From the archive: happy 21st birthday Prince Charles

Chris Hall
‘A singular and self-sufficient young royal’: Prince Charles is photographed in London at the age of 20. Photograph: Peter Kemp/AP

In hindsight, the opening sentence of the Observer Magazine’s profile of Prince Charles the month before his investiture as the Prince of Wales (‘Heir Unpresumptive’, 15 June 1969) looks cruelly apposite: ‘Prince Charles was born late on the evening of Sunday 14 November 1948, some two weeks later than expected.’

Fifty odd years later we’re still waiting for his arrival, wondering what kind of a monarch he’ll be. (Nothing like how he’s been as Prince of Wales, he has recently claimed on the occasion of his 70th birthday: ‘I’m not that stupid.’)

Given that he was in his final year at Cambridge, the piece is largely about Charles’s schooling, focusing on ‘the inner resources of this singular and self-sufficient young royal’. That’s right, the man who once shrieked in horror at the clingfilm covering his food and whose valet it’s said squeezes his toothpaste.

But then it was hard for Charles from the very start. ‘Nursery discipline was… possibly more faith in smack than Spock, supplemented by a quarter-deck reprimand from Father.’ Ouch. ‘Charles was a tractable child, already somewhat self-contained and undemanding in his attitude to life, showing a quiet gravity in his reception of visitors.’ Double ouch.

‘He need not strive to be an expert,’ the profile continues. ‘It is probably more comfortable for himself and others if he is not.’ He’s certainly proven himself to be not an expert in a few subjects, notably science (viz homeopathy) and architecture (viz Poundbury), so top marks!

Poor Charles wasn’t very good as football captain either – Cheam school scored four goals against the visitors’ 82. He is ‘not a natural competitor’ the profile notes. But it’s rather coy in revealing quite how badly he did, considering the money spent – he managed just five O-levels and two A-levels (history B, French C).

But along with the obvious privilege, there is a sadness. The piece mentions that Charles was asked in a recent radio interview when he had realised he was heir to the throne. ‘It’s something that dawns on you with the most ghastly inexorable sense,’ he replied.