Charles Charts a Path as a King for All Holiday Seasons
LONDON — King Charles III marked 100 days on the British throne on Dec. 16 by visiting a Jewish community center in London, where he danced the hora at a Hanukkah party. It was a joyful end to a day that had begun with dismal headlines about the poisoned relationship between his sons, William and Harry.
And it captured much about the early days of the king’s reign: a down-to-earth debut that showcased how Charles would be a very different monarch from his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, yet one still shadowed by the same family discord that haunted the queen until her death in September at 96.
The continuity, as well as the differences, were on vivid display on Sunday when Charles, 74, took on one of the queen’s marquee tasks: a Christmas Day address to the nation. Standing in the quire of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, he remembered his mother and offered his people comfort after a year of loss and upheaval.
“While Christmas is, of course, a Christian celebration,” the king said, “the power of light overcoming darkness is celebrated across the boundaries of faith and belief.” He thanked “churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and gurdwaras” — where Sikhs worship — for their good works “at this time of great anxiety and hardship.”
The king’s nod to other religious faiths reflected a longstanding interest during his decades as heir to the throne. It was the same impulse that led him to join, gamely if a little stiffly, in the Jewish folk dance, where one of his partners was Eva Schloss, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor and stepsister of Anne Frank.
It also contributed to his decision to lay out a tray of treats for the Hindu festival Diwali when Rishi Sunak went to Buckingham Palace in October to receive the king’s blessing as Britain’s new prime minister.
Charles’s words were a striking contrast to the queen’s, which dwelt on her Christian faith in her Christmas messages. And it has been more than words: The day after his mother’s death, the king jumped from his car to shake hands with mourners who had gathered outside the palace gates.
“He has reached out more than the queen did,” said Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at King’s College London and an authority on the constitutional monarchy. “She would not allow people to touch her.”
The new king’s more inclusive style is perhaps the most distinctive feature of his fledgling monarchy, Professor Bogdanor said, one that he argued would equip the king to “represent the whole country in a way which no politician can during a period of turbulence and political instability.”
More on the British Royal Family
- Aide Resigns: Two weeks after she was pressed repeatedly by a royal household member about which country she came from, a British-born Black woman returned to Buckingham Palace to receive a face-to-face apology from her interrogator.
- Harry vs. William: In the latest installment of the Netflix documentary “Harry & Meghan,” the younger prince made several incendiary allegations about his brother.
- Boston Visit: Prince William and Princess Catherine of Wales recently made a whirlwind visit to Boston. Swaths of the city were unimpressed.
- ‘The Crown’: Months ago, the new season of the Netflix drama was shaping up as another public-relations headache for Prince Charles. But then he became king.
And yet Charles’s speech was also a statement of continuity, something that royal experts say has been his overriding priority since ascending to the throne. That reflects a recognition that he replaced a beloved figure whose seven-decade reign made her the only sovereign most Britons had ever known.
Charles is unlikely ever to win the affection showered on Elizabeth. To some, he will never be more than a transitional figure between her and his son and heir, William. After all, it took him years to move beyond his awkward youth and the calamity of his divorce from Diana, Princess of Wales, to regain the public’s trust.
To the extent that Charles has settled into the job with little public complaint, royal experts said, he has already been successful.
“The greatest challenge he had to clear was the transition,” said Peter Hunt, a former royal correspondent for the BBC. “What he needed to avoid was to have people saying, ‘Why him? Why do we still have a monarch?’ He’s managed to do that.”
Charles’s reign has not been without bumps. The palace faced accusations of institutional racism last month when a former lady-in-waiting to the queen repeatedly asked a Black British guest at a reception, “Where are you from?” and seemed not to accept the woman’s insistence that she was British.
The palace swiftly condemned the aide, Susan Hussey, stripped her of her job and brokered a meeting with the guest, Ngozi Fulani, at which Ms. Hussey apologized. It was a sign that Charles, prodded by William, was determined to show he would not tolerate any perception of racist behavior in the royal household. William issued an even sharper condemnation than the palace.
