Header: History as a background. The then Prince of Wales deputising for the Queen at the State opening of Parliament in May 2022.
[Copyright House of Lords 2022 / Photography by Annabel Moeller
CC Attribution 2.0 Generic]
With the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of her son as Charles III the whole issue of monarchy has been up for debate Britain [as long as you don’t risk arrest by threatening to hold up a blank sheet of paper in the street]. However, whether you are pro, anti, or feel at least a constitutional monarchy is better than President Boris Johnson, one issue which has intrigued the archaeological social media is the fact that the new King read archaeology at University.
thePipeLine looks at the interactions of King Charles the Third with the trowel face.
The meetings of of the King’s privy councillors were once somewhat more exciting and dangerous than that televised on Saturday [10 September 2022]. For example, when Richard III presided over such a meeting at the Tower of London on 13 June 1483, ostensibly to discuss arrangements for the coronation of the new King Edward V, it ended in bloody chaos, with Lord Hastings accused of treason, and dragged out onto Tower Green to be beheaded.
Nonetheless, the televising of a full meeting of privy councillors at St James’s Palace, in order to give a legal and constitutional stamp to the accession of King Charles III following the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II less than two days earlier, was still weighty with the precedents it set.
Not only was it the first such meeting to be broadcast live, the master of ceremonies, Penny Mordaunt MP is the first female Lord President of the Council, a role dating back to 1529.
However, for people in the heritage sector perhaps the most interesting precedents are those which lie with the focus of the meeting of the Accession Council of the King’s Privy Councillors, King Charles III himself.
At seventy three Charles Phillip Arthur George, eldest son of the late Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, is not only the oldest monarch to succeed to the throne of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, he is also the first monarch to possess a university degree awarded on the basis of his own academic efforts.
Previous princes, including the King’s own grandfather George VI, studied special truncated courses rather than taking a full degree.
However, between October 1967 and June 1970, the then Charles Windsor studied for the Cambridge Tripos like any other undergraduate. That is a broad based Part One course and a more specialised Part Two, all of which are examined formally. Albeit, while he could boast a distinction in a History special paper, his A-level grades were somewhat lower that was customary in Cambridge freshers.
In the case of the Prince’s course of study, he began with Part One in Archaeology and Anthropology, switching to History for Part Two in his final year.
By this time he had reportedly become fascinated by the life of his forbear George III, and especially the question as to whether the king, who, according to popular lore, was famously mad, talked to his plants and lost America, had been treated fairly by historians.
In another break with royal precedent, the prince would “live in” as part of the student community, rather than in a private household away from college.
This effort earned the then Prince of Wales the famous BA hons “Desmond” degree, a 2:2, named as a pun on the family name of the former Archbishop of Johannesburg and formidable opponent of South Africa’s Apartheid regime.
Sadly it is an urban myth that, having attended all the Prince’s lectures, his close protection officer also sat finals and obtained the more prestigious 2:1.
In fact the Prince himself had actually achieved a 2:1 at the end of his first year and it is suggested his Cambridge results may have suffered after he took a term out to study Welsh History and Language at the University of Wales, College at Aberystwyth.
As in so much of royal life this was a carefully calibrated political gesture ahead of his investiture as Prince of Wales which would take place in July 1969, while he was still at Cambridge.
Thus, while it cannot be said that in any real sense Prince Charles left Cambridge as an archaeologist, with the degree he had been awarded he could probably have made his way in the profession had he not had other duties and calls on his time.
However, what can be stated with certainty is that while studying archaeology at Cambridge he was part of an academic community at one of the leading academic archaeological centres in Britain, if not the world, and was taught by some of the archaeological stars then on the faculty.
For example, the then Disney Professor of Archaeology was the famous excavator of Star Carr and expert on the Mesolithic, the personally dull, but archaeologically brilliant and influential Sir Grahame Clark.
One time farmer, founder of the “Cambridge Palaeoeconomy School” and pioneer of assessing the geographical setting of an archaeological site, Eric Higgs was also an influential member of the faculty,.
While the Prince’s director of studies was another prehistorian and pioneering experimental archaeologist, the Canadian John Coles, who had studied under both Grahame Clark and subsequently at Edinburgh under Stuart Piggott.
Altogether archaeology at Cambridge in the late 1960’s both looked back to the academic foundations of the subject in the straddling the Second World War, while looking forward to a more theoretical and science based future.
It was also archaeology in the public eye.
Another academic mentor of the eighteen year old prince was one of the most famous archaeologists of the period, Dr, later Professor, Glyn Daniel.
Famous for his TV appearances, often sparring with the flamboyant Sir Mortimer Wheeler, as much as his editorship of the journal of record Antiquity, his considerable academic achievements as an expert in Prehistoric Chamber Tombs, and author of the then standard text The Idea of Prehistory (1962), Daniel had also served in RAF intelligence during World War Two, achieving the rank of Wing Commander.
Having also published a series of detective novels, where the hero was a slightly eccentric academic archaeologist, Daniel was no doubt seen also as a safe pair of hands to guide the prince on his archaeological adventure.
