king at desk

What kind of leader will King Charles III be?

Richard Drayton is a professor of imperial and global history at King's College, London. He spoke to The World's host Marco Werman about what King Charles III's reign may be like.

The World

Britain's King Charles III delivers his address to the nation and the Commonwealth from Buckingham Palace, London, Sept. 9, 2022, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8, 2022.

Yui Mok/AP

As the United Kingdom mourns a beloved queen, the nation is already wondering how King Charles III will reign and whether his monarchy will depart from the traditions of his mother.

If his first full day on the throne is any indication, Charles seemed ready to chart at least a slightly different course.

When Charles traveled to Buckingham Palace for the first time as the new king Friday, his limousine snaked through a sea of spectators then stopped short of the palace gates before he got out and shook hands with well-wishers. Charles looked more like a US president on the campaign trail than the latest steward of a 1,000-year-old hereditary monarchy.

It’s not that Queen Elizabeth II didn’t meet her subjects. She did, often. But this felt different — a bit less formal, a bit more relaxed and personal. Charles spent almost 10 minutes greeting people pressed up against the crowd-control barriers, smiling, waving, accepting condolences and the occasional bouquet of flowers as the audience broke out in a chorus of “God Save the King.”

After inspecting the tributes to his mother lined up outside the palace, he waved once more and walked through the gates with Camilla, the queen consort.

Charles' efforts to engage with the public more intimately reflect the fact that he needs their support. There are difficult issues ahead, most pressingly how the 73-year-old king will carry out his role as head of state.

Richard Drayton, a professor of imperial and global history at King’s College London, talked to The World about ow King Charles III compares to his predecessor in the eye’s of the British public.

Marco Werman: So, let’s talk about the new head of this block, King Charles III. Recent polls have suggested he’s not nearly as popular as his mother in the UK. What don’t people like about him?
Richard Drayton: Queen Elizabeth II was particularly popular. I mean, I think the advantages simply of old age, out of a kind of benign grandmotherly persona, came to her. And it's hard to think of Charles ever in his reign achieving that level of self-evident status as the center of national politics. Charles, also, it has to be said, has had a rather complex life of the 20th century in which he has been involved in a number of public controversies of one sort or another, both in his private life and also in terms of aspects of his public life. I do think that he is someone of exceptional gifts who would probably have been quite an interesting figure as sovereign had he come to the throne when he was a man of, say, 50. But while Elizabeth had the privilege to become sovereign before she was 30, Charles is, of course, north of 70 years old. 
He does have some intriguing interests. He is his own man. How is he viewed in the wider Commonwealth? 
I think in the wider Commonwealth he's something of a question mark. There would be an older generation that might remember Charles going out to Australia to do a season in the colonies and coming along to visit, here and there. But by and large, I think he is a somewhat unknown figure. His relationship with Princess Diana is ancient history, which is to say it's something which only people over the age of 30 or 40 would do anything about. So, he comes, I think, as something of a blank slate onto which the British royal household can, if they are clever, script narratives of one sort or another to protect his particular charisma as a potential head of state of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and even Jamaica. 
Let's take one area that King Charles has shown interest in, and it's the environment. And a lot of nations in the Commonwealth are island nations facing really an existential threat from climate change. How much could King Charles focus on climate action and could that help these countries?
I'm sure that Charles will make climate change, among other issues, questions to which he will speak and seek to address. But the nature of his rule is that both within and outside of Britain, he has next to no real power. He does have some institutional power within Britain. There's a tradition of the monarch being consulted over certain kinds of legislation. But the extent to which Charles would have the capacity to move the agenda in any direction, particularly from the role of head of state, I would be somewhat skeptical. 
King Charles will lead the Church of England, but he's also been described as supporting and embracing many faiths. How will his relationship to faith and religion shape his role as monarch, do you think?
I think that he will be a bit like the Church of England itself. What the Church of England became by the late 20th and 21st centuries is, in fact, one of the kinds of leaders in interfaith conversations with Roman Catholics and later on with Muslims. And so Charles, I think, is not original in his multifaith posture, a way of negotiating the crown's role as the preeminent institution of the nation in a way that recognizes that this is a multifaith society in a multifaith commonwealth.
It's interesting. Queen Elizabeth took the throne when she was just 25. Charles is now 73. He's been groomed his entire life for this role of king. But at 73, I'm wondering what effect will that have on how he might rule?
Well, I suppose there are two options. You could argue that on the one hand, he might think that there's nothing to be lost and he could be an old man behaving badly. I suspect that will not be the path he takes. I think that he will believe it's his responsibility to protect the monarchy as an institution for future generations. So, I suspect he will be quite restrained. He's no longer the kind of young man with something to prove that he was when he was arguing with modern architects or touting the advantages of organic farming or getting involved, calling in people to discuss laws that were going before Parliament. I think that the years have passed. Charles, who will come to the throne now, will be someone who will be essentially managing the operation for his son and for his son's son.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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