Prince Charles could be forgiven for feeling a bit grumpy these days.
Close to many people’s retirement age, he’s still waiting for the position he was groomed for: King of England. And he’s preparing for the wedding that will make his eldest son Prince William and Kate Middleton the fresh new faces of a monarchy sorely in need of renewal.
That leaves Charles, who once cut a dashing figure himself, something of a forgotten man.
He is sandwiched between his mother Queen Elizabeth II, treasured for her steadfast dignity and devotion to duty since her coronation in 1953, and William, who carries a hint of the late Princess Diana’s glamour wherever he goes.
“He’s in a very tricky position,” said Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine. “By next year his mother will have been on the throne for 60 years, she’s the only monarch many of us have ever known. When she came in, she was very young with two small children and there was huge empathy for her, but Charles won’t get that when he comes to the throne.”
He said the failure of Charles’ marriage to Diana - and the role that his current wife, Camilla, played in that doomed union - has given the public too much information about the man who would be king.
“We’ve heard his private telephone conversations,” Little said, referring to embarrassing intimate calls that were intercepted and published, giving Britons a glimpse into Charles’ fantasies.
“The mystique is well and truly gone, so he will come to the throne with all that baggage. Charles has always been rather eclipsed, by Diana, and now by his older son, who is about to marry a beautiful bride. Charles just accepts that for the foreseeable future the spotlight will shine on William and Catherine, as we’re going to have to start calling Kate.”
Charles’ problems with Diana are ancient history, and Camilla’s tattered image as “the other woman” has to a substantial degree been repaired, but there has been lasting damage to the prince’s reputation. He looks and sounds tired, generating little excitement with his public appearances.
The 62-year-old prince even seemed a bit out of sorts when William and Middleton happily announced their engagement in November, commenting that it was about time since the young couple had “played house long enough.”
It is hard to remember the halcyon days when he was seen as a stylish young bachelor linked to some of the most beautiful women in Europe. He dated a series of young aristocratic women and fashion models before proposing to Diana Spencer - whose elder sister he had dated - in 1981.
The British press dubbed Charles “Action Man” because of his zest for challenging, even dangerous, sporting pursuits. He was known for steeplechasing, polo, scuba diving, parachuting, piloting helicopters, skiing, sailing and wind-surfing back when that sport was new.
He was known as a skilled foxhunter and angler who fished for salmon each summer in frigid, fast-flowing rivers.
Now he is viewed by some people as slightly potty _ a stooping man who talks to his plants and goes on about the virtues of organic food while relying on a retinue of loyal aides to handle life’s more tedious tasks, like putting toothpaste on his toothbrush.
This view, reflected in polls that consistently show most Britons would prefer that William become the next king, does not take into account the serious work Charles has undertaken, said Noel Cox, a law professor and royal scholar at Aberystwyth University in Wales.
He said the heir to the throne has no defined constitutional function but that Charles has used the position to champion organic farming, traditional architecture and environmental causes.
“The position of the heir to the throne is always difficult because you don’t have a role until your parent dies,” Cox said. “From his earliest years, he recognized he had the choice of either being just a figurehead, with no particular function, or to carve out a niche and do something worthwhile, and I would say Charles has actually been quite successful in combining his personal interests and making it into a role.”
Cox said Charles, who has had a rocky relationship with the news media, may actually enjoy being out of the limelight while the media focus on William and his photogenic new wife.
Charles has been largely successful in persuading the British public to accept his marriage to Camilla, who in the aftermath of Diana’s 1997 car crash death was blamed by many for the royal breakup.
One of his tactics was to make it clear that Camilla would not take the title of “queen” even when he became king, a concession that mollified some of her critics who had wanted Diana to have that honor.
But Charles seemed to backtrack slightly in late November when he told an American television network that Camilla “could” become queen when he becomes king, a statement that made headlines throughout Britain.
The question of Camilla’s title really won’t be decided until events bring Charles to the throne.
Charles’ primary function on his son’s wedding day is to host a Buckingham Palace dinner and dance party for William and Middleton and many of the young couple’s closest friends.
He will be expected to provide the food and the wine and to make a heartfelt toast - and then make himself scarce so the kids can have a good time.
It’s a role thousands of parents play at their children’s wedding receptions each year, and one Charles may find himself playing for some time to come.
Poor Charles. It'll be really weird when he becomes king, I can't imagine a world without Queen Elizabeth II :(