The Prince’s return to the site of the IRA atrocity that killed his great uncle will be a time to reflect on the man who moulded this awkward heir, writes Dani Garavelli
THE Shadow V – an old green fishing boat belonging to the Mountbattens – had just made its way out of Mullaghmore Harbour, County Sligo, with three generations of the family on board, on 27 August, 1979, when an IRA bomb placed under it exploded, blowing it to smithereens.
Four people died in the atrocity: Lord Mountbatten; the Dowager Lady Brabourne (his daughter Patricia’s mother-in-law); his grandson, Nicholas Knatchbull, 14; and a 15-year-old local boy, Paul Maxwell. The impact on the Mountbatten family was huge: Nicholas’s twin, Timothy, who was also on board, woke up to find himself blind in one eye, partially deaf and without his brother. Patricia was left mourning both a father and a son.
But the death of Mountbatten – former statesman, naval officer and doler-out of advice – touched others too. Hearing the news abroad, his great-nephew, Prince Charles, was devastated. After the misery of the Gordonstoun years, Mountbatten had been a defining influence in his life: a mentor who saw in him potential others missed, and who was willing to help mould him into his vision of what a future king should be.
This week, Prince Charles is to visit County Sligo for the first time. Previous trips have been vetoed by the security services, but almost 20 years after the Good Friday agreement, the pilgrimage has been given the go-ahead and he will finally have the chance to pay his respects. At some point, no doubt, he will look out over the water at Mullaghmore and wonder what would have happened if his “honorary grandfather” had lived a little longer.
If the visit is an opportunity for reflection, then the timing is apposite. Last week, the so-called “black spider” letters in which Charles privately lobbied government ministers were finally published after a 10-year legal battle. As a catalyst for a constitutional crisis, they were a damp squib; we already knew Charles was prone to sticking his oar in on such issues as the industrialisation of agriculture and complementary medicine. But as an insight into the Prince of Wales’s character, they were invaluable: that blend of gravity and humour (“I think you will know by now – to your cost!– that these are matters about which I care deeply”), and of self-entitlement and self-deprecation (“At the risk of being a complete bore about this, I do pray we could discuss these matters more fully before irrevocable decisions are taken”), all coming together to form a passive aggressiveness it must have been difficult for politicians to resist.
The sheer range of topics covered – the Human Rights Act, badger-culling, the fate of the Patagonian Toothfish – suggest the fidgeting of a mind deprived of purpose, or the attempt to impose a structure on an amorphous existence. Here is a man whose destiny was predetermined, but who has been denied the opportunity to fulfil it; a man so eager to leave a legacy, he often falls asleep at his desk, the pen still in his hand.
The letters’ eccentricity and eclecticism are the products of a life constrained by limits: of potential, of power, of intellect, but they also carry echoes of Mountbatten. “Never feel that a piece of criticism or advice is too much trouble to give or that it exceeds your province,” the former Viceroy of India once said. As the row over whether or not Charles will temper his meddling when he takes the throne trundles on, you have to wonder whether following his great-uncle’s advice has done him more harm than good.
That Mountbatten should have had a central place in Prince Charles’ affections is not difficult to understand. As a boy, Charles was much misunderstood; his father, Prince Philip, emotionally aloof and physically competitive, couldn’t understand his son’s sensitivity and packed him off to Gordonstoun to toughen him up. But his fellow pupils picked on the young prince, mocking his ears and taking pleasure in bringing him down on the rugby field. Charles’s letters home were pathetic. “I cannot get any sleep because I snore and I get hit on the head all the time,” he said. Biographer Jonathan Dimbleby has told how anyone who tried to be friendly was greeted with slurping noises (suggesting they were sucking up). Fraternisation with girls was strictly forbidden.
Though Charles’s morale was boosted by two terms at Geelong Grammar School in Australia, and a year as head boy, he none the less left Gordonstoun with little confidence, underwhelming exam results and no experience of the opposite sex; and his time at Cambridge University was only marginally more comfortable.
An early indication of the sense of purposelessness that would dominate his life came when his ambition to become Governor-General of Australia was thwarted by republican sentiments.” What are you supposed to think when you are prepared to do something to help and you are told you are not wanted?” he responded.
Insecure and often bereft of parental approval, Prince Charles sought out the company of older people. He adored the Queen Mother. She rarely chided him, imbued him with a sense of duty, but didn’t intervene on his behalf. Mountbatten, on the other hand, often chided, but made it clear he had Charles’s best interests at heart.
Having supported Prince Philip – who was effectively abandoned as a child – and played matchmaker between him and the Queen (he introduced them when Elizabeth was just 13) he was a respected figure whose counsel was to be taken seriously.
When it came to marriage, however, Mountbatten’s record was questionable. He wed his wife Edwina at 21, but it wasn’t long before she was having a succession of affairs, culminating in an intense, if unconsummated relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of India. Mountbatten too had other women and possibly men. “We spent all our married lives getting into other people’s beds,” he said.
