On Monday, Charles III entered Buckingham Palace for the first time as king. It was the British people’s first real chance to greet their new sovereign. Huge crowds thronged outside the gates, letting out deafening cheers every time he raised his hand to wave. His Majesty seemed genuinely touched—and a little surprised.
For decades, Charles has been mildly unpopular with the British public. For half a century, he has been the British media’s favorite punching-bag. Films and television shows about the Royal Family always cast him in a negative light. On a good day, his approval rating hovers around 50 percent.
Yet this anti-Charles sentiment has always seemed a little forced. Britain’s new king is one of the most fascinating men in public life.
The 70 years he spent waiting to inherit the throne certainly were not wasted. Charles used his family’s wealth and influence exactly as one ought to do. Above all, he has devoted himself to good works. He is not only Britain’s foremost philanthropist, but also her greatest patron of the arts. And he has used his spare time to broaden his own horizons. He has traveled almost constantly, studying with the greatest philosophers, painters, and poets (and polo players) in the world. Once upon a time, we would have called him a renaissance man.
Charles is the first “high church” monarch since James II. The British aristocracy have always been decidedly “low church.” They prefer simpler forms of worship, more in keeping with the Protestant tradition. Meanwhile, Charles—now Supreme Governor of the Church of England—has one foot in the Orthodox Church. As Prince of Wales, he was known to sneak away from Clarence House to go on retreat at Mount Athos and created a Byzantine-style prayer corner in his private residence.
Still, Charles is firmly devoted to the Anglican Church. He has long served as a patron of the Prayer Book Society, an organization for liturgical conservatives.
Charles is a theological conservative as well. During a trip to Pennsylvania, he opted to worship at a Presbyterian church rather than the local Episcopal cathedral. (The Episcopal Church is a member of the Anglican Communion, whose “Mother Church” is the C of E. It is also the Communion’s most liberal province.) When a layman asked him why, he reportedly said, “You know very, very well why I cannot worship in an Episcopal Church.”
The King is also a follower of the Traditionalist School, a group of scholars and philosophers who are committed to the idea of “resacralization.” As Charles himself explained,
The teachings of the Traditionalists should not, in any sense, be taken to mean that they seek, as it were, to repeat the past—or, indeed, simply to draw a distinction between the present and the past. Theirs is not a nostalgia for the past, but a yearning for the sacred and, if they defend the past, it is because in the pre-modern world all civilizations were marked by the presence of the sacred.
Charles’s affinity for the Traditionalist School explains his novel translation of the title Fidei Defensor. First bestowed on Henry VIII by Leo X (before all the unpleasantness), it is usually translated as “Defender of the Faith”—that is, the Christian faith. Yet Charles floated the idea of calling himself “Defender of Faith”—that is, a belief in the presence of the sacred.
The idea went over badly, even with Rowan Williams, then archbishop of Canterbury. Usually seen as a moderate, Williams insisted that the monarch “has a relationship with the Christian Church of a kind he does not have with other faith communities.” Happily, Charles dropped the whole business.
This Traditionalism may also explain his (in)famous love for Islam. This affinity hasn’t made him many friends on the British right. Yet Charles isn’t naïve. He has studied extensively with Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a Sufi philosopher who was exiled from Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini. The King understands Islam at its best and at its worst. So, he feels a duty to help “build bridges between Islam and Christianity and to dispel ignorance and misunderstanding.” On the other hand, he has raised millions of dollars to help Christians who are being persecuted by Islamists in the Middle East.
Charles III is a traditionalist (with a little “t”) as well. To quote His Majesty,
These traditions, which form the basis of mankind’s most civilized values and have been handed down to us over many centuries, are not just part of our inner religious life. They have an intensely practical relevance to the creation of real beauty in the arts, to an architecture which brings harmony and inspiration to people’s lives and to the development within the individual of a sense of balance which is, to my mind, the hallmark of a civilized person.
Charles has spent most of his adult life in his efforts to recreate that balance. In 2005 he founded the Prince’s School of Traditional arts, which seeks to “to continue the living traditions of the world's sacred and traditional art forms.” He also serves as patron of the Temenos Academy, whose fellows include localist Hossein Nasr, Rowan Williams, and the American localist Wendell Berry.
I think the affinity between Charles and Berry is instructive. Both are traditionalists, though not exactly conservatives. They’re more what my friend Bill Kauffman would call “reactionary radicals.” Both are critics of industrialism, consumer capitalism, and scientism. Both champion agrarianism. They believe that small-scale agriculture (that is, family farms) are the only basis for a stable and happy society. As a matter of fact, Charles has written a couple of books on organic gardening.
Both are also what we might call Christian ecologists. They’re environmentalists driven less by fear of climate change than by love for God’s creation. As the new king wrote in his book Harmony, “We are not the masters of creation. No matter how sophisticated our technology has become, the simple fact is that we are not separate from Nature. Just like everything else, we are nature.”
The King is no primitivist, however. Charles is also a pioneer of the New Urbanism. Since the 1980s, the King has been the most outspoken critic of modernist architecture in the English-speaking world. And, here, he pulls no punches. “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe,” he said: “when it knocked down our buildings it did not replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.”
In 1993, he decided to put his theories to the test. Charles hired the architect Léon Krier to build a brand-new community on four hundred acres of grassland outside of Dorchester. The result is the town of Poundbury.
In Poundbury, all the buildings are designed in the local styles of South West England. Of course, there are no skyscrapers; a “tall” building might be four or five stories tall. Shops and residences are mixed; there’s no hideous business district surrounded by soulless housing units. This also minimizes the need for cars, saving residents time and money while reducing the need for emissions.
Even the King’s worst critics have been forced to admit that his “feudal Disneyland” has been a triumph. Poundbury is beautiful. It is prosperous. And it proves that life can still be lived on a human scale.
Of course, the King is far from perfect. Britain’s media will be sure to point that out whenever they get the chance—and whenever they don’t. Yet every now and then the press will also shed light on Charles’s virtues. They don’t mean to, of course. Usually, they’re taking a shot at him and the bullet ricochets. Still, these moments have allowed the British people to catch a real glimpse of their new king.
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Take the “black spider memos.” For decades, it had been rumored that Prince Charles wrote to senior politicians with the hope of effecting policy changes. The media had long dubbed him the “meddling prince.” Then, in 2015, the Guardian (a far-left British newspaper) convinced a government tribunal to publish the letters in full.
The monarchy’s opponents were thrilled. After all, the British Crown has survived in the 21st century by being purely apolitical. Elizabeth II was content to play a purely symbolic role in government. But not Charles. As king, it was suggested, he would insist upon his right to rule as well as reign. The British people (they said) must choose: monarchy or democracy? Of course, the choice was clear. It seemed to spell death for England’s thousand-year-old crown.
Once the public actually got to read the memos, however, all of that changed. They saw him pleading with Tony Blair not to cut subsidies to beef farmers, and instead to help them develop better treatments for bovine tuberculosis. He urged the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to develop better public housing for low-income families. He shared with the Minister for the Environment his concerns about the destruction of rainforests and the overfishing of sea bass.The media had always sought to paint Charles as a goof and a snob. Yet his letters showed him to be witty, self-effacing, intelligent, and compassionate. The British people were amazed and delighted. For a moment, they loved the prince nearly as much as he loved them. That is who Charles is. He is a good man. And he’ll be a good king, if we let him.