I watched King Charles’s coronation on Saturday as avidly as I watched his mother’s obsequies last September. And I was as dazzled with the second ceremony as with the first. Not because I’m a royalist or anything, but because I respect tradition and enjoy seeing time-honored rituals carried out with precision and dignity. Also, I’m an Anglican, and I appreciate any opportunity for people around the world to encounter the glories of High Church Anglican worship. (Years ago, when I belonged to Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue in New York, it would often happen that a gaggle of tourists would walk in and sit near me and, a couple of minutes into the service, would express their puzzlement to me: wasn’t this a Roman Catholic church? After I corrected their misconception, they’d usually stay anyway, making it possible for me to watch them as they were utterly transformed by the beauty of it all, and, at the end, to see them walk out in awe and sometimes even in tears.)
I was heartened to hear him say unhesitatingly, in reciting the text of the coronation service, that he is “a faithful Protestant.”
In terms of liturgy and music and language, neither Elizabeth’s funeral nor Charles’s investiture disappointed. At the first, there was great music by Elgar and Parry and Vaughan Williams (plus a couple of my favorite hymns); at the second, there was Parry again, and Byrd, and, of course, Handel’s Zadok the Priest. Also moving at the coronation was the multitude of references to the idea of kingship as a matter of serving one’s people with wisdom, justice, and mercy. I was, admittedly, a bit puzzled — but, at the same time, rather impressed — by the spectacle of Britain’s Hindu prime minister, Rishi Sunak, reading the epistle, which included the very Christian line about how God the Father “hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son.”
Still, the scale of it all seemed a bit much. You’d think the guy was being crowned king of the world, not of the sixth largest economy (plus, okay, the ninth, 13th, 50th, 106th, 132nd, 144th, 177th, 186th, 190th, 193rd, 196th, 199th, 200th, and 216th). You’d think that he really ran the place, instead of being a walking symbol with a lot of fancy titles and a six-figure personal real-estate empire. You’d like to think that somebody in the country other than the royals themselves — and the historians and archivists on their payroll — still understood or cared about all these archaic rituals. You’d like to think that the rhetoric about kingship really had some connection to the way the U.K. — whose ancient freedoms are fast slipping away — is actually governed in this era of Tommy Robinson and Harry Miller.
To be sure, I like to console myself with the thought that any king who was a good friend of Joan Rivers and Barry Humphries — and a patron of the recently deceased artist Jonathan Myles-Lee — has to be a pretty decent bloke. I also take comfort in his outspokenness about postmodern architecture. As an article in Architectural Diges noted shortly after his accession to the throne, the New York Times once referred to Charles as “the most prominent architecture critic in the world.” On the subject, he’s at once knowledgeable, articulate, and surprisingly droll. The definitive text in this connection is his 1984 speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects, in which he killed off a proposed extension to London’s National Gallery by describing it as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” An acid comment he made about plans for a skyscraper by Mies van der Rohe put the kibosh on that project, too. And his 1987 criticism of Richard Rogers’s design for a colossal pile that would stand alongside (and dwarf) St. Paul’s Cathedral, the most beautiful edifice in London — “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings,” he jeered, “it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble” — kept that nightmare from becoming a reality.
Charles’s position on architecture is simple and straightforward: he prizes beauty, and he believes that when new buildings are conceived, the priority should be to bring pleasure to the everyday lives of the people working or living in them, not to épater les bourgeois. “Architecture defines the public realm,” he said in 2009, “and it should help to define us as human beings and to symbolize the way we look at the world.” He spelled out this view in his 1989 book A Vision of Britain, which its publisher, Doubleday, promoted as “a personal plea for urban development that preserves the unique character and tradition of towns and cities,” as well as in a short-lived architectural magazine, Perspectives, that he established in 1994. Charles’s strong views on architecture also led him to found an architectural institute and even to construct an original housing development in southern England.
Most ordinary people who don’t work in architecture agree with Charles. They have no trouble saying that, say, Boston’s City Hall, the FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the Verizon Building in New York are eyesores. But those who buy into the received contemporary criteria for good architecture — who, that is, love ugly brutalist structures for being wonderfully subversive — regard Charles as a reactionary, a philistine, and a populist. Their take on him was summed up in 2014 by a fatuous architecture critic named Douglas Murphy, who, writing in the Guardian, dismissed Charles’s views by asserting, ludicrously, that modern architecture arose organically because the general public “actively wanted to cast off the traditional past,” that it’s “preposterous to build traditionally” in an era of computers and space exploration, and that Charles’s views are built on a “spurious notion of What People Really Want.” Nonsense, nonsense, and more nonsense. In his confrontation with the panjandrums of architecture, Charles stands out as a wise and witty critic of the sort whose musings would not seem out of place in the New Criterion.
