In Canada, where he is not yet able to command the sort of cumulative affection and esteem his mother had when she died, getting on with it means sticking to the causes he has always avowed, either directly through his Prince’s Trust Canada or indirectly through the people and places he has championed during his decades-long royal apprenticeship as Prince of Wales. But he now has to be more cautious in his avowals because constitutional monarchs are obliged to eschew any hint of an overt political agenda. He has already shown he is prepared to do exactly that. In the days following the death of Elizabeth II, he managed the transition flawlessly.
Many Canadians do not realize Charles has visited Canada more than any other member of the royal family except the late queen, and he has been to dramatically more far-flung Canadian destinations than most Canadians. His first official visit took place more than half a century ago in 1970 when he was just 21. The extensive tour started with his solo arrival in Ottawa, though he eventually joined his parents and younger sister, Princess Anne, for a centenary celebration of Manitoba’s entry into Confederation and a trip north to what is now Nunavut. On a second trip, a year or so later, he returned to the North, which he loves, and went under the ice in a diving suit, winning him a certain reputation as an “action man.” On those initial visits 50 years ago, he impressed people with his straightforward approach. These visits even had a realpolitik aspect — to reinforce Canadian sovereignty over the High Arctic.
Subsequent travels, which came to be known as “homecomings” to reinforce efforts to Canadianize the Crown, have taken Charles to all of Canada’s provinces and major cities. He has been subject to intense coverage, which bordered on intrusive during his first marriage to Princess Diana. He likely wished that his private life could remain more private, but different times call for different approaches and perspectives. When, for example, the famous constitutional essayist Walter Bagehot warned in the 19th century about shedding too much light on the monarchy, it was because he believed such exposure would diminish our sense of awe and the instinct of deference around royalty. “The monarchy’s mystery is its life. We must not let daylight upon the magic,” he wrote.
In his wildest imagination, Bagehot could never have conceived the kind of klieg lights that would be focused on the institution in our time. Nor would he have been able to understand that the level of contemporary intrusiveness into the life of King Charles and his family would, ironically, serve to reinforce the fascination for monarchy. It has also underlined the relatable humanity of the King, making the fact that he soldiers on seem even more admirable.
But soldier on is exactly what Charles Philip Arthur George does best. On his last homecoming to Canada a few months before his mother died last year, he made a special point of focusing on Indigenous issues and reconciliation. Going right back to his young adulthood in the 1960s, Charles as Prince of Wales was urging anyone who would listen to try and understand that Indigenous voices had crucial messages for the rest of us — messages about the importance of not despoiling the land, messages about respecting kinship and shared values, messages about settling disputes, messages about acknowledging and making amends for past iniquities if we want a more equitable future. His openness to discussion and reconciliation means he will be under intense pressure to deal with the wrongs of the past, but he doesn’t give any indication that he is wary of doing exactly that. In fact, his reign at this time in Canada’s story offers a new chance to change the plot line for the better.
For all the pains he took on this front and on climate change and a host of other issues, including everything from architectural brutalism and protection of the countryside to animal welfare and genetically modified crops, he was subjected to extraordinary criticism. Yet to his credit, he understood very well from a young age that if he was to make a difference on account of the role he was handed at birth, he had better just get on with it. That’s because it would be a long time before he became king, and it was up to him to define what role he could play as heir to the throne. Once he was Sovereign there was a constitutional straightjacket waiting for him which would govern and temper everything he said or did. There are no guidebooks on how to be Prince of Wales, but there is plenty of precedence on what it would be like if he did nothing: the sons of George III, Queen Victoria and George V — all of them using the title Prince of Wales — were studies of what not to do. Charles could have wasted all those years waiting for his coronation, but he didn’t. He has lived long enough to see many of his causes finally become our causes.
Closer to his own royal family home, it has been clear for some time that he intends to pare back some of the trappings of monarchy, starting with a reduction in the size of “The Firm” as his late father, Prince Philip, once dubbed the business of the working royal family.
And what of his queen consort? Like the King himself, she soldiers on, something she has also done remarkably well. From the moment Queen Elizabeth II died, the spotlight has been intense on them as a couple, and it is clear that they know how to handle it. They have clearly found ways to support one another, and that mutual support will be crucial in the days and years ahead.
As I am writing this article, Charles and Camilla are just ending a first foreign trip (to Germany). King Charles III and his current role provides a great example of how the once unbridled power of the monarchy evolved into the dignified model of power curbed and put to the service of the people through their elected representatives in Parliament. Powerlessness is, in fact, King Charles’s strongest card to play as he tries to deploy his unique platform to urge us all into taking more responsibility for the world we inhabit and will be passing on to our children.
The trappings of monarchy, which will be on stunning display on his coronation day, are just that: trappings, full of historical memories and romantic imaginings. But the good man at the centre of this drama is now set to show the world how the evolution of constitutional kingship can enhance and improve the structure of democracy. It’s a mysterious business, I suppose, but Canadians with our own distinctive history are a crucial part of that narrative, and that’s why this coronation resonates so strongly for those who see the Crown as part and parcel of our history and who we are.
John Fraser is the founding president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada and an award-winning journalist, author, and royal authority.