Prince Charles, who turned 70 on November 14th, has waited, patiently, to assume the British throne. What kind of king will he be? A look into his formative years may provide a clue.
In a sense, Charles’s early years would be a tug-of-war between family members.
As a young boy, he was spoiled by his loving grandmother, the Queen Mother, who appreciated his sensitive, thoughtful nature, and encouraged his love of music and art.
But her “kid gloves” approach also amplified his less-desirable qualities — among them, insecurity, timidity, and a tendency to whine.
Those very traits became a source of irritation for his father, Prince Philip, a strong-minded disciplinarian who often belittled his son, sometimes to the point of bullying.
When Charles turned eight, the Queen and Prince Philip decided that he needed the company of other children and sent the boy to Hill House School in London, then to Cheam School, the oldest private school in England. (In fact, Charles would be the first future king or queen to be educated outside the palace.)
Alas, the timid little boy had a hard time making friends.
As Charles’s time at Cheam was drawing to a close, a decision had to be made on where he would continue his education. The royal family was divided.
The Queen Mother wanted Eton College, the prestigious boarding school which was close to Windsor Castle, stressing in a letter to her daughter, Queen Elizabeth, that Eton was “ideal . . . for one of his character & temperament.”
Charles’s great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, also preferred Eton College.
But the Duke of Edinburgh was intent on his son attending his alma mater, Gordonstoun. His argument was two-fold: First, he argued, the Prince would have more privacy at the school, which was located in a remote part of northeastern Scotland.
Secondly — and, one suspects, more to the point — Philip believed the severe discipline and tough terrain of Gordonstoun would toughen up his timid son. Ultimately, the Queen would side with her husband.
In May 1962, Philip, a licensed pilot, flew his son to a Royal Air Force base in Scotland, then drove him the rest of the way to school. It would be the start of a miserable experience for Charles — one he would come to refer to as a “prison sentence.”
Founded by Kurt Hahn, a Jew who fled Germany during the Nazi uprising, Gordonstoun sought to build character with physical challenges. Philip had a rough time initially, but he would come to love the school, later crediting it with shaping him into the man who would become. He hoped it would do the same for his son.
He could not be more wrong. Unlike his outgoing and athletically-gifted father, Charles had trouble fitting in. He despised the school’s Spartan atmosphere. The Prince lived in Windmill Lodge with thirteen other boys.
Each day began with an early-morning run before breakfast, followed by an ice-cold shower. The boys slept in dormitories on rock-hard bunks, the windows left open year around, even during the winter. Charles nicknamed the school “Colditz in kilts” (after the German castle that was used as a POW camp during World War II).
Worse, the heir to the throne became a target for classmates and was constantly bullied. He was flattened during rugby matches — even by his own teammates — and mocked for his jug ears. Anyone who did try to befriend him was accused of sucking up to the Prince. Decades later, Ross Benson, a contemporary of Charles’s, would say, “He was crushingly lonely for most of his time there. The wonder is that he survived with his sanity intact.”
Indeed, in a letter to his mother, Charles would write: “I hardly get any sleep in the House because I snore and I get hit on the head all the time. It’s absolute hell.” His torment fell on deaf ears, with an unsympathetic Prince Philip penning steely replies, advising his boy to buck up.
One person the Prince had in his corner was Donald Green. The royal bodyguard, assigned to watch over Charles — in an inconspicuous way — became a father figure of sorts.
But he was fired during Charles’s second year at Gordonstoun after allowing the underage Prince to order a cherry brandy on a school outing. (An eagle-eyed tabloid reporter spilled the beans.) With that, Charles had lost his sole source of support.
Dead set on making a man out of his son, Philip sent the 17-year-old to Australia for six months, to attend Timbertop, a rural outpost of Melbourne’s Geelong Grammar School.
This decision turned out to be a wise one: The school, far away from home, would be a revelation for the boy.
His Australian classmates, friendly and unpretentious, embraced the Prince, accepting him as one of their own — even giving him the nickname “Pommie” (good-natured Australian slang for Englishman).
Like Gordonstoun, the school emphasized physical challenges, but in this friendlier atmosphere, Charles thrived, tackling cross-country hikes in sweltering heat and spending frigid nights camped out in a sleeping bag.
What’s more, Charles received high praise from the school’s headmaster, Thomas Garnett, who described him as, “A friendly, intelligent, natural boy with a good sense of humor.”
Charles would return to Gordonstoun in 1966 for his final year, graduating in 1967. Leaving the grounds for good, he said all the right things about his time spent at the school — how it taught him self-discipline and helped him grow as a person.
Years later, in fact, the Prince would insist that his supposed hatred of the school was exaggerated. Still, it bears noting that his sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, would attend Eton.