King Charles III lives in a palace, travels in a chauffeur-driven Bentley and is one of Britain’s richest men, but he’s similar to many of his subjects in one very basic way: His family life is complicated — very complicated.
There’s a second wife, an embarrassing brother, and an angry son and daughter-in-law, all with allies who aren’t shy about whispering family secrets in the ears of friendly reporters.
The new king will hope to keep a lid on those tensions when his royally blended family joins as many as 2,800 guests for Charles’ coronation on May 6 at Westminster Abbey. All except Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, are attending.
How Charles manages his family drama over the coming weeks and years is crucial to the king’s efforts to preserve and protect the 1,000-year-old hereditary monarchy he now embodies. Without the respect of the public, the House of Windsor risks being lumped together with pop stars, social media influencers and reality TV contestants as fodder for the British tabloids, undermining the cachet that underpins its role in public life.
Royal historian Hugo Vickers says people should look past the sensational headlines and focus on what Charles accomplishes now that he is king.
“In a sense, he sort of becomes a new man when he becomes king,” said Vickers, author of Coronation: The Crowning of Elizabeth II.
“Look at him as he is now, look at him the way he is approaching everything, look at his positivity and look at how right he’s been on so many issues,” he added. “Unfortunately, he had those difficult times with his marriages and some of the other issues, but we live in a very tricky era.”
The horror show came back to haunt Charles last week, when the king’s estranged younger son, Prince Harry, dropped a new round of allegations Tuesday about the royal family into the middle of the coronation buildup.
In written evidence for his invasion of privacy claim against a British newspaper, Harry claimed his father prevented him from filing the lawsuit a decade ago. The prince said Charles didn’t want to dredge up graphic testimony about his extramarital affair with the former Camilla Parker-Bowles when he was married to the late Princess Diana.
Diana was the mother of Harry and his elder brother and heir to the throne, William, the Prince of Wales. Camilla, now the queen consort, went on to marry Charles in 2005 and will be crowned alongside her husband at Westminster Abbey.
If the past is any indication, attention will now shift to body language, seating plans and even wardrobe choices during the coronation, as royal watchers look for any signs of a thaw in the family tensions.
But Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine, doesn’t expect Harry to have a lot of contact with the rest of his family. In any case, Harry won’t be in the U.K. for long, so there’s not much time for fence mending.
“The stuff that we discovered (Tuesday) is really not going to help his cause,” Little said. “But, you know, will there be time to go over all that with the king and the Prince of Wales? Unlikely.”
The royal soap opera didn’t begin with the current generation of royals. After all, Edward VIII sparked a constitutional crisis in 1936 when he abdicated the throne to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson.
Charles’ grandfather, George VI, is credited with saving the monarchy with a life of low-key public service after he replaced his flamboyant elder brother. The late Queen Elizabeth II burnished the family’s reputation during a 70-year reign, in which she became a symbol of stability who cheered the nation’s victories and comforted it during darker times.
But Charles grew up in a different era, under the glare of media attention as deference to the monarchy faded.
He has been a controversial figure ever since the very public breakdown of his marriage to Diana, who was revered by many people for her looks and her compassion.
Diana alleged that there had been “three people” in the marriage, pointing the finger at Charles’ longtime love Camilla Parker-Bowles.
Camilla, initially reviled by Diana’s fans, has worked hard to rehabilitate her image. Her ex-husband and their children are expected to attend the coronation, with her grandsons serving as pages of honor.
She supports a raft of causes, ranging from adult literacy to protecting the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. But even that effort has sparked tensions.
Harry claimed in his memoir Spare that the senior royals leaked unflattering stories about him to the news media in return for more favorable coverage, particularly to improve Camilla’s image.
At the time of their marriage in 2018, Harry and Meghan were celebrated as the new face of the monarchy. Meghan, a biracial American actress, brought a touch of Hollywood glamour to the royal family and many observers hoped she would help the Windsors connect with younger people in an increasingly multicultural nation.
Those hopes quickly crumbled amid allegations that palace officials were insensitive to Meghan’s mental health struggles as she adjusted to royal life.
Harry and Meghan walked away from frontline royal duties three years ago and moved to California, from which they have lobbed repeated critiques at the House of Windsor.
In a 2021 interview with Oprah Winfrey they hinted at racism in the palace, alleging that one unidentified member of the royal family had inquired about the color of their unborn son’s skin before his birth.
Harry, in a Netflix series broadcast last year, said the episode was an example of unconscious bias and that the royal family needed to “learn and grow” so it could be “part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”
The repeated attacks led to months of speculation about whether the couple would be invited to the coronation. The palace finally answered that question two weeks ago when it announced that Harry would attend but Meghan would remain in California with their two children.
And then there is Charles’ brother Prince Andrew, who became a toxic time bomb inside the royal family when the world learned about his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and the financier’s long-time girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell.
Epstein, who was convicted of sex crimes in 2008, died in a New York jail cell in 2019 while awaiting trial on a second set of charges. Maxwell was convicted last year of helping procure young girls for Epstein and is serving a 20-year sentence at a federal prison in Florida.
Andrew gave up his royal duties in 2019 after a disastrous interview with the BBC in which he tried to explain away his links to Epstein and Maxwell. He was stripped of his honorary military titles and patronages as he prepared to defend a civil lawsuit filed by a woman who said she was forced to have sex with the prince when she was a teenager.
Andrew denied the allegations but settled the suit last year before it came to trial. While terms of the agreement weren’t released, The Sun newspaper reported that Charles and the late queen paid the bulk of the estimated 7 million pound ($8.7 million) settlement.
“I think it was inevitable that when Charles became king, a lot of the personal stuff would come back to haunt him,” Little said. “I think as far as the king is concerned, he just has to shrug his shoulders and get on with the job in hand.”
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