Author Robert Hardman on the Real King Charles

Words by
Robert Hardman

12th April 2023

In the new print edition of The Illustrated Coronation, renowned royal commentator Robert Hardman explores the passions and priorities for the reign of King Charles III, as his accession heralds a new age. One thing top of the King’s agenda? “Stop b******** about with the planet.”

Those who assumed that, on his accession to the throne, His Majesty King Charles III might start to slow down a little did not know him as well as they thought. While there is no question that he feels contented in the role of monarch, there is the same sense of urgency we saw in the former Prince of Wales. It is simply the role, not the man, that has changed. 

As he put it to me once: “Our lifespan is so insignificant in the great scheme of things. I mean, 50 years is nothing.” Paraphrasing his beloved Shakespeare, he added: “We strut this stage so, for such a short period.” At the time, I was interviewing him for a BBC programme to mark his 60th birthday and found a man by turns passionate and frustrated in his vision of the country over which he would, one day, reign. 

King Charles III with Volodymyr Zelenskyy / Getty Images
King Charles III with Volodymyr Zelenskyy at Buckingham Palace in February 2023.
Photograph: Getty Images

Fast-forward a decade to his 70th birthday  and I sensed he was every bit as restless in his constant quest to get stuff done. By then, he had managed to streamline his vast portfolio of charities but was still working hard to ensure that they could stand on their own two feet, cometh the day he was elevated to the throne. At the same time, at an age when most of his contemporaries were winding down if not already retired, he was devoting more and more time to undertaking duties on behalf of The Queen. 

I asked him if, deep down, he was an optimist. “I would be if we would just stop b*******g about with the planet,” he sighed, as we walked through the beautifully restored walled garden at Dumfries House. “I just worry about the sort of world my grandchildren are going to live in.” Now, as he heads for his 75th birthday in his Coronation year, his mood is notably sunnier.

He is, say friends, as cheerful as he has been in years, buoyed by a strong sense of public goodwill both towards The Queen Consort and himself, as he takes charge. “He wouldn’t have wanted this to come a moment sooner than it happened, and he instinctively feels that now is the right time for him to take this on,” says one. “He knows the rules. Just don’t expect him to keep things the same.” For, while he will be scrupulous in observing the constitutional conventions surrounding the Sovereign, he is going to insist on doing things his way — as he already has done.

King Charles III with his family
King Charles III with his family taken on Christmas Day 2022 at Sandringham.
Photograph: Getty Images

Just compare his accession to that of the late Queen. She had been monarch for 10 months before she made her first speech — at the State Opening of Parliament in November 1952. Her first broadcast to her people was not until the following month on Christmas Day. King Charles III, on the other hand, was addressing the nation within 48 hours of becoming Sovereign while his Accession Council was shown live on television a day later. Whereas The Queen had been thrown into the job, still in something of a state of shock, at the age of 25, King Charles had been quietly preparing himself for this moment for decades. 

One very noticeable change that staff at both Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace have noticed is a definite chill in the air. The King does not like central heating. Thermostats have been turned down, even when the Palace has been preparing to welcome a state visitor such as the President of South Africa. While staff insist that the new monarch is simply showing solidarity with his people during an energy crisis, they privately concede that it would be like this regardless. “He is always throwing open windows and letting in fresh air,” says a member of staff. “The King doesn’t feel the cold like some people do. And he regards central heating as a waste of resources.”

Illustrated London News cover, July 5 1969
Illustrated London News cover on July 5 1969, featuring The Queen and Prince Charles to mark the royal investiture

Staff are also getting used to a brisker pace at all the royal residences. The King has always taken a pretty dim view of lunch, preferring to grab a sandwich on the hoof rather than sit down for a three-course production in the middle of the day. The late Queen was certainly a speedy eater: Palace banquet-goers would soon notice that the serving staff took their lead from the top of the table, where there would be no dawdling over dinner. However, she did at least like to sit down for lunch. 

A combination of the late Duke of Edinburgh’s retirement from public life in 2017, the Covid-19 pandemic and The Queen’s advancing years had seen a gentle winding down of operations around Her Late Majesty. Her stamina and enthusiasm for her duties were astonishing for a woman of her advanced years, but the pattern of public duties had started to slow once The Queen had given up overseas travel in 2015 and then celebrated her 90th birthday the following year. Now events like regional awaydays are back in the diary with gusto (minus the hefty civic lunches of yesteryear).

However, just as he was in his days as Prince of Wales, so King Charles III remains an intriguing blend of innovator and arch-traditionalist. Some had expected that the new King would continue to base himself at his favourite haunts of Clarence House and Highgrove, while he encouraged the new Prince and Princess of Wales to take charge at Windsor Castle and granted greater public access to Buckingham Palace. 

Prince Charles in July 1986
Prince Charles walking in the garden at Highgrove House in July 1986
Photograph: Getty Images

However, he has quickly made it clear that, while these residences may operate a little differently, he is very much wedded to a core principle: the Palace and Windsor are where monarchs belong. His self-appointment as Ranger of Windsor Great Park is testimony to that. It is at the private royal residences where things are more likely to change, notably at Balmoral. 

