How often in life do you have to lose something to realise just how important it was to you?
For much of his adult life, Prince Charles has been convinced his father didn’t understand him.
Worse, he was certain Prince Philip viewed him as a disappointment who needed toughening up for kingship — and might never be tough enough.
This week, as Charles formally assumes new family responsibilities, he will be reflecting on his past bitterness, and wondering, perhaps, if he was wrong, and that Philip was right.
The fact is, the private Charles has a short fuse, and a temper, not dissimilar to his father’s. What has been particularly noticeable, is that as his parents aged and Charles’s responsibilities within the family have grown, so he has increasingly understood how right his father was
For although the Prince of Wales may not yet be king, no one can be under any illusions that, as the Queen heads towards her 95th birthday this month, a strong hand and a firm conviction are crucial for the long-term welfare of the monarchy.
That role falls to Charles. And with the pain and sadness over Prince Harry and Meghan’s exit from the Royal Family still raw — as well as the ongoing scandal of Prince Andrew’s extra-curricular activities that continue to reverberate around the world — it is he who has had to take charge.
Once this would have been Prince Philip’s dominion, and his children never underestimated his old Naval-style discipline.
So could the Prince of Wales, with his aesthetic tastes and his outwardly gentle nature, be capable of imposing a similar code of royal control?
The fact is, the private Charles has a short fuse, and a temper, not dissimilar to his father’s.
What has been particularly noticeable, is that as his parents aged and Charles’s responsibilities within the family have grown, so he has increasingly understood how right his father was.
There was, according to insiders, one other topic between father and son: Philip’s instruction that with his life drawing to an end, it was Charles who must now serve the Queen as he had done instinctively for 73 years
All those discomforts suffered at Gordonstoun, the tough Scottish public school, and dressings down in front of his siblings have, in fact, prepared him rather well for the difficult years ahead — just as his father hoped.
Nothing illustrates better how the relationship between father and son evolved over the years than the urgency with which Charles hurried to see his ailing father when the Duke of Edinburgh was admitted to hospital in London in February.
This was the moment that confirmed the baton of head of the family had formally changed hands.
No other family member was permitted to see the Duke during his lengthy stay at the King Edward VII hospital where he was being treated for an infection.
But Philip wanted his eldest son at his bedside. For Charles who has not been ‘bubbled’ with either of his parents at Windsor, it meant ignoring the strict social-distancing rules imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. And when he emerged after spending 30 minutes with his father, he looked grim-faced.
No Palace bulletin was issued on what father and son discussed but with the crisis over Harry dominating the headlines, it seems inconceivable that the two figures — who had found themselves on opposite sides in so many domestic disputes — did not devote some of their time to it.
Once Charles would have been asking Philip what he should do about Harry. Now, it was Philip who was asking his eldest son what he was going to do about him.
There was, according to insiders, one other topic between father and son: Philip’s instruction that with his life drawing to an end, it was Charles who must now serve the Queen as he had done instinctively for 73 years.
What this means is protecting her from family and other distractions so her sole focus can be the wellbeing of the crown. After years as shadow monarch, Charles gets that.
How the father-son relationship had changed. For decades the two had largely communicated by nothing more personal than hand-written letters and inter-office memos.
They rarely met beyond the constraints of the traditional gatherings at Balmoral, Sandringham and Windsor, where neither ever seemed to find the time or inclination to share intimacies.
Whenever they did meet, tension and the threat of paternal rebuke always hovered between them.
At times, Prince Philip complained of Charles’s ‘separateness’ from the rest of the family, not realising, perhaps, that he himself was probably the cause.
Things reached rock bottom in 2001 with publication of a biography to mark the Duke of Edinburgh’s 80th birthday.
In it, an unflattering picture of Charles emerged, one in which his father viewed him as ‘precious, extravagant and lacking in the dedication . . . to make a good king’.
Although the damning remarks did not come directly from Philip, he had permitted members of his circle to speak to the author.
The Duke later wrote his son a letter of apology insisting they were not his views, and that if they were said they were uttered without his authorisation.
All the same, it did little to improve an atmosphere that had been soured ever since Charles’s collaboration with broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby seven years earlier.
Philip privately described Dimbleby’s biography as ‘turgid’, a mild description considering it portrayed him as a bully who had pressured Charles into marrying Lady Diana Spencer.
Friends of Charles likened the relationship with his father to that which existed between Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, and his eldest son, the then Prince of Wales, Bertie, later King Edward VII.
Like Philip, Albert was ambitious for all his children and would never let Bertie be treated in a way that was superior to his siblings.
