Charles at 65: The patient prince turns pensioner

The Prince of Wales turns 65 today, and says he is in no hurry to succeed his mother on the throne. In the process, he has become the longest heir-in-waiting in British history.

No hurry to ascend the throne, his supporters say

After reports surfaced last month suggesting that Prince Charles thinks becoming king would be a form of prison, royal officials rustled up a hasty denial.

No, they said, that's not what the Prince of Wales thinks at all, even if that's what another unnamed royal official seemed to have suggested to Time magazine.

Prince Charles, the eight-month-old son of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, relaxes with his parents at their summer residence in Ascot, England, on July 18, 1949. (Associated Press)

But the Time profile of the heir to the throne, who turns 65 today, did make clear that Charles is in no hurry to succeed his mother, the Queen — even as he takes on more of her official duties — and is in fact quite content concentrating on the charitable works he has adopted over the years.

That assessment came as no surprise to author and royal biographer Penny Junor, who has written several books about the Prince of Wales.

"I've never felt that Charles was desperate to become king. I have always felt that he is very happy with what he is doing at the moment," Junor said in an interview from London.

"For many years, he was not happy. He was desperately searching for a role, for something to do with his life, for something worthwhile, but he found it and he is really, really pleased I think with what he is doing."

That includes a raft of charities,17 in total, along with serving as president or patron of more than 400 organizations. He's also been also rather famously outspoken on a variety of topics of importance to him.

As recently as Wednesday, the Daily Telegraph was reporting that Charles has accused large supermarkets of putting the "squeeze" on "battered" farmers "by driving down prices and leaving them on the brink of poverty."

What he is doing has not always sat well with observers, who have over the years labelled him, as Time pointed out, everything from a "visionary" to a "privileged crank."

There have been suggestions he’s an old fuddy-duddy who is content talking to plants and prone to spouting off unwelcome insights on everything from architecture to environmental causes.

Not cold and heartless

Yet supporters — and Junor counts herself among them — say he is misunderstood.

"I would say the real Charles is a very genuine man who cares deeply about a whole range of issues and problems in life, that he perceives to be problems in life, cares desperately, has an enormous sense of duty and feels great responsibility," says Junor.

"He was born into this position of great privilege and he feels that it is really incumbent upon him to give back and to help people who are less fortunate than he is."

One small example: he has decided to claim his government old age pension on turning 65 and donate the proceeds to a charity supporting older people.

Prince Charles, in the uniform of the colonel in chief of the Royal Regiment of Wales, salutes at Cardiff Castle in Wales on June 11, 1969. (Associated Press)

Charles speaks publicly more than some royals, such as his mother, who has made a practice of not giving media interviews. But often the image of the heir to throne has been created by what others have said.

"It’s interesting how much of the Prince of Wales' identity has been shaped by statements others have made about him," says Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian and blogger.

"Certainly Diana's interviews … around the time of the breakdown of her marriage had a very lasting impact on how the Prince of Wales was perceived."

Diana famously said there were three people in her marriage — a reference to Camilla Parker Bowles, who Charles went on to marry in 2005, eight years after Diana's death in Paris. Diana also doubted Charles's fitness to be king.

Now, though, says Harris, there's far more attention paid to his philanthropic projects, largely because their subjects — such as organic farming and recycling — have become more topical than they were in the 1970s.

"His efforts to develop employment opportunities for marginalized young people and interfaith dialogue between the various religions are also extremely topical in the 21st century," Harris says. "He's become defined more by his causes and less by his relationships in the present."

Caring father

By all accounts, Charles has been a caring father to Princes William and Harry. And Junor, for one, also considers that the "great rehabilitation process" that has gone on around his public perception has happened "largely through his sons."

"We have watched them grow into very confident, happy and secure individuals who quite clearly have a very, very good relationship with their father."

Prince Charles, left, and his sons Prince Harry, centre, and Prince William arrive for the memorial service for Diana, Princess of Wales at the Guards' Chapel in central London on Aug. 31, 2007. (Leon Neal/Associated Press)

Last year's celebration of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee also gave the public other glimpses into Charles's character, particularly when he did a television documentary based on old films from his childhood.

"It wasn't a performance for the camera. It was a genuine and very intimate kind of reaction," says Junor.

She also points to the speech he gave on the final night of the celebration in London as a revealing insight into his character. 

"He said 'Your majesty, Mummy,' and people just saw him not as the terrible husband, the bad father, the cold man that Diana had portrayed, but actually as a rather engaging man who had a lot of very likeable qualities."

Raised to be king

Still, he is the man set to become king, and has held that role longer than any heir to the throne in British history.

And if he is ambivalent about taking on the role, Harris says, it's not necessarily a surprise: No monarch who ascended the throne in the 20th century looked upon the opportunity with unbridled joy.

The Queen herself was actually "quite happy," Harris says, during her time as heir, particularly when she lived as a naval wife in Malta with Prince Philip. And her predecessors, George VI and George V, were both second sons who weren't raised to be king.

"We really have to go back to the 19th century to find examples of monarchs who saw the ascension to the throne as an improvement to their personal lives."

Victoria, for example, became queen at 18 in 1837 and the change in her life meant a significant increase in independence.

Prince Charles shows his affection for his mother, Queen Elizabeth, at the end of the Queen's Jubilee Concert in front of Buckingham Palace on June 4, 2012. (Joel Ryan/Associated Press)

"Until her ascension to the throne, she slept in the same bedroom as her mother and had never been permitted to be alone. Apparently her first order as queen was to move her mother's bed out of her room and insist on having an hour by herself , which she’d never had before," said Harris.

Whatever Charles's view on his eventual ascension to the throne may be, he takes on one duty this week that moves him marginally closer to the role his mother has carried out. On Friday, he will for the first time represent the Queen at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka.

"We're seeing the Prince of Wales increasingly in a leadership role as the Queen has reduced her overseas travel," says Harris.

Junor says we're seeing the beginnings of a possible transition from the Queen to Charles, "but there’s no guarantee he will be head of the Commonwealth when he becomes king."

It's not a hereditary position, and Junor says some Commonwealth countries will find a man who committed adultery and was divorced harder to accept as head of the organization.

While Charles "cares passionately" about the Commonwealth, Junor is not so sure all Commonwealth countries return the affection because of the broken marriage.

"That’s all it is, it's the broken marriage. So I think this [meeting in Sri Lanka] could be an important bridge-building exercise."


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