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King Charles III faces an uphill battle to match his late mother's popularity

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Queen Elizabeth will be laid to rest on Monday following a state funeral in Westminster Abbey. After that, attention in Britain will turn to her son, King Charles III, as he tries to guide the monarchy into a new, uncertain era. Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I'm looking out over Britain's Parliament building, and there are thousands of people lined up to see the queen's coffin inside. In fact, the line is so long, it stretches across a bridge and down a big stretch of the River Thames. And it's a reminder not only of how beloved she was here but also the mark she left over 70 years on the throne. And it's also a reminder that her son has a hard act to follow. I was just talking to a guy here named Jonathan Rabbitt. He's a software engineer from Oxford, and he said this is kind of how he feels.

JONATHAN RABBITT: I'm not enthusiastic about King Charles as I was about Queen Elizabeth, but that's possibly not hard to say. Elizabeth was an incredible queen. Her faith was an inspiration. Her Christmas broadcasts were always wonderful to see. And Charles has a lot to live up to.

LANGFITT: Of course, there are some people here today who are looking forward to the reign of King Charles. One is a guy named Steve Cass. He was actually two miles away down the river waiting in line to see the queen's casket. But he also says he's optimistic about the new king.

STEVE CASS: He's had to wait a long time to take the title and to take the job on. But I've got a lot of respect for him. I am a royalist. I think he'll do a sterling job. The environmentalists will be happy because he's very green in his outlook and always has been.

LANGFITT: But as Jonathan Rabbitt suggests, the king is nowhere near as popular as his mother. A poll by YouGov, the British survey research firm, found that 75% of Britons have a positive view of the queen, while only 42% have a positive view of her son. One reason Charles is so less popular is because of the way he treated his first wife, the late Princess Diana. Max Hastings is the former editor of Britain's The Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard.

MAX HASTINGS: The image that Diana passed onto the world about the prince of Wales is not a very attractive image.

LANGFITT: What is that image?

HASTINGS: It was an - it was an image of a very selfish, quirky, weird man who couldn't understand for the life of him why he was expected to give up his long-term mistress just because he married a young girl.

LANGFITT: After Charles married Diana, he kept up an affair with his old flame, Camilla Parker Bowles, who was also married. The couple finally divorced in 1996. Prince Charles married Camilla in 2005. She's now the queen consort. One reason the queen was so popular is because she was a cipher. Royal analysts say many Britons simply projected on her who they thought she was or wished her to be. Here again is Max Hastings, with whom I spoke before the queen's death.

HASTINGS: None of us know what she really thinks about anything, except that she likes dogs and horses. She's never offended or alienated anybody. Now, this is tremendously important.

LANGFITT: The sovereign is supposed to remain above politics. But unlike his mother, King Charles has expressed some strong opinions in the past. He once called a planned modernist wing of London's National Gallery, quote, "a monstrous carbuncle." The design was later scrapped. In the 2000s, he sent private memos urging government officials to, among other things, reverse spending cuts on homeopathic medicine. He also requested funding for his own Afghan charity. Royal analysts say the stakes are much higher now that Charles is king. Pauline Maclaran is a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London.

PAULINE MACLARAN: He may feel that he doesn't just want a passive role, that he has to play a bigger part, and he may start interfering. I think that Charles will be allowed much less leeway in terms of his reign.

LANGFITT: In a speech Saturday, Charles emphasized he would emulate many of the queen's most successful qualities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KING CHARLES III: My mother's reign was unequalled in its duration, its dedication and its devotion. I am deeply aware of this great inheritance and of the duties and heavy responsibilities of sovereignty. In taking up these responsibilities, I shall strive to follow the inspiring example I have been set.

LANGFITT: Unlike his mother, who had a personal touch with the public, King Charles has been perceived at times as having a sense of entitlement. Max Hastings recalls a dinner years ago with the then-prince of Wales and another friend.

HASTINGS: He was moaning on, as he was rather prone to do. And I said, look, sir, all three of us around this table have had broken marriages, and we've all had our problems. But there comes a moment when we all have to realize that we're all terribly privileged human beings, so we've got to get on with it. The prince of Wales didn't like this at all. He banged his fists on the table so that all the glass and the silver rattled. And he said, nobody but me can possibly understand how awful it is to be prince of Wales.

LANGFITT: One of the king's causes that resonates with the public is the environment, an issue he began championing decades ago. Charles warned about problems such as single-use plastic and the threat of climate change back in the 1970s. In a speech in 1987, he warned about pollution in the North Sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES: If science has taught us anything, however, it is that the environment is full of uncertainty. It makes no sense to test it to destruction. While we wait for the doctor's diagnosis, the patient may easily die.

LANGFITT: At times, he was ridiculed for some of his views. In 2007, when Harvard Medical School gave him a Global Environmental Citizen Award, Charles joked about how attitudes had changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES: I can't tell you how touched and grateful I am for all these extraordinarily flattering words that have been said about me. I find it rather strange after all these years of being at the end of a certain amount of abuse.

(LAUGHTER)

CHARLES: And all I can say is fame at least. It's rather encouraging.

LANGFITT: Charles takes the throne in a Britain that is reeling from massive inflation and high energy costs triggered by the war in Ukraine. As one person I spoke to while reporting last week in Scotland said, Charles could be the right monarch at a time when concerns about the environment have never been greater. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.