King Charles III faces crowning moment of truth after lifetime of being free to lambast

With the occasional public spat and his infamous 'black spider memos' to leaders, will he cut it as king as his outspokenness is curtailed?

King Charles III prepares for his coronation. AFP
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It’s the role King Charles III was born for and now, after 74 years in the shadows, the wait is (almost) over for Britain's longest heir in waiting.

The former Prince of Wales will be crowned king in a lavish coronation as the world watches a ceremony that is both sacred and spectacular in the heart of London next weekend.

But after spending years on the sidelines, and having a reputation for being short-tempered and form for interfering in public life, some will wonder how he will cut it being king with his freedom to be outspoken curtailed.

Already his tenure has not been without controversy.

In the short seven months since the death of Queen Elizabeth II, he has faced an embarrassing public fallout of an escalating royal feud with his youngest son Prince Harry and being accused of making a “constitutionally unwise” decision to meet European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen over the Northern Ireland Brexit deal, dubbed the “Windsor Framework”.

His first Christmas address also raised eyebrows when he spoke of the cost of living crisis as taxpayers prepare to foot the bill for his coronation, which is expected to run into millions.

Can short-tempered Charles remain silent on key issues?

Royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliam says the road ahead will be challenging as the king is forced to remain silent on issues he has previously had vociferous opinions about.

I think he realises first-hand that his role as the Prince of Wales is something he did very well, especially with the charity sector and the Prince's Trust,” he told The National. “But the role of Prince of Wales was as consort. It is not constitutional like being the monarch, it was open to him to do what he wanted.

“At heart, he has been very active in his job but he knows that everything he does now will be considered and interpreted.

“Recently he asked the EU chief to meet him, which caused controversy. Downing Street said it was up to him who he meets, the palace said he intended to meet world leaders on government advice.”

Over the years, the king has been candid about his views. Last year he privately labelled the government’s plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda as “appalling”. He has previously repeatedly boycotted the queen’s banquets for Chinese leaders over his disapproval of the Chinese regime and has written a number of letters, known as the black spider memos due to his handwriting and the black ink used, to government ministers, raising questions about policies.

They included concerns raised with former prime minister Tony Blair over the lack of resources for British troops in Iraq and fears that Britain was not self-sufficient enough in producing meat and vegetables.

King Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla at a Buckingham Palace parade on Thursday. AFP

“He has had views on refugees, on sending asylum seekers to Rwanda, it harks back to his boycott of two banquets attended by Chinese leaders,” Mr Fitzwilliam added. “He will no longer be able to write the black spider letters. Equally when he talked about the cost of living crisis at Christmas people thought the queen would not have used that phrase.

“He will have working meetings with the prime minister, sign bills into law, but it will be difficult for him to reign with his views.”

Iraq, asylum seekers and climate

British history has shown that interference by monarchs is not taken kindly. His namesake King Charles I was publicly tried and executed in the 17th century after clashing with parliament after it wanted to reduce his powers. It led to the brief collapse of the monarchy for 11 years.

The public caught a glimpse of the new king's short fuse in one of his first public engagements following the queen’s death when he lost his temper at a leaky pen whilst signing a visitor book at Hillsborough Castle, in Belfast.

He was seen on camera saying: “Oh god I hate this [pen]! I can’t bear this bloody thing … every stinking time,” before walking away.

King Charles became irritable with a leaky pen while signing a guestbook at Hillsborough Castle, Belfast, last September. PA

Mr Fitzwilliam believes that despite the occasional red mist, the king has many other attributes which he will also bring to the fore.

“Apparently he is supposed to have a short fuse, but he also has quite a good sense of humour,” he said.

“He is also a workaholic, he goes without lunch and works very long hours. The late Princess Diana highlighted all sorts of failings. But he is a very committed figure and now the situation has changed and he is now a unifying figure. He is serious and hard-working and has also shown an affectionate side.

“With Harry and Meghan people are asking if he is someone likely to confront or compromise, I think people think he is more inclined to compromise, but there is an awful lot of PR spin. I do think his charity work has been awesome, it shows a serious and committed person. He also has a great sense of humour. He is also a family man. He has had both good and bad press and it will be interesting to see how things develop.”

'Youngsters not interested in monarchy'

While many other European monarchies have come and gone, or are far diminished in scale and importance, the British royal family has remained resilient.

Polls show the monarchy is supported by the majority of Britons, although that backing has slipped slightly since the death of the queen, and the king does not enjoy quite the same overwhelming popularity as his mother.

Recent surveys have also indicated the younger generations are less bothered about the institution than their parents and grandparents.

However, whatever difficulties it has faced over the years — from wars, divorce, internal squabbles or even abdication — the monarchy has always shown an ability to bounce back.

King Charles’s coronation carriages unveiled

King Charles’s coronation carriages unveiled

“It's remarkable at adapting,” said Laura Clancy, a media lecturer at Lancaster University who specialises in the royals.

“They've shown that they know that they need to adapt to the modern world in order to keep existing.”

Mr Fitzwilliam believes Charles will have to focus on raising the royals' popularity.

“Britain has the most high-profile monarchy in the world, it brings in tourist revenue and culture when the monarchy goes abroad,” he said. “For 1.29p per person [approximately 5 fils] we do get value for money.

“We are essentially a monarchy country, we have it in our DNA. There is disaffection between 18 to 24 years olds, mainly because of Harry and Meghan’s US interview, it is definitely traced back to that and Prince Andrew’s disgrace has not helped.

“But the monarchy has an extraordinary ability to reinvent itself. He will have to look at the issue of the monarchy and slavery, the issue of the cost of living crisis and the expense of the coronation as the monarchy could be judged. These are areas he has to address.”

King Charles has already taken the first steps towards raising his profile on the global stage by making his first state visit to Germany.

Speaking mostly in German, he delivered the first speech by a British monarch during a session of the Bundestag.

Street parties to set the mood

With billions estimated to have watched or followed the queen’s funeral worldwide, the coronation is expected to generate equal attention.

“Globally there will be a huge audience for them. The service will align with the age of social media and 24/7 news,” Mr Fitzwilliam said.

“It will have an enormous global reach reflecting Charles’s desire for a modern Britain.

“Everyone will be eagerly awaiting the moment he is crowned and the iconic balcony scene.”

Preparations are under way across the UK for the coronation. Photo: Andrew Matthews

Closer to home, the monarchy can be in little doubt there is still an appetite for the royals, with more than 50,000 street parties planned and thousands of kilometres of bunting fluttering aloft in towns and villages across the nation, excitement is already mounting for Charles’s big day.

“He has waited a long time for this,” Mr Fitzwilliam said.

“We are the last country in Europe to have a coronation and it does have meaning going back to medieval times when you had several descendants for the throne. It is a very special occasion.

“The British will put on a good show for the world and we can expect a coronation to remember.

“Finally it’s Charles’s turn to put his stamp on things.”

Updated: April 28, 2023, 6:00 PM