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Agony for Charles

Daily Mail
Monday, February 04, 2013

FOR a man regularly pilloried for his beliefs and attitudes, vindication comes often to the Prince of Wales. Long after he's been criticised for speaking out about the environment or education, or the plight of the marmoset, people often quietly concede that maybe he was right.

Who knows, one day we may all be talking to our house-plants.

The latest episode in which the prince's views on life have proved to be well-founded came this week with the publication of a series of letters from the Queen Mother.

They support Charles' strongly-voiced opinion that sending him to school at Gordonstoun in Scotland was a shockingly bad decision. In one letter, the wise old matriarch urgently counselled that her grandson should be spared the rigours of his proposed boarding school, and sent instead to Eton, just a few miles from Windsor Castle.

In May 1961, when Charles was 12, she wrote to the Queen: "I suppose he will be taking his entrance exam for Eton soon. I do hope he passes because it might be the ideal school for one of his character and temperament." She added: "All your friends' sons are at Eton, and it is so important to be able to grow up with people you will be with later in life.

"And so nice and so important when boys are growing up that you and Philip can see him during school days and keep in touch with what is happening. He would be terribly cut off and lonely in the far north." She wasn't wrong. But as with so many other suggestions which flowed sweetly from her pen at that time, the Queen Mother was beginning to find that her influence — which had surrounded, protected and carried her daughter through the death of King George VI and on to the throne nine years earlier — was waning.

Her son-in-law, Prince Philip, had been given the job of running the family while the Queen ran affairs of state. And Philip, a gleaming product of the hair-shirt Morayshire school himself, thought it was just the place to bring out the best in a son who would one day be King.

History, however, might judge that, in making this crucial call, Philip failed to see that his own child's upbringing and needs were so very different from his own.

While Philip had a runaway father and distrait mother and was sent from pillar to post — thus making Gordonstoun the home he no longer had and the family he wished he had - his son Charles enjoyed a much more stable upbringing, rooted as it was in the rituals and certainties of royal life.

He had not one home, but several. He had not only a mother but a nanny, Mabel Anderson, whom he loved. There was money, there was warmth and comfort, and there was predictability, all helping underpin an unsure, small boy's life.

What his father apparently failed to detect, or didn't care to, was that his son was sensitive and gentle-natured. To be cast into the hurly-burly of public school life from a sheltered childhood would be difficult enough. To be sent to one of the toughest schools in Britain was a ghastly mistake.

"A prison sentence," was how Charles later described it. "Colditz with kilts."

"Like penal servitude," agreed William Boyd, the best-selling novelist and screenwriter and a Gordonstoun contemporary of Charles. "I happen to know, from his own lips, that Prince Charles utterly detested it."

"He was bullied," recalled Ross Benson, the late Daily Mail correspondent who was also a contemporary. "He was crushingly lonely for most of his time there. The wonder is that he survived with his sanity intact."

Charles was not entirely abandoned to his fate — two cousins, Norton Knatchbull (now Lord Brabourne) and Prince Welf of Hanover, were parachuted in ahead of his arrival to pave the way and act as wingmen for the new pupil.

But their presence did little to shield Charles from the unspeakable misery that lay ahead - for in preparation for the 13-year-old prince's arrival, a new set of rules had been hurriedly imposed on the previously libertarian school's regime.

Smoking was suddenly a caning offence where formerly there had been no corporal punishment. Drinking, while not previously condoned, now carried the threat of expulsion.

The changes had nothing to do with Charles, but Charles was blamed for their imposition — and he was to pay a heavy price. For the school was filled with toughs.

"Had their parents not been rich enough to pay the fees — a third higher than those at Eton — these pupils would probably have ended their educational careers in prison rather than at a public school," reflected Benson.

The tough-guy ethos of the school meant older boys routinely tyrannised their younger, weaker colleagues, beating them up, extorting food and money, rifling through letters and personal belongings.

"One felt in a way rather like a medieval peasant during the Hundred Years War," recalls Boyd. "One never knew when another marauding army might march by, randomly distributing death and destruction."

Prefects told their inferiors when to shave, when to polish their shoes, when to have their hair cut. One bunch of ruffians in a house called Hopeman Lodge hanged the cat belonging to their housemaster, Major "Hebbie" Downton.

In another, the seniors greeted new boys by taking a pair of pliers to their arms and twisting until the flesh tore open.

It was into this demonic culture that Prince Charles was plunged in the summer term of 1962. He had come from his prep school, Cheam, in Hampshire, without the vaguest idea of what was about to hit him.

Upon arrival, he found himself cold-shouldered by fellow pupils in his house, Windmill Lodge, because the housemaster had warned any antagonistic behaviour towards the heir to the throne would result in immediate expulsion. As a result, recalled a fellow housemate, he was picked upon at once, "maliciously, cruelly, and without respite".

Jonathan Dimbleby, in his official biography of Charles, reveals that any boy who, in those early days, felt sympathy for the marginalised prince and tried to befriend him found themselves subjected to a barrage of slurping sounds suggesting that the boy was "sucking up" to the prince. Few withstood that humiliation for long, and would retreat.

Boyd recalls, too, the brutal treatment handed out to Charles on the rugby pitch, where within weeks it became a matter of honour to crush the prince at every opportunity. He remembers overhearing boys crowing: "We did him over. We just punched the future King!"

Meanwhile, Charles was writing home to the Queen: "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."

So the Queen Mother had been proved right. But she never learned the anguish her grandson suffered under the brutish Gordonstoun regime, where all boys wore shorts whatever the weather, slept on hard bunks with the windows open even in winter, and were made to take long walks in the rain as punishment for misdemeanours.

And after two years at the school, Charles was as much under pressure as the day he joined. "The people in my dormitory are foul," he wrote home. "They throw slippers all night long or hit me with pillows… Last night was hell, literal hell. I wish I could come home."

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