If nothing else, Gordonstoun, Philip’s alma mater on the remote, windswept north coast of Scotland, taught the Prince of Wales to endure freezing temperatures. Each day began with a regimen designed to “shake the sleep out of them”: a predawn shirtless run through the countryside—even when it snowed—followed by an icy shower. Classrooms were unheated, and, in keeping with the school’s antediluvian philosophy that “fresh night air” was good for you, dormitory windows were left wide open while the boys slept, regardless of the season. Charles was assigned to Windmill Lodge, a long, narrow, stone-and-timber building with a green asbestos roof and bare wooden floors. There were fourteen beds to a room and bare lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling. Throughout the winter, Charles, whose wooden bed was located beneath a window, often woke to find his bedcovers encrusted with frost or even snow. On those occasions when it rained, he was forced to gather up his blankets and sleep on the floor in the center of the room.
After Charles emerged from five dismal years at Cheam, the exclusive lower school Philip had also attended, the Duke of Edinburgh was still worried that his son was “too soft” for the job he was born to do. The Queen, bowing to her husband’s authority in all matters related to Charles’s upbringing, agreed that four years at Gordonstoun would undoubtedly do the trick. “Charles was a very polite, sweet boy— always incredibly thoughtful and kind, interested in art and music,” Elizabeth’s cousin and confidant Margaret Rhodes said. “But his father interpreted this as weakness, and the Queen believed he knew what was best.” Gordonstoun was supposed to “‘make a man out of him,’ although I never really understood what that meant.”
From what Charles had heard, life at Gordonstoun was, as he put it, “pretty gruesome.” He was leaning toward another school, Charterhouse, where some of the more palatable students from Cheam were going. But he had little to say in the matter. According to royal heraldry and genealogy expert Dermot Morrah, a close friend of the Queen Mother who had chronicled Charles’s early life with the royal family’s blessing, Philip believed his son was “of a shy and reticent disposition” and that “something that would draw him out and develop a little more self-assertiveness in him seemed to be required.” Moreover, “Philip himself had been very happy there.”
Unfortunately for Charles, he had to overcome one major obstacle not faced by Philip. Anyone who attempted to befriend the future sovereign was immediately branded a bootlicking sycophant, a “suck-up.” Whenever Charles walked down a hall on the way to class, he invariably did it to a chorus of boys making a loud sucking noise. At times, according to classmate Ross Benson, they “followed him in packs making that dreadful slurping sound.”
If he wasn’t being piled on by his rugby teammates or hung up in the shower, the Prince of the realm had to contend with being battered in bed. “The people in my dormitory are foul,” he wrote in a letter home. “Goodness, they are horrid. I don’t see how anybody could be so foul.” It didn’t help that Charles snored. According to the Prince, most nights he was pummeled with shoes, pillows, and fists. “I simply dread going to bed,” he complained, “because I get hit all night long.”
There were other indignities to be suffered. On a school trip to the village of Stornoway Harbour on the Isle of Lewis, Charles was suddenly swept up in a crowd of onlookers. Seeking refuge in a bar, he was asked what he wanted to drink. “My God! What do I do?” Charles thought. “Everybody is looking at me.” The fourteen-year-old hesitated a moment before answering. “Cherry brandy,” replied Charles, who explained later that he’d had it before while shooting at Sandringham, and it was “the first drink that came into my head.” A reporter (“That dreadful woman,” Charles would call her) happened to be standing nearby, and the next day, the press had a field day with the tale of the Prince’s underage drinking. “The impression grew,” recalled Dermot Morrah on behalf of the Queen, “that the heir to the British throne must have been discovered in a drunken orgy.” Charles was mortified. “I thought,” he said, “that it was the end of the world.” Deeply upset over having embarrassed his family, he called his mother and tearfully apologized.
The Prince of Wales needn’t have worried about his mother. The incident, she told Morrah at the time, “will do him good. He learnt the hard way” that, given his position, even “the smallest thing” would be blown out of proportion in the press.
But the unfortunate episode did have other, even more hurtful ramifications for Charles. During his first two terms at Gordonstoun, his six-foot-five-inch-tall royal protection officer, Don Green, had become a confidant and father figure to the beleaguered boy. When Green was discharged after the cherry brandy incident, the young Prince was crushed. “I have never been able to forgive them for doing that,” Charles said decades later, “because he defended me in the most marvelous way, and he was the most wonderful, loyal, splendid man. . . . It was atrocious what they did.”
Charles called home to apologize again after someone pilfered his book of essays and sold it to the German magazine Der Stern. “I suppose,” he told Mabel Anderson, searching for a reason to blame himself, “I could have been more careful and locked them up.”