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Charles III has been diagnosed with cancer. Hugo Vickers salutes a biography of a fine King

Blog | By Hugo Vickers | By Hugo Vickers | Feb 05, 2024

Illustration of King Charles III by Gary Wing

Charles III has been diagnosed with cancer. Hugo Vickers salutes a biography of a fine King

Having just plodded through the final episodes of The Crown with undisguised displeasure, I found it a tonic to turn to Robert Hardman’s considerably more welcome book.

It is authoritative from the start, since Hardman was able to talk to the Princess Royal (always worth listening to), to the King’s advisers at a high level, and sources such as Dr Jill Biden, Rishi Sunak and the Queen’s sister, Annabel Elliot. He also spent a year observing the King at close quarters for the documentary shown on Boxing Day 2023.

In a review of a book by a colleague/friend, it is acceptable to tease him a bit – and tempting to adopt an Ali Forbes approach (older Oldie-readers will recall Ali’s meticulous dissection, in his reviews, of the authors). I need to explore his modus operandi.

In his years at first the Daily Telegraph and now the Daily Mail, Hardman has always been the voice of reason.

Unlike other journalists, he is a man in a suit, and not a light suit either. I watched him on the late Queen’s state visit to Pakistan in 1997. Smartly dressed, often with a clipboard in his hand, he could easily have been mistaken for one of the Royal Household. He would walk alongside them, chatting ‘man to man’, and a hesitant local policeman or guard would, on balance, let him through rather than risk turning the wrong man away. It would be safe to let him in.

Because he interviewed the sources quoted here for the documentary, no one would expect him to pass harsh judgements – and nor does he. His job, well achieved, was to get them to talk. So he is an umpire rather than a judge. ‘We can give him that,’ is an expression he sometimes employs in lectures, to concede an error made by one of his cast of characters.

He forgave the makers of The Crown for muddling Prince Philip’s medals in Kenya in 1952 (I didn’t), but he castigated them for resurrecting the late Duke of Gloucester for the Silver Jubilee three years after his death in 1974.

So to the new book. It is not a biography of the King. It is a look at a year in his life tying in with the Boxing Day documentary. It contains two set pieces of considerable historical value – 65 pages on the transition from the Queen to the new King, and then 121 pages on the King’s Coronation.

In Ali Forbes mode, I did of course know that the King was not at Balmoral when the Queen died, but Hardman has the scoop, revealing that Prince Charles visited her in the morning and then retired briefly to Birkhall, seven and a half miles away.

Alerted that the end was near, he was driving along an unmarked road when Sir Edward Young, the Queen’s Private Secretary, attempted to call him. As he was at the wheel, he did not answer, but a protection officer did. The Prince pulled over to be told that he was now King.

So, as Hardman puts it, Elizabeth II was in a tree in Kenya, and he was in his car at the side of a road when the moment of accession came. When he arrived at the castle, the question was posed as to by which name he wished to be known. The answer: Charles III.

Hardman gives us a long and fascinating account of the days that followed, the drive through Scotland, Operation Unicorn in Edinburgh, the procession through London, funeral service and committal. Forbesian once more, he clearly got his hands (as I did) on the Guards Magazine in which there are precise and touching details of the organisation behind the scenes – such as the return of the state trumpeters from Canada, the summoning of a Gentleman at Arms from a family wedding in Corfu and the intricate night-time rehearsals.

The way that Princess Anne accompanied her mother’s coffin all the way from Balmoral to Windsor was immensely moving, not least when she curtsied to her mother’s coffin at Holyroodhouse. To this he adds a touching detail – that a senior official at Balmoral was minded to give Princess Anne a brief, comforting hug soon after her mother had died.

She accepted it and added, ‘That’s the last time that’s going to happen.’

Hardman was a studio expert at the BBC for the Coronation, and here we get the most in-depth account of that event that we are ever likely to find. Again he does not pass judgement.

I am more critical of the Archbishop, having seen the notes he circulated to the media before the ceremony. These indicated a dislike of any form of tradition. Grudgingly, the prelate accepted that certain participants had established a historic right to be present. It was clear that tradition had gone out of the window. Some new features worked well – in particular the greeting of the chorister from the Chapel Royal.

If there were differences between the Archbishop and the King, Hardman does not tell us. I think there were – over his sermon which we did not need, and the issue over the public making a pledge of allegiance.

I preferred the majestic way Arcbishop Fisher crowned Elizabeth II, following the crowning with a sweep of his hands heavenward, to Welby’s screwing the crown on the King’s head and then stepping back to wonder whether his handiwork required a further tweak.

In assessing the first year, Hardman is right that the King was well trained for the job, that he had a game plan for the monarchy (but had kept this close to his chest), that in no way does he consider himself a stop-gap monarch. His hour has come and he intends to make full use of it. He is a workaholic, and has a fine appreciation of Shakespeare and the arts. He is a great convener, and ‘the most significant environmental figure in history’.

Hardman discusses the King’s love of Windsor Castle. The castle looked a bit forlorn after the Queen’s death.

Windsorians had become used to the Royal Standard flying over the Round Tower almost daily between March 2020 and July 2022. When Hardman says the King can take pleasure in the treasures of Windsor ‘without being ridiculed for feeling it’, what he is saying (politely) is ‘without his father breathing down his neck’. To lose both parents within a short period of time (at any age) entails huge realignments and readjustments, but brings with it a sense of liberation and the opportunity for change.

Sadly, I suppose inevitably, some print is devoted to the Sussexes. On page 65, Hardman is generous in stating that ‘Fortuitously … ‘the Sussexes happened to be in Britain’ when the Queen died. I would have said ‘Regrettably’ – as then, as so often, they hogged the narrative. The revelation that the Queen was horrified at them calling their daughter Lilibet, her own childhood nickname, chimes with what most of the British public suspected.

The King has been wise in not responding to barbs from Montecito, but in keeping the door open for the return, at least, of Prince Harry. Hardman tells us that the King’s line is ‘I don’t want to know what the problem is. I’m just getting on with my life.’

In conclusion, this book is a most engaging introduction to the new reign.

Hugo Vickers has written biographies of the Queen Mother, the Duchess of Windsor and Queen Mary