Charles the change-maker? I beg to disagree, your majesty

A year since the Queen’s death, her successor is being hailed as a moderniser who’s shaking up the monarchy. But is Charles really the man he’d like us to think he is?

September 08, 2023
Charles on his first visit to parliament as king last year. Image: Guy Bell / Alamy Stock Photo
Charles on his first visit to parliament as king last year. Image: Guy Bell / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s a year since Charles became king. He is said to be an old man in a hurry. If you are tempted to ask the Calvin Coolidge question, “How can they tell?”—attributed to Dorothy Parker on being informed the 30th president was dead—I’m here to help you.

I have no more original sources, I suspect, than most people claiming to be in the know. My knowledge comes from assorted expert royal commentators who have themselves presumably been briefed by impeccable, if anonymous, courtiers primed with an authorised version.

Well, firstly, King Charles has started to use Buckingham Palace again for royal receptions and the occasional dinner (you may not have appreciated—I didn’t—that it had been uninhabited, at least by the late Queen, since March 2020—that’s 18 months or so of neglect for many of its 775 rooms). So that’s good news. 

Charles himself continues to live, not at Buckingham Palace, but at nearby Clarence House. Buckingham Palace is being done up, but Charles has no plans to live there. Its future as an empty royal residence is, at the time of writing, uncertain.

The King is frequently at the 1,000-roomed Windsor Castle and is said to love Sandringham, with its 29 bedrooms and 20,000 acres. He has reportedly created a new garden there this year and has had the decorators in.

Of course, he still visits his own house, Highgrove, with its nine bedrooms. And the King is reported also to have stayed this year at the Queen Mother’s old home, the Castle of Mey, a grand pile originally built by the fourth Earl of Caithness in 1573. While in Scotland he has also stayed at 52-bedroom Balmoral Castle, with its 50,000 acres, and at Dumfries House, the 18th-century Robert Adam house (23 bedrooms) he bought in 2007.

Gardeners at all residences are said to be running fast to catch up with his instructions.

He has also found time to stay at Birkhall, a 6,000-acre estate near to Balmoral purchased by Prince Albert in 1849, as well as visiting his properties (number unknown) in Romania.

“He is,” one veteran royal writer opines, “in perpetual orbit.”

So, all in all, a very busy first year in office.

Of course, this is not all. The Court Circular column in the Times logs numerous visits, handshakes, dinners, meetings, speeches, knightings and the cutting of many ribbons.

But, as change management programmes go you would not place King Charles up there with, say, Elon Musk.

There was much speculation among the royal watchers as to whether Charles, after decades studying for the CEO role, would be a caretaker manager or a new broom. On the basis of what we know of his approach so far, he has settled for being Ole Gunnar Solskjær rather than Alex Ferguson.

The signs were there with his coronation service, still full of medieval mumbo-jumbo, but with tuneful anthems and a sprinkling of celebrities.

A true change manager might have begun by asking whether the British King really needed to rotate each year between 10 extremely large and expensive houses. (And who can count the true number of residences owned by, or available to, the extended family?)

And there would be difficult questions about how much money this King has, wants or needs at a time when his people are finding things quite a stretch.

Even the royal experts stumble over that one. The King’s personal wealth seems to be anywhere in a range from £600m to £2bn, depending on what you lump in. The sovereign grant is due to rise to roughly £125m between 2026 and 2027 (up from £86m this year).

The Danish monarchy receives just over £10m, and the Swedish royals £11.5m.

If, as trailed by other “experts” back last autumn, the King intends to “slim down” and “modernise”, he seems to be taking it gently—though he has put one house in Wales on the market. But it’s not clear what either phrase means.

Due to assorted embarrassments and estrangements, there are not really enough working royals to go round as it is. Regular readers of the Court Circular will count around seven, possibly eight, who regularly feature—and three or four of them are well past the normal age of retirement. So a genuine new broom would surely look at the bald facts and conclude that this was unsustainable for long and that something rather radical had to happen PDQ.

A book due out next week by the historian Ed Owens argues: “We’ve been conning ourselves… The monarchy exists as a kind of screen on which the UK public has been encouraged to project ideas of perpetual national greatness that simply don’t bear the weight of scrutiny.”

Owens, no republican, blames many of the current problems facing the crown on the fact that the institution is free from the sort of scrutiny to which we subject most other comparable institutions. Owens takes a dim view of “fawning and sycophantic” historians and journalists, as well as a culture of royal secrecy, which he says is a “deeply embedded, but largely hidden, feature of our national life.”

Can these seven or eight working royals—feather bedded in unimaginable luxury—not sense the changing mood in Commonwealth countries, or among young British citizens who, recent polling suggests, would rather have an elected head of state than a monarch?

Our King has a great many personal qualities: he’s cultured, hard-working, thoughtful and evidently cares passionately about many things that matter deeply. In no other walk of life—barring, possibly, the Papacy—do you get to hang around until you’re 74 before you get the top job.

His younger son quotes the future King as chiding his heirs in 2021: “Please, boys—don’t make my final years a misery.” That’s understandable on a human level, as is wanting to shelve the tough decisions about the monarchy that lie ahead. But spinning his reign to date as a whirl of transformation does no one any favours.