The King has a visceral love of Scotland (due to the lineage of the late Queen Mother, he is twice descended from Robert the Bruce). He has a steely determination to maintain royal bonds across the border, regardless of the state of Unionist or separatist politics.

As Prince of Wales, he personally took out one of Britain’s biggest mortgages to acquire Dumfries House in Ayrshire on behalf of the nation, with the full support of the Scottish Nationalist administration of the day. As a result, an important stately home that had sat behind locked gates under the previous owners is now a local community asset.

He has also breathed new life into The Queen Mother’s former summer residence, the Castle of Mey. The King, I am told, is pondering a variety of similar options for Balmoral. He loves the glens, lochs and streams of Deeside as much as anywhere on earth, but he is much fonder of Birkhall, the secondary estate residence, than the main castle. That could lend itself to a range of public uses. “Birkhall is now the marital home in a way in which Highgrove has never been to Queen Camilla,” says one Scottish friend. “And The King simply doesn’t have the same attachment to Balmoral Castle.”

King Charles III meets pupils at London’s City Junior School in November 2022
King Charles III meets pupils at London’s City Junior School in November 2022
Photograph: Getty Images

Official state residences are a different matter, of course. Back in London, less than three months into The King’s reign, Buckingham Palace found itself putting on a full show for the first time in more than three years for the South African state visit. The Queen Consort has been making her mark, too, dispensing with the age-old Court system of ladies-in-waiting. Instead, she has a small team of friends-cum-helpers known as Companions to assist at official events. 

They were all on parade for the first time as The Queen Consort organised her first big solo event, a Palace reception for those fighting violence against women and girls. This followed on from her visit to meet workers in the same field the previous month. Here was a marked change from the sort of themed receptions in previous years, when a particular sector — the world of fashion, for example, or the arts — might be invited to the Palace for a celebratory gathering. This one had a much grittier subtext, not to mention an international guest list including the Queens of Jordan and Belgium and the First Ladies of Sierra Leone and Ukraine. Furthermore, The Queen Consort did something which the late Queen did not do on these occasions: she stood up in the Palace Picture Gallery and made a speech.

The new reign was always going to encounter a few headwinds, not least predictable ones from within the family. No answer is in sight with regard to what next for The Duke of York, as he continues to pay the price for his past friendships with convicted criminals. Much as The King’s brother would like a return to public life, that is a two-way process that depends on some sort of demand from the public. 

The King and Queen Consort at Brick Lane
King Charles III and the Queen Consort visit members of the Bangladeshi community in Brick Lane, London, on february 8th 2023
Photograph: Getty Images

Nor is there much prospect of an imminent rapprochement between The Duke and Duchess of Sussex and the rest of the royal family for as long as the couple wish to unpick private family issues on air and in print. The King has made it clear that these are never going to be subjects for public debate.

However, he will continue to make judicious tweaks and incremental changes, while doing nothing  in any way which could diminish the legacy of Elizabeth II. Just as his first Christmas broadcast made more explicit reference to other faiths, so his planning for the Coronation was always going to include a more multi-cultural dimension, too. In doing so, however, he was merely following the example of his late mother, whose own Coronation was very different from that of her father’s. Yet, at the heart of all of these occasions would be the same rituals, all rooted in Biblical tradition — from anointing and crowning to homage.

Monarchy has always been about continuity and stability, yet successive monarchs will always do things differently, as they should. As the longest-serving heir to the throne in history, the former Prince of Wales always understood that. As King Charles III, he will expect the same of his heirs and successors.

He will also know that a reign does not have to span many decades in order to make an impact. King Edward VII succeeded a revered, record-breaking Queen for fewer than 10 years, and he proved to be a very popular monarch.

Caemarfon Castle, 5 July 1969
Prince Charles is formally presented to the Welsh people for the first time as the Prince of Wales on 5 July 1969
Photograph: Illustrated London News

Charles III is certainly not intending to be a transitional figure. This is a job for life and abdication is as unthinkable to him as it was to his late mother. That much was clear to those who cared to read between the lines in his accession broadcast. 

Recalling the words of Princess Elizabeth on her 21st birthday, The King stated: “As The Queen herself did with such unswerving devotion, I too now solemnly pledge myself, throughout the remaining time God grants me”. 

In other words, he is going to “strut this stage” for as long as the Almighty allows, thanks very much.  What’s more, he is going to enjoy it.

Prince Charles and Barack Obama 2011
Prince Charles meets Barack Obama at the White House in 2011

The Illustrated Coronation Edition is published by Illustrated London News and is on sale though leading supermarkets and WH Smith or

Robert Hardman is the author of the bestselling new biography Queen of Our Times — The Life of Elizabeth II, published by Macmillan.

Illustrated Coronation Edition 2023
Illustrated Coronation Edition 2023, published by Illustrated London News