“There’s clearly been a greater sensitivity in the royal household having to do with the issue of race,” said Ed Owens, a historian who studies the monarchy. “Getting on to the front foot on this issue is something they want to do.”
The king has been less forthcoming about the latest accusations aired by his younger son, Harry, who claimed in a recent Netflix documentary that his father lied, and his brother screamed at him, during a meeting with the queen to negotiate the withdrawal of Harry and his American-born wife, Meghan, from royal life.
Rather than dispute the accusations, the palace let it be known that Harry would be invited to his father’s coronation in May. Royal experts said that showed Charles’s determination to act as a healing force. But the documentary reinforced that the rift between the brothers was deep, abiding and, for now, irreconcilable.
The palace, Mr. Owens said, still has work to do. It was tainted by the disclosure that Jeremy Clarkson, a broadcaster who was harshly criticized for writing what critics said was a misogynistic newspaper column about Meghan, had attended a Christmas lunch hosted by Camilla, the queen consort.
“They need to move past these individuals,” Mr. Owens said, referring to Mr. Clarkson and Ms. Hussey. “They’re scoring own goals,” he said, using a phrase for a soccer player who kicks the ball into his own net.
Some associations are harder to control: In November, the king played host at a state banquet for President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, one of the Commonwealth nations, only to watch him face an impeachment vote a week later on charges of money laundering.
In many ways, the king’s style has changed little from when he was Prince of Wales. But behind the scenes, he has been forced to give up his advocacy on issues like climate change, which once led a former aide, Mark Bolland, to describe him as a “dissident working against the prevailing political consensus.”
Charles acknowledged that his new role would require him to steer clear of political causes. That new status was brought home shortly after the queen’s death when Liz Truss, the prime minister at the time, counseled him against attending the United Nations climate summit in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.
The king was frustrated, people with ties to the palace said, though he did not push back. Instead, he threw a reception on the eve of the conference, inviting Mr. Sunak; John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy; and Stella McCartney, the fashion designer, who has promoted sustainable manufacturing.
Experts said the episode might have helped Charles by allaying any suspicions about the role he would play as king.
“He pledged to serve as a constitutional monarch,” Mr. Hunt said. “So far, his actions have matched those words.”
Charles has turned over his climate portfolio to William, who traveled to Boston last month with his wife, Catherine, to present awards given out by the Earthshot Prize, an organization founded by William to help entrepreneurs develop solutions to climate change and environmental issues.
But William has so far steered clear of his father’s other charities, including the Prince’s Foundation. That might be wise: the police investigated the educational foundation after reports that Charles offered a wealthy Saudi a knighthood in return for a donation. A spokesman for Charles said he had no knowledge of any quid pro quo.
The next big test for the king will be his coronation on May 6. The palace has signaled that it plans to shorten the traditional length of the service, reduce the guest list and dispense with some of the more antiquated rituals, in deference to the cost-of-living crisis that is afflicting millions of Britons.
Still unclear, however, is how Charles will integrate leaders of other religious faiths into what is a profoundly Christian ritual.
A few days after the queen’s death, Charles gathered more than 30 leaders from religious faiths at the palace. He told them that while he was a “committed Anglican Christian,” he viewed it as his duty to “protect the diversity of our country, including by protecting the space for faith itself.”
Charles faces other headaches, including Harry’s memoir, scheduled to be published next month. People with ties to the palace fear it may plumb his troubled relationship with his father more than the Netflix documentary “Harry & Meghan” did. That series focused more on Harry’s differences with William. Optimists point out that Charles emerged largely unscathed from the latest season of “The Crown,” even though it lingered on his breakup with Diana.
The king, not surprisingly, got a bounce in the polls after he took the throne. Since then, his popularity has fallen a bit: He is viewed positively by 63 percent of respondents and negatively by 28 percent, according to a tracking poll by the market research firm YouGov. Those numbers place him behind William and Catherine.
Still, given his checkered past and the ups and downs of his public reputation, King Charles is clearly enjoying a honeymoon.
In an editorial last week that excoriated Harry and Meghan, The Sunday Times said of the king’s first 100 days, “He has proved to be more agile, sensitive and popular than the pessimistic forecasts when he was Prince of Wales.”