When King Charles III became Britain’s new sovereign he thanked his “darling Mama” Queen Elizabeth II for her ‘”love and devotion to our family and to the family of nations you have served so diligently all these years.” Yet so complete was her devotion to her royal duties as a young woman that she had far less time than most mothers to spend with her firstborn son and heir, whose shyness and sensitivity as a small child were exacerbated by the frequent absences of both his parents.
As Princess Elizabeth was up until 1952, Prince Philip joined her at the naval post in Malta. They left their 1-year-old son at Sandringham with his grandparents. Further foreign trips followed in quick succession, and shortly afterwards, when Prince Charles uttered his first word, it was “Nana,” addressed to his nanny, whom he saw more of than any other person.
Similar was the case for other British aristocratic kids at the time. Yet, friends of Queen Elizabeth (though not all) considered her a distant parent and were not able to show maternal affection like her own mother.
As a monarch the Queen’s performance was well-nigh flawless from the outset. Calm, patient, humble, dutiful, compassionate, dignified, graceful, she never did anything to cause embarrassment or political controversy, while demonstrating a progressive readiness to adapt the monarchy to Britain’s diminished post-colonial status in the world. Her motherly approach was more in line with the 1930s than her more reserved sister, Princess Anne. However, she ended the custom that the royal children must bow to the sovereign upon entering his presence.
Due to a flurry of requests on her time, she had to make a decision and leave much of the responsibility of raising their children to Prince Philip. However, he was quite different to his son and had very specific ideas about how he would want him to develop. By Charles’s first birthday he had already bought him a cricket bat and declared that he wanted him to be ‘a man’s man’.
Prince Philip’s determination that his timid son should learn to stand on his own feet stemmed from the turbulent circumstances of his own childhood, when he had been forced to fend for himself from the age of eight after his mother was taken away to a secure asylum and his father left the family home to live with his mistress in the South of France.
As a way of dealing with the difficulties, Philip took a tough-nosed view of life and saw it as his duty to help his son. As his cousin Lady Mountbatten said, the prince ‘could see that Charles was a terribly sensitive boy who was going to come up against a lot of problems, and he thought he should help him not to take to heart a lot of the things that children take to heart, and not rush to pick him up every time he fell over and say “Oh dear, dear have you hurt yourself” but rather, ‘Oh come on that’s not so bad.’ I’m sure he just wanted to help make his character more robust … but in retrospect I think he overdid it sometimes and perhaps he was a bit untactful.”
Charles was the first heir to the throne of Britain to go to school, briefly attending a small pre-prep (Hill House) in Knightsbridge, London, aged eight, before going as a boarder to his father’s old prep school, Cheam, whose rugged regime Prince Philip extolled in a preface to a history of the school: “Children may be indulged at home,” he wrote, “but school is expected to be a spartan and disciplined experience in the process of developing into self-controlled, considerate and independent adults.” King Charles, a very different character, would doubtless demur, having hated his time there. He was later mercilessly bullied at Gordonstoun, where his father had been head boy, describing it as a “hell-hole.”
Charles was not encouraged by the Queen or Prince Philip to speak to them about his feelings. Instead, he preferred to keep these emotions to himself to avoid awkward conversation. While he was in many ways an attentive father, the courtiers saw Prince Philip as being too controllable of his youngest son. They believed this was due to him not having a mentor when he was younger. He often gave Charles the impression that he was not the sort of son he had wanted and could fly into a rage at random aspects of his behaviour, once even rebuking him for reading in bed: “If he wants to sleep, why doesn’t he sleep? If he wants to read, why doesn’t he sit in a chair and read?”
Frightened of his father and starved of attention from his mother while she was busy as the queen, during the 1970s Charles came increasingly under the wing of his great uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten, the brother of Prince Philip’s mother, whose influence was not always especially helpful. For instance his famous recommendation that he should “sow his wild oats” before marrying a young woman without “a past,” which helped propel Charles into his unhappy first marriage to Lady Diana Spencer.
In the decades after Mountbatten’s murder by the IRA in 1979, however, Prince Charles grew gradually closer to both his parents, his Prince’s Trust charity being one of several examples of shared interests with his father (who had earlier set up the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme) being pursued in different ways. At the time of Charles’s 60th birthday in 2008, the Queen expressed “enormous pride” in her son’s work with the Trust, which she described as a “remarkable organization.” When the two of them were photographed together during celebrations to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday, there was no mistaking the warmth of their relationship. And on one of the TV obituary films aired this week by the BBC, the new King said how “very lucky” he felt to have had the Queen as his mother.
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