King Charles’s First Year: How He Handled Power, Money and His Family

Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott.
King Charles III is seen in his horse-drawn carriage outside Westminster Abbey on May 6 in London.

LONDON – It’s no longer difficult or weird to say “King Charles” and not “Prince Charles” in the way it was in the first months after Queen Elizabeth II died.

A year since Charles III ascended to the throne – on Sept. 8, 2022 – a majority of Brits say he is doing a good job as monarch, though he’s not as popular as his mum was.

Charles, 74, still has much to prove in terms of how successfully he can wield soft power and maintain the relevance of the monarchy in modern times. Expectations that he might “slim down” the institution – in terms of how many senior royals are involved, but also the costs – have yet to be met. And he doesn’t appear to have made much progress on what to do about his disgraced brother, Prince Andrew, or estranged son, Prince Harry.

Royal biographer Sally Bedell Smith credited Charles with being more open, connecting with the public and showing himself to be a “very good extemporaneous speaker, much better than his mother.”

“He seems to be enjoying himself, very comfortable in the role,” she said, adding “one hears that he is surprised at how much work there is, doing all the boxes.” As head of state, one of his duties is signing official documents carried in red boxes.

But a year in, “what we don’t know yet is what big picture Charles has in mind,” Bedell Smith said. “There’s been a lot around the margins.”

Charles’s coronation was both medieval and modern

Charles’s biggest success of the past year? Royal watchers pointed to the coronation on May 6.

“The coronation had his stamp all over it, a mixture of tradition and what Britain is like today,” said Craig Prescott, a constitutional expert at Royal Holloway, within the University of London. “It all feels a bit sharper, more modern.”

Charles played both the leading role and the director for a celebration that remained deeply religious and steeped in tradition, but was more inclusive of other faiths, gave a nod toward environmentalism and was a somewhat scaled-back affair – albeit with golden carriages.

And amid all the pageantry, Charles managed to ease Camilla into people’s consciousness as queen – quietly dropping the “consort” caveat from palace communications, overruling the sentiments of those who continued to harbor loyalty to his first wife, Princess Diana.

Charles has reined in his public activism

Another delicate matter for Charles was how he would transition from activist prince to unifying king.

Unlike his mother, he is known to have strong opinions – about climate change, architecture, hedgerows. He spent a lifetime advocating for his causes. And yet there’s an idea that political neutrality is essential for the survival of the monarchy in modern times.

Charles has demonstrated that he can rein it all in – indeed, some royal watchers wonder aloud whether he has been kept on too tight a leash by his coterie of advisers.

As prince, Charles had been a star speaker at climate-oriented events, including the United Nations COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. As a new king, he agreed with then-Prime Minister Liz Truss that he would not attend COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Instead, he hosted a pre-summit reception at Buckingham Palace in November, with guests including U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry and COP President Alok Sharma. And in July, Charles met with President Biden and big-time philanthropists and financiers at Windsor Castle, as part of an effort to mobilize climate finance.

Hugo Vickers, a royal biographer, said Charles has been deploying soft power behind the scenes. “He’s very active. But he’s doing it privately, as a lot of monarchs have done,” Vickers said. “They don’t come out in the street and bang cymbals and tell you what they’re thinking.”

Charles in his first year hosted one big state dinner: for the president of South Africa. He undertook one overseas state visit: to Germany, where he spoke in both German and English and managed to avoid the word Brexit.

France was supposed to be part of that trip, too, but pension protests in the streets of Paris forced a postponement of that part of the tour, now rescheduled for later this month.

Charles hasn’t done much to reduce the cost of the crown

Beyond the coronation, some of the best headlines for Charles this past year came when he declared that profits from new wind farm deals negotiated on royal land should be redirected “for the wider public good.” The Washington Post noted at the time that the king may have been trying to generate good publicity ahead of a government review of royal finances.

The Treasury later announced that the taxpayer funded stipend for the royals would remain unchanged next year at 86.3 million pounds ($107.5 million). It is expected to rise to 124.8 million pounds ($155.4 million) in 2025 and 126 million pounds ($157 million) in 2026.

Officials pointed out that the amount would have been far higher had they not changed a funding formula – the portion of Crown Estate landholding profits used to calculate the Sovereign Grant had typically been set at 15 percent, was raised to 25 percent to cover Buckingham Palace renovations, but would be reduced to 12 percent starting next year.

That’s just one source of income for the royal family, though. And some critics argue there should be a more fundamental review – including questions about why the modern monarchy should be allowed lucrative tax exemptions, pay little to nothing to live in some of the finest palaces in the world and continue to profit from vast tracts of land and the seabed just because of ancient custom.

Charles’s relationship with his brother and son remain fraught

Trouble within the royal family predated Charles’s time on the throne. But in becoming king, he inherited responsibility for managing it.

Royal watchers say he has been somewhat less indulgent of Andrew than their mother was. Elizabeth stripped Andrew of his titles and largely banished him from public life, but was reported to have contributed to the settlement of a sexual abuse case against him.

Biographers say there is no chance of Andrew returning to royal duties while Charles is king. The prince was a guest at the coronation but played no formal role. And yet, despite reports that he might be asked to move, Andrew still resides at Royal Lodge, a sprawling mansion on the Windsor Estate. He was also included in the family’s traditional summer vacation at Balmoral in Scotland, prominently driving to church with the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Relations between Charles and Harry, meanwhile, appear to have grown even frostier – especially after Harry lashed out at his family in a self-produced Netflix documentary and a memoir. Harry came alone for his father’s coronation and left quickly afterward. He did not appear to be meeting with family when he was briefly in Britain this week.

But royal biographers say it may be significant that the palace did not respond to claims in the documentary or book.

Charles is “leaving the door open for Harry should he ever want to return,” Vickers said.

Charles has supporters, but not so many ardent fans

Charles isn’t adored like his mother was. Even many people who object to the monarchy as an institution felt a fondness for Elizabeth. A year after her death, she is still the most popular British royal – followed by Prince William, Princess Anne, Princess Catherine and then Charles. Last weekend, fans of the late queen gathered outside Buckingham Palace, where they paraded corgis wearing crowns in her honor.

Following Elizabeth’s 70-year reign was never going to be easy for Charles.

“She transcended being queen, she became this global figure,” Prescott said. Charles, on the other hand, “is much more normal, more consistent with other monarchs.”

But the change of sovereign for the first time in seven decades has energized the republican movement and given greater urgency to questions about the role of the monarchy in modern times.

Charles’s accession prompted renewed calls from within Commonwealth realms to ditch the British monarch as their head of state. Australia announced it wouldn’t put Charles on its $5 bill.

Within Britain, while the anti-monarchists remain a minority, they have been out in force in a way that never happened during Elizabeth’s reign. Protesters holding “not my king” posters have become the norm at royal events.

Bedell Smith said there was still time for Charles to grow in people’s esteem. “It took a little time for the queen as well,” she said. “It was always her mother who was beloved and the queen was admired. But after her mother’s death, she really did become beloved and the nation’s grandmother. Will Charles become Grandpa Britain? I don’t know. Maybe.”