two decades, however, as he has himself grown older, married the love of his life, and developed a friendship with his two sons, particularly his eldest and now the heir to the throne, William, Charles has seemed to have found himself. Not surprisingly, his popularity has soared.
But behind these events there is also mind that has undergone an interesting journey over the past half century. Faith has been one of Charles’ most intriguing companions on that journey.
Charles has always been attached to the Church of England, of which he is now the head. But the increasing diversity of British society has stirred him to seek an understanding of the faiths to which significant groups of his mother’s (and now his) subjects adhere.
At first, Charles knocked on classical doors. On visits to the Indian subcontinent, the Holy Land, and several countries with Muslim-majority populations, he met religious authorities and perhaps more importantly also interesting scholars. For most observers, these were either diplomatic or media events. But for Charles, they were serious attempts at seeing how others perceive the divine, and these others were increasingly important parts of the fabric of the society of which he knew that one day he would be sovereign.
Charles wanted to inspire a policy framework on diversity that could be adopted in Britain. Since the late 1980s, race and immigration have been key drivers of important and influential segments of British politics, some of which have veered close to rejecting that diversity. It was in these years, too, that Charles was most vocal about what he thought were the deep problems facing his country.
But apart from policy, perhaps Charles also sensed that the idea of Britain itself was expanding. Along with the wonderful heritage of the British Isles, additions from near (Europe) and far (Africa and Asia) were accumulating, and with time these were becoming integral parts of the social structure. Almost certainly Charles wanted to nurture a feeling for and to develop a comprehension of these new ingredients.
He was seeking harmony in British society, in his connections with different groups of his subjects, and perhaps also within himself. His forays at understanding the divine through the minds of others might have been ways of reconciling the exacting traditions to which he is the heir, and that he essentially represents, with the modern age to which he belongs.
This was an important role for Charles. The late Queen Elizabeth, despite her humility and occasional humour, was a product of early 20th-century values and ways of living. Charles is not. He grew up in the 1960s, and he subtly internalised that decade’s rebelliousness and voracious desire for life.
Charles understood that whereas his mother embodied stability, he must symbolise transition. He understood that he must become a safe bridge from the past with its comfortable familiarity, but also with its tendency to indulge in illusionary romanticism, to the future with its multitude of uncertainties and also its potential for improvement.
As time went by, Charles talked less and worked more. Along with philosophically minded architects and engineers, he championed the creation of villages that were supposed to be aesthetically beautiful in an old English way, but also impressively functional in a modern one. He was hands-on in trying to make his estates respectful of nature and of the people who would eat their produce, while also being productive such that their farms became profitable and sustainable.
His work with his charity the Prince’s Trust led to work that funded and rewarded artists, entrepreneurs, and business people who succeeded in merging the new and successful with the aesthetic and humane.
In all of this and in other work, Charles was chasing harmony – chasing it because he sought to define it, understand it, and integrate it into his role as he came to mould it. Not surprisingly, he was very close to an academic project at a university in Wales that studied harmony in nature, music, in the functioning of modern societies, and in man’s relationship with nature and with the creator.
King Charles has ascended to the throne at a time when Britain is facing serious challenges, economically, within society, in the functioning of all the leading political institutions in the country, and concerning its place in the world amidst an increasingly confrontational global geo-political scene. He made it clear in his first speech as monarch that he would be guided by his mother’s style and way of doing things, with these being highly respectful of the Crown’s neutrality, not only in politics, but also in all key domains where the representatives of the people are there to deliberate and decide.
Yet, fate might have other plans, for in King Charles III and for the first time in around 200 years, Britain now has a monarch who has undertaken a rich intellectual journey that has spanned over half a century. He will be tempted, and perhaps will feel it is his obligation, to offer some serious thinking at a time when his society needs some serious ideas.