In one of the worst pieces of advice ever meted out to a protégé, Mountbatten told Charles to sow his wild oats, but to choose someone young, with no sexual past, as his bride. Charles seems to have adhered rigidly to this plan; in the mid-70s, he paraded a succession of beautiful young women on his arm – Sabrina Guinness, Lady Jane Wellesley, Anna Wallace and, of course, Camilla Shand. But there came a time when he was expected to settle down. Whenever Charles erred in matters of etiquette, or put his interests before the state’s, Mountbatten would fret that he might be following in the footsteps of another great uncle – Edward VIII. Eventually, he suggested Charles might marry his granddaughter, Amanda Knatchbull (Nicholas and Timothy’s elder sister).
Over the course of the next few years, the pair became close. They had common interests and were able to keep their romance out of the papers. Amanda was with Charles shortly before Mountbatten’s murder, and had written to her grandfather in Ireland days earlier to tell him how she had described the beauty of County Sligo to the Prince.
“I have lost someone infinitely special in my life, someone who showed me enormous affection, who told me unpleasant things I didn’t particularly want to hear, who gave praise where it was due as well as criticism; someone to whom I knew I could confide anything and from whom I would receive the wisest counsel and advice,” Charles later wrote.
Mountbatten had been advised to stay away from County Sligo (he and his family regularly stayed in Classiebawn Castle) but he believed himself too liberal to be a target. As the IRA claimed responsibility, however, it became clear any connection with the Royal Family was a risk. Mountbatten’s death is often said to have kick-started the peace process, with hard-liners finally willing to look for a diplomatic solution, but it certainly put paid to Charles’s prospects with Amanda. The loss of so many members of her family brought home the sacrifices required to marry the heir to the throne, so, when he proposed, she turned him down. Spurned, he redirected his attention to Diana, another young woman with no sexual past (or none that was publicly acknowledged), and we all know how well that turned out.
While other men whose married life is unfulfilled might throw themselves into their work, Charles had no such opportunity. Instead, he became increasingly preoccupied with his environmental concerns, most of which centred on his sense of an age of innocence being swallowed up by the advance of technology. Thus, he railed against modern architecture, the industrialisation of agriculture and science in general and endorsed organic vegetables and complementary medicine. At the core of his beliefs seems to be a kind of New Age spirituality centred on the power of the earth and the importance of not disturbing the natural order.
As journalist Brendan O’Neill pointed out last week, there is an irony in the Guardian spending a decade fighting for the publication of the “black spider” letters only to expose Prince Charles as a stereotypical Guardianista. But, in truth, his fixations are more eccentric than a preference for renewable energy and a love of mung beans. On his sustainable Home Farm estate, he uses biodynamic farming methods which include planting seeds according to the lunar cycle. And, in his 2010 book, Harmony, he evangelised about a “whole-istic” revolution to address the effects on science, healthcare, the arts and education of our disconnect with nature.
Though members of the Royal Family are expected to remain neutral, it is well-known that Charles has tried to exert influence in the political arena through speeches, essays and letter-writing, some of which appear to have made a difference. It is more than three decades since his “monstrous carbuncle” comments led to the scrapping of an extension for the National Gallery, but only four years since a High Court judge said his opposition to plans for the £3bn redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks (also scrapped) had been “unexpected and unwelcome”.
Other areas where he may have had an impact on policy include a delay in the implementation of EU directives on the sale of certain herbal extracts and the retention, until 2010, of the Hill Farm Allowance. And what of the Patagonian Toothfish, I hear you ask? It is no longer threatened, its chances of survival enhanced by Prince Charles’ efforts, though probably not by the letters themselves.
So is the heir to the throne a well-intentioned campaigner who wants to create a better world or a self-indulgent egotist intent on subverting the democratic process? Those who dislike the Prince and the monarchy in general accuse of him of wallowing in self-pity and of abusing his position. They say he fails to understand his role is “to be” rather than “to do”, and fear that, when he becomes king, he will continue to interfere. A republican response to his malaise would be that he lives high on the hog at public expense and should quit whining. A more human one might be to ask how it is possible for any of us to define ourselves other than through our actions. Charles has lived a life in abeyance. Is it any wonder he flails around trying to create something of lasting significance?
In Mullaghmore, feelings are mixed about the forthcoming visit. Some hope the attention will help put the town back on the tourist map, others fear it will simply rekindle negative associations. And then there is the continued threat of danger: last week, six people were arrested in connection with a suspected plot to kill Charles after guns and explosives were found in the vicinity.
All, however, agree the trip will give him the chance to reflect on the part the man he called Uncle Dickie played in shaping his life. Mountbatten once said: “My mother [told me]: ‘Don’t worry about what people think now. Think about whether your children and grandchildren will think you’ve done well.’” If the black spider letters are anything to go by, Prince Charles is still trying to keep faith with his great uncle’s philosophy.«