As something of a bon viveur, being the author of “The Hungry Archaeologist in France: A Travelling Guide to Caves, Graves and Good Living in the Dordogne and Brittany”, Daniel also sat outside the overtly Marxist influences of the like of UCL’s Vere Gordon Childe, an especially important consideration as the Prince reputedly had to be dissuaded from joining the University Labour Club.
Overseeing the efforts at mentoring of Glyn Daniel and Coles would be none other than the Master of Trinity College himself, the veteran Conservative Politician R A B [RAB] Butler, who had been instrumental in persuading an initially reluctant Buckingham Palace that the prince should break with Royal tradition by studying a normal undergraduate course and sit finals.
Butler’s biographer Anthony Howard noted that the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and architect of the 1944 Education Act, , would set aside three quarters of an hour each evening to talk to the future King if Prince Charles wished, in much the same way as a predecessor, Lord Melbourne, had mentored the young Queen Victoria.
The Master perhaps had also to brush over the period Prince Charles’s great great grandfather Edward Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, had spent at Trinity. A stay which ended with rumours of an affair between the prince and actress Nellie Clifden, resulting in a hastily arranged firefighting visit from the prince’s father Prince Albert.
Already ill, the Prince Consort would be dead within two weeks, thus colouring the rest of the reign of Edward’s mother Queen Victoria.
Not that Prince Charles would be kept from the prying eyes of the nascent tabloid press by living the anonymous existence of a puritan scholar.
Indeed, the prince’s arrival at Trinity in that 1960’s icon, a Mini, was the subject of a full media call including a personal welcome from the Master RAB Butler, and with it all recorded for posterity by Pathe News.
In the course of his Part One studies, and perhaps with an eye to updating “The Hungry Archaeologists in France,” Glyn Daniel accompanied the prince on an Easter 1968 site visit to the prehistoric site of Carnac in Brittany, and caves in the Dordogne, flown there by the Prince’s father Prince Phillip.
Stopping off on the way home on Channel Island of Jersey, the prince also visited the then ongoing excavations by Cambridge University at the Palaeolithic cave of La Cotte de St Brelade, under the direction of another famous Cambridge archaeologist, the American born Professor Charles McBurney.
The visit was recorded by the cameras of Channel Television which caught the anorak wearing Prince and his colleagues, working at the cliff edge with not a high V, hard hat, or harness to be seen.
On visiting the excavations the future king would note,
“…just after I left they started finding the most amazing things, having found absolutely nothing up until then!”
Those things included the bones of Mammoth and Woolly Rhinoceros illuminating the hunting and butchery techniques of the inhabitants of the cave.
Described as a time capsule of a quarter of a million years, the site has been under investigation since at least 1910 and work continues to this day, with the involvement of archaeologists from a number of universities led by Dr Matt Pope of UCL.
From attending MacBurney’s lectures, to digging with the site crew, Prince Charles maintained contact with the distinguished archaeologist until the latter’s death in 1979.
Then, completing the circle of his association with the site, more than fifty years after his first visit to La Cotte de St Brelade, in July 2022, it was announced that Prince Charles would become a patron Jersey Heritage’s restoration project, at the site.
When the appointment was announced Dr Pope told the media,
“The Prince’s time with McBurney at La Cotte de St Brelade, working under challenging conditions, saw the future British monarch physically revealing the traces of Ice Age archaeology from the site. Reconnecting with that historic moment, over half a century later, and as the site is once more under excavation, is significant. It reminds us that understanding our shared past is an inter-generational endeavour.”
The Prince also continued to cross paths with Glyn Daniel and in June 1981 the he would be guest of honour at a reception for the veteran archaeologist at Stationers’ Hall in the City of London and would be presented with a copy of his ‘A Short History Of Archaeology’.
A year later in 1982 Prince Charles visited the then Museum of London Department of Urban Archaeology’s excavation at Billingsgate market [BIG82]. Archaeologists Ian Blair would claim not only that this is the only known Royal visit to an on-going archaeological excavation in London in living memory, but that the Royal Wellington boots, apparently supplied for the occasion, were missing in action after the visit, their whereabouts becoming something of another urban myth, at least among London’s archaeologists.
The prince would also dive on the site of the Tudor warship Mary Rose, it was like “swimming in lentil soup” he would recall, and he would be present on 11 October 1982 when the remains of the ship were lifted from the Solent mud off Southsea castle and taken into Portsmouth harbour.
When the lift appeared to run into trouble, with a sickening metallic crunch audible as the wreck in its yellow cradle broke surface and appeared to partially collapse, a TV reporter, clearly possessed of the then traditional RSS, or “Royal as Saviour Syndrome”, asked the mackintosh clad Prince what advice he had for the engineers and archaeologists. To his credit Prince Charles replied that the team was well qualified and he planned to let them get on with the job without interfering.
