In the end, it was the pens that did it. Twice. Undertaking a brutal schedule of head of state duties and public appearances while simultaneously dealing with profound personal sorrow, it was likely something would have to give. And for the exhausted King, the focus of his frustration was the pens.
At his proclamation last Saturday he frantically motioned to an aide to remove a box of pens that was impeding him as he signed his solemn declaration and oath.
On Tuesday, signing a visitors’ book at Hillsborough Castle, his exasperation at a leaking fountain pen was also captured on camera. “Oh god, I hate this,” he snapped, handing the implement to the Queen Consort, ensuring it leaked over her hands. “I can’t bear this bloody thing … every stinking time,” he added, walking away.
It was a glimpse of the Charles that his private staff have witnessed over the years, a man wont to express his ire volubly.
Of course, it is something his mother would not have been seen to do in public, though the Windsor temper is, apparently, a hereditary trait. His grandfather King George VI was famous for his “gnashes”, as the family referred to his outbursts, which would inevitably see the Queen Mother holding his wrist and counting his pulse as he calmed down.
But then, Queen Elizabeth II did not have to immediately complete the punishing round of official visits to Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff that Charles has done so swiftly to cement his accession. “The Queen didn’t have to do anything like what he’s doing now. Of course, as time went on she went to all the big cities. That’s how they did it then,” said the royal historian Hugo Vickers.
“But not in those first days, before the funeral. She went to the accession council, and she had those heads of state duties. She came back from Kenya, and after the accession council and the proclamation she went up to Sandringham to be with her mother and sister. So, this is new. And, obviously, important, because the world has moved on. And he has had to show his loyalty to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in this way and it has clearly been very successful.”
As Charles takes on his new roles of head of state, his six new red boxes bearing his royal cypher, in which he will receive his important papers, are in production by the luxury British leather goods company Barrow Hepburn & Gale.
He is also head of family. From the moment of the Queen’s death, his siblings would know their place now was to bow and curtsey before him. When the Queen came to the throne, Queen Mary, George V’s widow, was the first person to curtsey to her as her “loyal subject,” said Vickers.
Observers have been struck by Charles’s sense of composure, at the Vigil of the Princes that he and his siblings held at their mother’s coffin, at the procession and service for the lying in state at Westminster Hall.
“He has looked completely exhausted. When we lose a loved one, we don’t have to have it in our faces as he has had,” said the royal author Penny Junor. “He has had to be out there, looking at that coffin in front of him, in raw grief, in public. There’s not one minute when he has got the privacy just to collapse. Everybody has wanted a piece of him, that’s the sad reality of his position.”
His relative composure contrasts with the abject grief so publicly visible during the funeral of the Queen Mother. It’s an indication, said Vickers, of his awareness of his position as King as well as that of bereaved son.
“When the Queen Mother died, it was all ‘I’ve been dreading this moment, what’s going to happen to me now, I’ve lost my best ally’. At her funeral he looked so crushed. There were pictures of him walking alone in the hills of Scotland, a miserable character.
“This time, he has done the absolute opposite,” Vickers said, referencing the King’s address when Charles acknowledged “her death brings great sadness to so many of you”. “Of course, he had been dreading this moment. But with those words he was comforting us. What I would say is that he is looking out instead of looking in. Which is a big change. And that is what he has really got right.”
In all of his speeches this week, in the references to Burns and to Shakespeare, each carefully chosen, Charles has been especially emotional. “He is a very emotional man. I think we should learn to like that about him,” Vickers said.
This weekend, we will see him welcoming heads of state and international leaders in his new role for the first time, at an official reception at Buckingham Palace for VIPs invited to attend the funeral.
Away from the public eye, he has been continuing a relentless schedule. He has had telephone conversations with, among others, the presidents of the United States, Ireland and France, and governors general of Australia, Canada, New Zealand.
At Highgrove, his Gloucestershire home, where he spent Thursday, the presidents of Rwanda, Italy, Germany, Greece, the prime minister of Barbados, the king of Saudi Arabia were just some of whose calls he took.
Throughout it all, he has had to cement a relationship with a new prime minister, woo leaders of the Commonwealth nations, meet leaders across the political divide in Northern Ireland and navigate other significant diplomatic moments.
For many, however, the highlight was his address to the nation, with its references to dedication, duty, gratitude and love, which has been widely regarded as pitch perfect. “And it was so clever and right to have included Harry and Meghan in that speech,” said Junor. It was an indication of the diplomacy required as head of family, not just as head of state.
He is aware his every word and action on the international stage will be subject to scrutiny as never before. “But he is very well trained,” said Vickers. “He comes to the throne with experience. He’s not a new man. He’s been around.”