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As King Charles III begins his reign, what legacy will he bring to the British throne?

Click to play video: 'King Charles III’s new duties restrain him from activism'
King Charles III’s new duties restrain him from activism
WATCH: Jeff Semple explains how the new monarch built King Charles III's reputation as a champion of protecting the environment, and why his new role forces him to leave it behind – Sep 14, 2022

As King Charles III assumes the throne after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, he is already bringing a lifetime of public service — and notoriety — to Buckingham Palace.

Charles is the longest-serving heir apparent in the history of the British monarchy. At 73, the world already had a clear picture of him long before he assumed the throne, thanks to both his tumultuous personal life and his lifelong interest in environmentalism and charitable causes.

“Charles’ reputation has certainly changed over time,” said Carolyn Harris, a royal historian and professor at the University of Toronto.

“He has been familiar to the public as the heir to the throne since he was a small child … and while there’s a lot of admiration for his charitable achievements, there’s an awareness of his personal past. So it’s complicated.”

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Read more: King Charles III names son Prince of Wales in 1st speech, vows ‘unswerving devotion’

Focus on environmentalism

Charles was named Prince of Wales at the age of nine, with his investiture held in 1969 when he was 20.

Ever since, he has championed causes that have later become mainstream, from the preservation of Indigenous languages to addressing youth unemployment.

Yet his lifelong interest in the environment has garnered the most attention, including his increasingly strong advocacy for world governments to address climate change.

Click to play video: 'Prince Charles: Net zero emission commitments have ‘never been more vitally important’'
Prince Charles: Net zero emission commitments have ‘never been more vitally important’

His estates have been fitted with solar panels and he drives either electric cars or vehicles fuelled mostly by ethanol. He has also promoted organic farming, launching an organics brand, Duchy Love, in 1990.

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Harris says Charles’ passion for the environment has been fed by his parents’ own love of the outdoors, but has also helped push the rest of the Royal Family — including his sons and their families — to become more passionate about conservation and sustainability.

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Camilla: From outcast to Queen Consort

“We’ve seen Charles talking about himself as a grandfather and wanting to preserve the environment for subsequent generations, so he’s clearly thinking in terms of this being a multi-generational problem,” she said.

“We often see the Royal Family taking on those kinds of causes that take generations to solve, because we have a single family being in this possession, generation after generation, to have the ability to raise awareness of particular causes.”

Read more: Queen Elizabeth II has died. Here’s what’s next for King Charles III

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That influence appeared to have an impact on Queen Elizabeth herself. Last year, she urged world leaders at the COP26 summit in Glasgow to “rise above the politics of the moment” and tackle climate change.

Her pre-recorded speech marked a significant moment of outspokenness for the queen, who stayed politically neutral through most of her reign.

Meanwhile, Charles’ various charities — including the Prince’s Trust, which focused on helping youth who are unemployed and struggling with addictions — have also earned him praise.

The ‘Prince’s Trust’ has helped nearly a million young people in the United Kingdom since its founding in 1976, according to the charity.

Yet they have also earned him controversy, including as recently as this year, when reports emerged that the Prince of Wales Charitable Fund had accepted donations from relatives of Osama bin Laden and the former prime minister of Qatar — the latter of whom allegedly delivered the cash to Charles personally.

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Queen Elizabeth death: Doug Ford commemorates late monarch, congratulates King Charles III’s succession to throne

Troubled personal life

It was Charles’ marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales, and overlapping relationship with his now-wife Camilla, Queen Consort, that has cemented his reputation in many people’s minds, however.

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Charles spent much of his first marriage in Diana’s shadow, as the public fell in love with the bride and mostly overlooked the groom during their much-publicized international tours in the 1980s.

“When the marriage broke down, they both spoke to the press, and largely, the public took Diana’s side,” Harris said, particularly when Diana famously said “there were three of us in this marriage,” referring to Camilla.

Click to play video: 'King Charles III greets crowds chanting ‘God Save the King’ outside Buckingham palace'
King Charles III greets crowds chanting ‘God Save the King’ outside Buckingham palace

Although Charles insisted he did not pursue a relationship with Camilla until his marriage with Diana had “irretrievably” broken down, the reputational damage was done.

When Diana was killed in a car crash in 1997, the public’s outpouring of grief also turned to renewed skepticism of Charles and the Royal Family’s treatment of her. Yet even there, Harris says the situation was complicated.

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“There was also sympathy for Charles when he was shown taking young Harry to a Spice Girls concert and clearly trying to be an involved single parent for his sons,” she said. “So there was this combination of critique and sympathy.”

Since Charles and Camilla wed in 2005, public perception toward Charles — and especially Camilla — has warmed, Harris adds.

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Camilla has made an effort to present herself as approachable, devoting herself to a range of charities for vulnerable women and children, including survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented another opportunity for the couple to endear themselves to the public, openly sharing Charles’ experience with the virus in March 2020 and relating to the older generation through media interviews.

“Camilla went on to be a figure who older people could identify with, speaking of some of the challenges of mastering video conferencing or being separated from her grandchildren,” Harris said.

“So gradually, Charles and Camilla as a couple came to be seen in a more sympathetic light.”

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Queen Elizabeth death: The life and legacy of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch

A new line of older monarchs

Harris says Charles was hardly the first member of the Royal Family to face scandal, but doesn’t believe his past will affect his reign.

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What will be new is the age factor. Charles is now the oldest person to become monarch in British history, but he is still expected to rule for years to come based on his family’s longevity.

That means it’s possible the next in line to the throne after Charles — his son William, who is now 40 — may not assume the throne until his 60s at least. That’s a far cry from the days of Elizabeth and past rulers who were far younger when they were crowned.

“It’s unlikely we’re going to see as long a reign again as we did with Queen Elizabeth II,” Harris said.

“Instead, it’s likely we’re going to see a series of elder statesmen and elder stateswomen stepping into this role, having had decades of experience in public life.”

Promise of 'unswerving devotion'

In his first speech as new monarch, King Charles vowed his “unswerving devotion” to upholding the constitutional principles of the United Kingdom and the realm.

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The new King gave some glimpses into how he intends to serve in the new role, pointing out that the U.K.’s values “have remained and must remain constant.”

“Whatever may be your background or beliefs, I shall endeavour to serve you with loyalty, respect and love, as I have throughout my life,” he said.

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However, he admitted his new role will now limit the activism he has become known for.

“It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply,” he said. “But I know this important work will go on in the trusted hands of others.”

For now, it remains to be seen if Charles will follow his mother’s example of keeping political views private — only to speak out when deemed important to do so.

— With files from Reuters

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