‘Albert’s doctrine was the monarchy above all without regard to public or political opinion,’ recalls a royal household figure. ‘Bertie, like the current Prince of Wales, recognised that the monarchy had to earn the public’s respect.’
As with Prince Albert and Bertie, Prince Philip found the young Charles’s frequently withdrawn behaviour irritating. He often rebuked him for what family friends would call ‘inconsequen- tial errors’.
Such treatment exacerbated Charles’s tendency to retreat even further into his boyhood shell. Compared with his outgoing sister Princess Anne, the Prince was timid and passive. When his father upbraided him for some inadequacy, he easily drew tears to his son’s eyes.
As a close royal family friend noted: ‘Philip was trying to bring up a son who could take over as king in a tough world. Charles wasn’t a cry-baby, but he was terribly sensitive. Philip didn’t realise.’
So the bonds of love were strained by impatience on one side and trepidation on the other.
But who would say now that Philip’s toughening up policy — especially sending the young prince to Gordonstoun, whose rough regime (‘Colditz in kilts’, Charles called it) — hasn’t worked?
It made Charles resolute enough to stand up to both his parents over Mrs Parker Bowles — ‘not negotiable’ was his mantra.
Even his father, who deplored the idea that his son was bedding the wife of a brother officer in the Brigade of Guards, came round to accepting her as his wife.
The reason? Prince Philip firmly believed that whoever sat on the throne did so with much more assurance with a spouse by their side, just as he had been to the Queen.
Whatever else she had been, he reasoned, Camilla would be an excellent sounding board.
Now, there are certainly tough years ahead — too tough, it must be said, for the Queen to handle alone at her age.
She will lean now more than ever on her son and heir. For his part, the Prince of Wales, with Camilla at his side performing a mature role of sympathetic ear, will undoubtedly be crucial to his success.
In recent times, Charles has already begun — as de facto chief executive of ‘The Firm’ — to change things, slimming down the monarchy as he so presciently felt it needed to be years ago, ensuring that peripheral royals performed peripheral roles, roles that were just enough to keep them involved, small enough for them to have minor impact.
A major part of that slimming down has — perhaps fortuitously, as Charles might see it — already taken care of itself with the shocking controversies swirling around the Duke of York removing him from royal duties for the foreseeable future, perhaps for ever.
One has to wonder just what influence he can now bring to bear on William and, especially, Harry, whose activities have a significant effect on his own eventual smooth accession to the throne.
Indeed, one part of the slimming-down process he never bargained for was the impulsive departure of Harry from royal service, and he is understandably concerned at the effect this will have on William.
Growing up in a single-parent household, the two princes never took too much notice of him. And for his part, he was so absorbed in Camilla, making sure that the public would accept her, that he rather took his eye off the ball, leaving the two boys very much to their own devices.
As adults they continued to develop their own highly independent styles, so independent that in going their own ways as married men and royal ambassadors, that wonderful brotherly togetherness the world saw as they grew up without a mother melted away.
The rift between William and Harry has troubled Charles enormously. Privately, friends had always hoped that the death of their grandfather would bring the two princes to their senses and make them recognise what their father had always taken for granted — that they are a stronger unit when they are together.
Charles hates familial conflict largely because of his own run-ins with Prince Philip.
‘But he will have to risk confrontation now with the boys,’ says a family friend, ‘not especially with William and Catherine, but with Harry and Meghan who have been far, far too public about their problems.’
No matter what, Charles is desperate to avoid the debilitating family tensions that he experienced with his own father.
Undoubtedly he will fight to keep the family together. This will not be easy. William has matured into a man of independence with a clear understanding of where he is going, as much influenced by the grounded philosophy of his in-laws the Middletons as by his royal heritage.
Even so, how to maintain a relationship with the absent Harry, Meghan, grandson Archie — and a still-to-be born fifth grandchild —will be a far tougher test.
It is not just the physical gulf between the prince and his Los Angeles-based son, but the very different views Harry and his wife hold on the meaning of public service.
These, then, are the challenges that lie ahead for Charles — and he must now tackle them without the guidance of his father who, despite the flaws some saw in his character, was always a source of plain good sense.
As Prince Philip once opined rather sarcastically about his son: ‘He’s a romantic and I’m a pragmatist. That means we do see things differently. And because I don’t see things as a romantic would, I’m unfeeling.’
Prince Philip unfeeling? A man of such passion and intensity is, surely, hardly that. He never ascribed that adjective to Charles, but one can safely assume that it came from his eldest son during one of their heated exchanges.
No one, in any circumstances, is likely to call Charles unfeeling. But as he assumes the role of head of the family, he might see, at last, the value of being a pragmatist.