Vanity Fair  - December 2018  - Text: James Reginato. Photography: Alexi Lubomirski

As Prince Charles Celebrates his 70th Birthday, James Reginato hops on a royal flight for a close-up with the United Kingdom's someday sovereign and his queen.

Vanity Fair Dec 2018 - ws.jpg

Keep Calm and Ascend - As the Prince of Wales turns 70, James Reginato hops on a royal flight to catch up with the longest-waiting heir apparent in history. The Duchess of Cornwall wears a cream dress by Fiona Clare.

“Anyone of my age knows that days pass at a far greater speed than when they were young,” a man nearing his 70th birthday recently told me. “But in my case there are so many things that need to be done.”

“Things that need to be done” takes on a strikingly different quality if you are on the verge of ascending the British throne. Past the age at which many people retire, Charles Philip Arthur George, the Prince of Wales, is still waiting to begin the job he’s been in line for since he was three years old, when his mother, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, began her monarchy in 1952. As she has become the longest-reigning sovereign in British history, he’s become the longest-waiting heir apparent. While the Queen, at 92, still vigorously carries out the major elements of her role as head of state, her reign is inexorably beginning to wind down. At her request, the Prince of Wales has begun to ramp things up.

“Charles figured out a very long time ago that he was going to be Prince of Wales for a very long time,” an English peer intimate with the royal family says. “He planned his life accordingly, and he wouldn’t have been able to accomplish half of what he has if he had become King earlier.”

Dodging the sovereign’s constitutionally mandated straitjacket and muzzle, the Prince of Wales has been able to express strong opinions on many issues—including climate change, alternative medicine, and architectural preservation—for which he has been harshly criticized.

Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, photographed in the garden at Clarence House.

Photograph by Alexi Lubomirski.

He has also been a prolific worker bee in the Windsor hive, his work constituting charity appearances and other public forays for the greater good. A tally of “jobs” attended by the royal family in 2017 attests to the amount of heavy lifting Charles is doing. With 546 under his belt, Charles was at the top of the list, while the Queen came in fourth (behind Princess Anne and Prince Andrew) at 296. Prince Harry and Prince William, future King himself, notched considerably fewer: 209 and 171, respectively.

As the United Kingdom lurches toward Brexit and relations with the European Union fray, the royal family’s soft power may be Britain’s trump card. They charm, they command respect; they impart a sense of stability and continuity. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth states—home to 2.4 billion citizens, a third of the world’s population—are ever critical. It was not just an act of fashion when Meghan had her 16-foot veil embroidered with flora from each of the 53 member nations. In April, the heads of these countries—which include India, New Zealand, and Nigeria—officially voted that Charles will succeed his mother as leader.

While his relatives and his subjects tiptoe around the mere thought of the Queen’s death, Charles has become a proxy head of state for his mother, while his own children have helped garner massive positive press for the royal family. (Some two billion people around the world tuned in to watch Meghan and Harry’s wedding and their baby news is a global preoccupation.) So, on May 7, when I boarded a plane with the Prince of Wales and his wife of 13 years, the Duchess of Cornwall, bound for an official royal tour through France and Greece, the couple was in high spirits.