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Princes Charles and his son Prince William leave after attending a Service of Commemoration to mark the end of combat operations in Iraq, at St Paul's Cathedral in London October 9, 2009. (LUKE MACGREGOR/REUTERS)
Princes Charles and his son Prince William leave after attending a Service of Commemoration to mark the end of combat operations in Iraq, at St Paul's Cathedral in London October 9, 2009. (LUKE MACGREGOR/REUTERS)

Britain's crisis of succession: Charles and the story behind the royal wedding Add to ...

If you wanted to choose a time and place when the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton transformed itself from mere nuptials into the signature tactic in a full-scale crisis of succession, it was Nov. 2, 2009, in the seaside town of Cupids, Nfld.

William's father, Prince Charles, and his stepmother, Camilla Parker-Bowles, launched their much-heralded Canadian tour with an inaugural appearance in this town, a short drive from St. John's, that managed to attract a crowd of exactly 57 people. The last time Charles had gone to Newfoundland, with William's mother, Diana, in 1983, it had been standing room only. This time, fewer than one-10th of local residents bothered to show up, and almost no one travelled to see Canada's future head of state.

The rest of the visit was a tableau of angry protesters, riot police, empty bleachers and public indifference - a shocking reaction from a country whose people are generally the most favourable to the monarchy of any major Commonwealth country.

Ten weeks later, a bold experiment was attempted, initiated by a secretive committee within the House of Windsor. Prince William, the untested grandson, was sent as a substitute for the Queen on a late 2009 tour of Australia and New Zealand, where as much as 60 per cent of the population favoured an elected president in place of the monarchy.

The result was stunning: Thousands of people attended his every appearance, and he seemed to win over skeptical Antipodeans with his informal calm.

British papers, and even some parliamentarians, began to discuss openly something that only had been whispered before: the possibility, constitutionally feasible but rare in practice, of "skipping" Charles and passing the line of succession to William. Behind this speculation lay a mounting fear that Charles's tenure on the throne could ruin the institution unless something dramatic were done.

The Windsors' committee, the Way Ahead Group, was launched in 1994 by the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Airlie, and it includes the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and their private secretaries, as well as Princess Anne and Princes Andrew and Edward.

Its mandate revolves around constitutional issues surrounding the monarchy, such as the question of royal marriages to Roman Catholics or the end of precedence for male heirs (both, ultimately, parliamentary subjects), says Katie Nicholl, a London-based Royal Family expert with contacts within the committee.

But increasingly, she says, it has become obsessed with the larger question of the monarchy's survival after Elizabeth II's death.

And by the end of 2009, Charles was becoming a serious threat to that future: Even as he was touring Canada, the London media were revealing that in the previous decade he had become a compulsively outspoken political actor, lobbying more than a dozen British cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister, with his infamous "black-spider letters" - so-called because of his distinctive penmanship and his persistence - at least fortnightly, demanding meetings and seeking changes to legislation.

His role as a political lobbyist and owner of a $50-million-a-year business empire was eclipsing his role as a future monarch. And there was increasing evidence that he intended to maintain and even amplify it.

"We can't underestimate Charles's belief in himself," said Graham Smith, the head of the anti-monarchist group Republic. "He has a genuine messianic complex. He's been on a lifelong mission to reshape the country in his image." In this, Mr. Smith says, the republican cause has received its brightest gift: a potential monarch who doesn't shake hands and fade into the background, one who gets in the way.

When the Way Ahead Group met in the summer of 2009, chaired by Prince Philip, the core question was how to prevent the monarchy from fading into irrelevance or distrust, and keep it revered and respected in the eyes of a new generation. Charles, according to witnesses, dismissed this talk as "impertinent," and tried to steer the agenda, as he generally does at such meetings, into ecological politics.

But by year's end it was apparent to everyone - except perhaps Charles - that the monarchy was facing a larger threat, from a hostile Parliament and an indifferent public, after the Queen's demise, unless its elite was able to shift the playing field by doing something dramatic. And then, in the late months of 2010, something dramatic materialized - or, rather, something pleasantly ordinary, involving a grandson and a pretty girl, that could be engineered into something more.

One wedding and one funeral

William had asked his family that his marriage to Kate be a humble and low-key event. But that request was vehemently overruled by his grandmother and her committee. Indeed, the event that most royal watchers had expected to be the monarchy's big splash, the Queen's 2012 Diamond Jubilee, was scaled down to what one commentator called "a low-key, village-fete-and-street-party affair," while the grandchild's wedding was upgraded to a shower of opulence on a scale not seen since Elizabeth's coronation in 1953.

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