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King Charles approaching his illness with the same pragmatism he displayed towards Ireland

Queen Elizabeth’s visit may have had more impact, but Charles quietly laid the groundwork for a better relationship between the two islands

The British are more sentimental than they appear. But the stereotype is persistent; it is a nation for the stoic, unemotional, stiff-upper-lipped types.

This was on full display on the front page of The Times of London and The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday morning: ‘The King Has Cancer’ read one headline and ‘King Has Cancer’ read the other. Straightforward, matter-of-fact, perhaps even glib. It seems like a turning point; the monarchy for a long time has been an institution that survives on its mystical, sentimental almost incorporeal qualities.

Just a year-and-a-bit into his reign – and less than a year since his official coronation – King Charles III has been diagnosed with cancer, the type and severity of which have not been revealed.

The announcement comes after a series of stories over January about the king’s health problems. A statement from the palace reveals he will now postpone public duties as he undergoes treatment. Charles has been preparing for the throne for 75 years: there are few who do not feel sympathy.


The king’s openness about his health is in stark contrast to the attitude of previous monarchs. When George VI’s left lung was removed in 1951 owing to lung cancer, it was euphemistically described to the public as a procedure demanded by “structural abnormalities”.

This was how the monarchy was supposed to work, at least according to former Economist editor and essayist Walter Bagehot: “we must not let daylight in upon the magic” he wrote.

His idea was that the royal family should remain an enigma, their private lives abstracted from the public.

“If you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it . . . its mystery is its life.”

This may have been all well and good in 1867 but it is no longer a statement in tune with the realities of the 21st century. The tabloid press has a lot to answer for: in 2017 a French court ruled that paparazzi photos of Kate Middleton on holiday were an invasion of her privacy; last year Prince Harry was awarded £140,600 in damages after a judge ruled he was the victim of “extensive” phone hacking from 2006 to 2011.

The worst excesses of tabloid culture did not just let a little “daylight in upon the magic” but wrenched open the curtains on the monarchy for the entire world to see. Bagehot might be rolling in his grave.

It is never entirely the tabloids’ fault. The royals are changing the dynamic themselves. Meghan and Harry’s now infamous 2021 interview with Oprah felt like a turning point; the pair revealed their version of the family’s inner workings on prime time TV.

Prince Harry’s memoir Spare left almost nothing to the imagination; he wrote of a frostbitten penis; the 25 enemy soldiers he killed during his tours of the Helmand region in Afghanistan; that he urged his father not to marry now-Queen Camilla.

The royal family – or former members – have taken a sledgehammer to the mysteries Bagehot once believed were crucial to its survival.

But these are just the facts of monarchy in the 21st century. Given that, the king’s openness about his health struggles are not just brave and honest (though they are, of course) but they are necessary.

Charles comes across as someone who understands how the monarchy hauls itself into the modern day – dispelling the mysticism for a more open system. The traditionalists in Britain might be dismayed – why would anyone disrupt such an ancient tradition? – but adaptation is sometimes the only means of survival.

It makes sense for a man like Charles to be at the helm for this sea change. Despite his obsession with English folklore, the metaphysical realm and Presocratic philosophy – The Spectator refers to his “esoteric creed”, The Telegraph calls him “the Philosopher King” – Charles has another side. He is an obvious pragmatist.

There is no better evidence for this disposition than his relationship and attitude towards Ireland. Plenty of weight is afforded to Queen Elizabeth II’s trip to the Republic in 2011: a turning point in Anglo-Irish relations, a moment of profound symbolism in the difficult histories of the two nations.

But less attention is given to Charles’s own previous trips; he visited the Republic in 1995, the first official visit by the royals since Irish independence. The queen may have been seen around the world, but Charles laid the groundwork.

His great uncle – Lord Mountbatten – was murdered in 1979 by the IRA. In 2015 Charles visited the scene in Mullaghmore, Co Sligo. During that visit he also met Gerry Adams, then president of Sinn Féin. It was the first time the Sinn Féin leadership met a member of the royal family in the Republic.

On display was not just Charles’s obvious sense of duty but also the level head required to thaw the ice between Ireland and Britain; a deep understanding of the practical steps required to foment and maintain a peace.

King Charles has long been a pioneer for the modern monarchs: practical, in step with contemporary mores, willing to adapt to the demands of the time. His honesty about his health is as much a part of this as anything: it could prove to be a rather important legacy.