What else can be said for Charles? Well, I was heartened to hear him say unhesitatingly, in reciting the text of the coronation service, that he is “a faithful Protestant.” I mention this because Charles, who’s been described as “the most pro-Islam monarch in British history,” has been rumored to be a secret Muslim. Whether that’s the case or not, it’s unarguably true that he’s an ardent booster of that deeply problematic faith, a man whose obvious capacity for earnest and discerning reflection on the purposes of architecture instantly disappears when the topic turns to Islam: he criticized the 2005 Danish cartoons, he refused to support Salman Rushdie in the matter of the Satanic Verses fatwa, he’s praised Muslims’ “generosity of spirit and kind-hearted hospitality,” he’s claimed that Islam is no more extremist than Christianity, he’s called Islam the “religion of the middle way,” he’s asserted that “the Prophet himself always disliked and feared extremism,” and he’s even tried to sell the preposterous idea that Islam has a better record on women’s rights than Christianity.
But I won’t belabor this issue any further — I’ve written previously at some length about Charles’s unfortunate fondness for Islam — because there are other matters of concern when it comes to the newly crowned British monarch. For example, whether or not he’s authentically Christian or covertly Muslim, one thing’s for sure: he’s a devout member of the church of climate change. At the 2021 COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, where he spoke of the need to abandon fossil fuels, he told fellow eco-fanatics that “we might be forced to put ourselves on a warlike footing” if we want to succeed in fighting climate change. He’s been the face of a number of extreme environmental initiatives, including the International Sustainability Unit, founded in 2010 “to address challenges such as protecting rainforests and marine ecosystems,” and the Sustainable Markets Initiative (SMI). At Davos in 2020, he unveiled an SMI “mandate” called “Terra Carta” that provides “a proposed set of principles to 2030 that puts Nature, People and Planet at the heart of global value creation.” No wonder that, long before he ascended to the throne, there was much excited talk in green circles to the effect that Charles would, upon succeeding his mother, become the “climate king.”
As if that weren’t enough, he’s also a major fan of “alternative medicine.” Do you know what homeopathy is? Concocted in 1796 by a German physician, Samuel Hahnemann, and popular throughout much of the 19th century, it’s perhaps the ultimate in sheer medical quackery. The premise is that an ailment can be successfully treated if a sample of the chemical that causes it is diluted with water or alcohol in a series of six steps that results in a substance in which the offending chemical makes up only one part per trillion. In some cases, dilution on that scale means that the final substance contains not a single molecule of the repeatedly diluted chemical. Serious medical professionals (and pretty much anyone with two brain cells to run together) have long recognized this theory as pure nonsense: the personal doctor to Queen Victoria, Charles’s great-great-grandmother, called homeopathy “an outrage to human reason.” But that hasn’t kept the new king of the U.K., Canada, Belize, and Papua New Guinea from being, in the words of Edzard Ernst, a professor of medicine at the University of Exeter, “one of the most outspoken proponents of homeopathy.”
In fact, Charles seems to have a weakness for almost every kind of medical fraud that’s ever come along. In addition to homeopathy, he’s a devotee of acupuncture, Gerson therapy (which “uses a specific organic vegetarian diet, nutritional supplements and enemas to treat cancer”), foot reflexology (which teaches that you can cure illnesses in various parts of the body by applying pressure to certain locations on the feet, ears, and hands), iridology (which claims to diagnose medical conditions by noting irregularities in iris color), and pulse diagnosis (an ancient Chinese diagnostic method that involves distinguishing among two or three dozen types of pulse) — all of which he’s tried to get Britain’s National Health Service to cover. Indeed, far from trying to hide his susceptibility to all this silliness, Charles has proudly described himself as an “enemy of the Enlightenment.”
Not that opposing certain aspects of the modern world isn’t admirable. As we’ve seen, at least when it comes to architecture, King Charles III is very much in line with “What People Really Want.” Let’s put it this way: as King Charleses go, he’s smack dab in the middle, preferable to Charles I but perhaps not quite up there with Charles II. To the extent that we choose to give him any attention at all, we can only hope that, in whatever amount of time fate gives him to sit on his throne, he’ll forget about his more idiotic enthusiasms of the past and, in a manner befitting a king, strive sincerely to discover, and to stand up for, what the British people really want on a wide range of issues, from freedom of speech to, yes, Islamic immigration. For however foolish some of his causes, he’s a genuine intellectual — a fellow who, despite his irrational ardor for homeopathy (which was, in any event, shared by the likes of Emerson, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Twain, Shaw, Gandhi, and Cher), falls into the same category of philosopher king as Marcus Aurelius.
Still, take him for all in all, maybe it’s best that he doesn’t really wield much temporal power.