Inside Prince Charles' World As He Quietly Takes Charge

Britain's future king has used a long apprenticeship to build a charitable empire

Photograph by Nadav Kander for TIME

The gardens sport a coronet of dew under a rare Scottish sun, but Prince Charles remains indoors, doing what the heir to the thrones of the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Jamaica and 12 other Commonwealth realms has always done — his duty. He's a champion at enduring windy speeches, toes scrunched in his shoes to keep awake. But this particular duty lies closer to his soul: he's teaching his firstborn to wield a sword. Prince William needs to master the key move of granting knighthoods, laying a blade on the shoulders of recipients, ideally without inflicting injury. So on Sept. 26, Charles interrupts a family visit at his Scottish residence Birkhall with his son, wife Camilla, daughter-in-law Kate and the youngest Windsor, baby George, to stage a dress rehearsal.

His grandson is "what this is all about," says Prince Charles, 64, sitting down with TIME later that day to discuss his hopes — and profound concerns — for the future. For George, third in line to the throne, that future looks secure enough, a parade of pomp and swords. Britain's monarchy emerged from 2013's mass testing of U.K. public opinion, the British Social Attitudes survey, as the only institution to gain in popularity, while others slumped. It did so because it stands for consistency — its opponents would say, for resistance to change — in a world of relentless transformation.

The Prince's own popularity is questionable. Sheltered by his position and exposed by it, the Prince appears a mass of contradictions, engaged yet aloof, indulged and deprived, a radical at the pinnacle of Britain's sclerotic establishment, surrounded by people but often profoundly alone. Yet the strangulated diction of the uppermost crust — even members of his inner circle can't resist imitating him — disguises a real magnetism.

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