However, on a later visit to the ship, now resplendently installed in a £35 million visitor centre, he would confess that he secretly feared the problem might actually have been his fault, because he had encouraged the team to begin the lift because the floating crane Tog Mor was vastly expensive to hire and could disappear to the other side of the world if they did not get on with the job soon.
As prince he continued to support the work of archaeologists in more recent years, especially in Scotland.
In his role as Duke of Rothesey in August 2011 Prince Charles visited the Caithness Broch Centre and the ongoing excavation at Nybster Broch, walking the site with Dr Andy Heald, of AOC Archaeology, and Pat Buchanan, of the Caithness Archaeological Trust.
More recently in March 2019 the Prince would add the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust to the some four hundred organisations of which he is currently patron. The Trust has been undertaking a research excavation investigating both the archaeology and erosion processes at the multi-period site at the Knowe of Swandro in Rousay and elsewhere in the Orkneys.
The Chair of the Trust, Dr Steve Dockrill (Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Bradford), pointed to the advantages such Royal patronage can bring:
“We hope that having such a distinguished Patron will raise the profile of the Trust and also make more people aware of the threat to our heritage posed by global warming”.
It is that last comment bringing together the interests of Prince Charles in both archaeology and the environment, which has been sustained throughout his adult life, which also highlights the choices he must make as King Charles III.
Towards the end of his University career on 12 May 1970, with what would become known as “Green Issues” entering increasingly the public discourse, the prince spoke at the Cambridge Union, the motion for debate being,
“This house believes that technological advance threatens the individuality of man and is becoming his master”.
“I am in a slightly difficult position,” he began, before expressing concern at the extent to which people had become creatures of advancing technology, and might be victims of the pollution which could be the result.
The prince went on to suggest that on some occasions it was necessary to question the purpose of new developments.
This was the beginning of an adult life punctuated with comments on such issues as architecture, organic versus industrial farming and, perhaps inspired by his background in anthropology, by comments about the importance of faith and a desire to be a defender of faith, not circumscribed by the Coronation oath to be Defender of just THE Faith as head of the Church of England and protector of the independence of the Church of Scotland.
Prior to the accession of Prince Charles, perhaps the highest ranking people with archaeological training in the British political system were two members of the House of Lords. Lord Renfrew of the Conservative Party, who as Professor Colin Renfrew had succeeded Glyn Daniel as Disney Professor at Cambridge in 1981, and Green Party peer Baroness Jenny Jones, who prior to entering politics had trained as an environmental archaeologist at University College London as a mature student and had worked in the field for a decade.
Now it is ironic that a Government, members of which have often disparaged humanities degrees, sought to water down environmental protections in planning, and even attempted to remove funding from archaeology degrees, while allowing the closure of university archaeology departments, must now deal with a Head of State who has demonstrated a lifelong enthusiasts interest in both the environment and archaeology.
They may be grateful that the convention of Great Britain’s unwritten constitution dictates that the King can only pass on thoughts on these issues behind the closed doors of the weekly audience between Monarch and Prime Minister, the content of which is never discussed in public, and in meetings with the Privy Council which in the normal run of the constitution are also not held in public.
Other comments, including set piece speeches and the hosting of international events, such as the recent Cop26 in Glasgow, will be the subject of a delicate dance of drafting and direction between Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street, all designed to ensure the monarch’s exercise of “soft power” is in lockstep with the priorities and positions of the elected Government.
And so it should be.
With this in mind, in his first televised speech after becoming King Charles III addressed pointedly the suspicions of some on the political right and their media outriders, that as King he might be interfering and even “woke”, telling the huge audience watching at home, and the more select audience hanging on his words at Westminster, that he understood the conventions of Britain’s constitutional monarchy and that,
“My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities. It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply.”
However, the Prince added,
“But I know this important work will go on in the trusted hands of others.”
He did not specify who those “others” were, but with his own heir, and now Prince of Wales in his stead, Prince William, already taking on some of the causes his father has involved himself in most, including efforts to address the climate emergency, eyes will be on him to voice those stances in public, while perhaps hoping that the new King will continue to advocate for the environment, and perhaps even archaeology, behind closed doors.
He may also follow the reported passive aggressive practice of his mother, Elizabeth II.
While across her seventy year reign her pronouncements on public affairs were Delphic to non-existent, Margaret Thatcher’s former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Armstrong, told the Political Editor of Channel 4 News, Gary Gibbon, that, while never taking an official stance, officials would know that a particular Whitehall wheeze was not going down well at Buckingham Palace if the Queen asked for more official papers to explain the policy and its justification.
Meanwhile, the new King is proof that, even if elsewhere in the workforce it cannot guarantee a career and a living wage, an individual in possession of a humanities degree, even one with an archaeological component, can yet rise to the highest office in the land.
Albeit hundreds of years of tradition, an unwritten constitution and a dynastic family connection, also has rather a lot to do with it.
[This article was updated at 22:22 on 14 September 2022 to clarify that, while nominally the Head of the Church of England, under the Act of Union of 1707 the monarch undertakes to protect the independence of the Church of Scotland]
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