King Charles: the boy born to reign

The Queen was the only person who could show the future king the ropes – and he followed her lead dutifully

It was not the easiest of entrances into the world. When Charles Philip Arthur George Mountbatten-Windsor was born on Sunday November 14, 1948, his mother, then Princess Elizabeth, had been in labour for 30 long hours.

While her husband Prince Philip slept, ate and played squash with his private secretary, the 22-year-old princess was in the Buhl Room at Buckingham Palace being tended to by two royal obstetricians and a midwife. It had been decided that Her Royal Highness would undergo what was then known as the twilight sleep technique, which involved giving labouring women injections of morphine and scopolamine to put them in a drowsy state. Unfortunately, it led to prolonged labours and after 30 hours, Elizabeth’s doctors decided a Caesarean was the best course of action. The Buhl Room was converted into a mini operating theatre and the future heir to the throne arrived at 9.14pm, weighing 7lb 6oz (3.3kg).

Following tradition, a proclamation was posted on the palace railings just before midnight, announcing the arrival of the baby and his name. The birth was also announced on BBC radio, cannons were fired in nearby Hyde Park and the bells at Westminster Abbey were rung to welcome newborn Charles, destined to one day be king.

Four-week-old Charles on his christening day.

A month after his birth, Charles was christened at Buckingham Palace. Because the usual venue for baptisms – the Private Chapel – had been damaged by bombs during World War II, the ceremony took place in the music room.

Being an heir to the British throne meant the youngster – known as Prince Charles of Edinburgh for the first few years of his life – would never have a normal childhood. But even before his mother became Queen and took on the enormous responsibility that the role entailed, Charles’ life was somewhat fractured.

When he was 14 months old, his father, then a first lieutenant in the Royal Navy, was posted to Malta to serve on board the destroyer HMS Chequers. Elizabeth joined her husband on the Mediterranean island for an extended period over Christmas 1949, leaving Charles at home in England with his nanny Mabel Anderson and his grandparents, George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

He adored his “darling grandmother”.

As a result, his parents missed seeing his first steps and hearing his first word, which was “Nana”, and directed at his nanny Mabel. After the birth of his sister Princess Anne in August 1950, Elizabeth returned to Malta for another spell, again leaving the children in England. But her father’s deteriorating health meant she was needed back in the UK and Philip took “indefinite leave” from the Navy so he could support his wife.

Charles was just three when his grandfather died and his mother became Queen. She devoted her life to service and, unfortunately for Charles and Anne, that meant they didn’t always see a lot of her. When they were five and three, the Queen and Philip went on a grand tour of Commonwealth countries, including New Zealand, which took them away from their children for six months in 1953 and 1954.

Because of the Queen’s busy schedule, it was Philip who took the lead in raising the Mountbatten-Windsor siblings and later their brothers, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward. Philip saw it as his responsibility to “toughen up” his somewhat sensitive son and prepare him for the challenge of one day becoming king.

Philip’s cousin Lady Pamela Mountbatten said that involved not comforting Charles if he fell over and hurt himself. “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.”

The three-year-old with (from left) Queen Elizabeth, aunt Margaret, his father, grandfather George VI, his mother and baby sister Anne.

In an authorised biography, Jonathon Dimbleby wrote that Charles was “easily cowed by the forceful personality of his father”. Friends described how he would often belittle his son. Meanwhile, the Queen was “not indifferent so much as detached”, Charles later said.

Neither parent was physically demonstrative – when they returned from their six-month Commonwealth tour they greeted their children with handshakes – so Charles turned to his grandmother, the Queen Mother, for affection. He often visited her at Royal Lodge, her home in Windsor Great Park, and as a toddler would sit on her bed, playing with her collection of lipsticks. She taught him about art and music, provided the hugs he craved, and encouraged him to embrace his kind and gentle nature. But she also fuelled his tendency for self-pity, something his father loathed.

After initially being taught by a governess, Catherine Peebles, Charles went to school aged seven, the first heir apparent to do so. He had a stint at Hill House School in London, then boarded at his father’s former school, Cheam Preparatory, where he struggled to make friends and was bullied. Classmates made fun of his protruding ears and called him “fatty”. He was hopeless at sports and although he could ride, having been taught by his mother, he was afraid of jumping a horse, unlike his fearless sister Anne.

Charles is accompanied by his parents for his first day at Cheam School in Berkshire in 1957.

During his time at the school, nine-year-old Charles learned while watching the closing ceremony of the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff on TV that his mother was making him Prince of Wales. It was mortifying for the shy youngster, who desperately wanted to be seen as “normal” but was marked out as someone different.

The best thing about the years he spent at Cheam was the chance to take part in theatrical productions. He gave a respectable performance as Richard III in one play after spending hours listening to tapes of Laurence Olivier in the role, but his parents never got to see him in action. They were on tour in Ghana, so the Queen Mother and Princess Anne watched him take to the stage.

The young prince described boarding school as a “prison sentence”.

Charles couldn’t wait to leave Cheam, but unfortunately his secondary school, Gordonstoun in Scotland, was even worse. He would later describe it as a “prison sentence” and “Colditz in kilts”. Physical challenges were a big part of the school’s curriculum, with each day beginning with a run and a cold shower. Bullying was also part of the daily experience at Gordonstoun. Charles was tormented in the dormitory at night and pummelled during compulsory rugby games. “He was very stoic,” recalls a former pupil. “I never saw him fight back.”

Few students would walk with him to meals or class at risk of being derided as “suck-ups”. Anyone who tried to defend the prince would be greeted with slurping noises.

Catching a bus for sports day.

Thankfully for Charles, he was allowed to spend weekends at the home of family friends Captain Iain Tennant and his wife Lady Margaret. He would often “cry his eyes out” there, according to one of the Queen’s advisors. “They saved him from complete misery.”

It must have come as a relief to 17-year-old Charles when his father decided to send him to Australia for two terms at Timbertop, a rural campus of Geelong Grammar School, three hours’ drive from Melbourne. It was also focused on physical challenges, but this time Charles embraced them, happily taking part in cross-country expeditions in the sweltering heat.

He enjoyed the informality of Australia and the fact he was treated like everyone else. He was mildly teased for being a “Pommie”, but there was none of the cruel bullying he endured at Gordonstoun.

The Queen poses for an official portrait in 1954 with six-year-old Charles and Anne, four.

He also carried out official engagements during his time in Australia, the first time he’d faced crowds on his own. “I took the plunge and went over and talked to people,” he would later recall. “That suddenly unlocked a completely different feeling, and I was then able to communicate and talk to people so much more.”

After six months in Australia, Charles returned to Scotland for his final year at Gordonstoun. Made head boy, life was a bit easier, but he still failed to make any friends. His parents would later acknowledge to a biographer that Charles was a “square peg in a round hole” at the school. Privately he would talk about how unhappy he was there for many decades to come. But in public, he said he was glad he’d gone because it taught him “a great deal about myself and my own abilities and disabilities. It taught me to accept challenges and take the initiative.”

Charles and Anne had their parents all to themselves for 10 years before Andrew and Edward were born.

He was 18 when he left, relieved that that part of his life was over, and he could embark on new adventures as a pivotal member of the royal family.

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