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Royal privacy and public life: Health concerns for King and Princess of Wales reveal different priorities

When word spread recently that both King Charles and his daughter-in-law, Catherine, Princess of Wales, were dealing with health concerns, different approaches to the line between private and public life for senior royals were on display.

Charles has treatment for enlarged prostate while Catherine recovers from abdominal surgery

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When word spread recently that both King Charles and his daughter-in-law, Catherine, Princess of Wales, were dealing with health concerns, different approaches to the line between private and public life for senior royals were on display.

Catherine's news came first. An announcement from Kensington Palace on Jan. 17 said she was in hospital after planned abdominal surgery, would remain there for up to two weeks and is not likely to resume public duties until after Easter. No further details were released, although palace officials said it is a non-cancerous condition.

In an announcement from Buckingham Palace an hour and a half later, there was a more specific reference to the King's condition, as it was indicated he would be receiving hospital treatment for an enlarged prostate.

"I felt like there were two different narratives taking place here," said Justin Vovk, a royal commentator and a PhD candidate at McMaster University in Hamilton who specializes in the history of the monarchy, in an interview.

"On the one hand, it felt like Catherine's was in response to a more acute situation, whereas Charles's was part of a broader trend towards transparency with the monarchy."

Catherine, 42, remains in a central London hospital. Her husband, Prince William, who has been seen visiting, is also stepping back from royal duties to help her and care for their three young children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis.

WATCH | Princess of Wales and King receiving medical treatment:

Princess of Wales, King undergo medical procedures

10 days ago

Duration 2:19

The Princess of Wales has undergone a planned abdominal surgery at a London clinic, while the King is being treated for an enlarged prostate. Princess Catherine is not expected to return to royal duties until after Easter, but King Charles is expected to have a shorter recovery.

Charles, 75, was admitted to the same hospital on Friday for his treatment.

For the Prince and Princess of Wales, there is a sense of a greater focus on privacy, potentially because of personal priorities, their relative rank within the family and a more cautious approach with the media.

"Prince William is, you know, no friend of the press … certainly he's not gone to Prince Harry lengths, but he still wants to guard his privacy more," said Craig Prescott, a constitutional expert and lecturer in law at Royal Holloway, University of London, in an interview.

Vovk sees William and Catherine setting clear boundaries that haven't necessarily been seen from other senior royals in the past.

"They are declaring that they will take this level of privacy as a family. They're saying we won't be in public during this time period. William is taking this time off. The focus is on him supporting Kate and supporting their children," he said.

Vovk thinks this might be the beginning of senior members of the Royal Family perhaps becoming more assertive in setting firm boundaries around what they will share, and "saying, 'We acknowledge the public interest. But here's where we're drawing the line. There is no further discussion.'"

Members of the Royal Family, including Catherine, Princess of Wales, Prince George, Prince Louis and King Charles, wave to well-wishers after attending a church service.

Vovk also sees the initial statement regarding Charles's health as unprecedented.

"This is certainly the most detail we have ever received on a monarch's health, and certainly about the functioning of their internal organs. We have never had something like this before."

It also, Vovk said, "fits in with his larger program of transparency with the monarchy and making it more accessible and addressing the reality that he is a man of a certain age and he can use that as an opportunity to relate to other people of that demographic."

The King's position might also influence the degree to which information is shared, given the public interest in the health of the monarch.

"I think with the King there is a need to be more transparent … than perhaps other members of the Royal Family, because if the King is not around, then [the question is] why, ultimately. And if a condition is serious enough as to need counsellors of state, then that usually gets publicized," said Prescott.

So far, there is no indication that counsellors of state — senior members of the Royal Family who can stand in for the monarch if needed — would be called upon in the current situation.

Three people stand on a sidewalk behind media cameras pointed at the front door of a multi-storey red brick building with two police officers outside a door.

Still, the visibility of three of the four most senior members of the family will be reduced, at least in the near term.

And at a time when there is debate and discussion about the role and relevance of the monarchy, visibility and being out and about on engagements has its own distinctive role for members of the Royal Family.

"If you don't have the members of the Royal Family to do that … the risk is that that connection gets lost between an individual and their monarchy effectively, and that could be a danger," said Prescott.

In the absence of Charles, William and Catherine on the public stage right now, Queen Camilla has been out and about. Among her appearances in recent days were three visits to support spaces and centres for survivors of domestic abuse, an area of particular focus for her.

Several adults stand as they speak with one another.

"She will carry on with what she's had planned and actually it's an opportunity for her to … attract attention to these issues," said Prescott.

"It's her stage for the time being."

  • In other royal medical news, Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, revealed that she has been diagnosed with malignant melanoma. The skin cancer diagnosis came as a shock, she said, but she is in "good spirits." Several months earlier, she was diagnosed with and received treatment for breast cancer.

Offering a royal example

In announcing his medical condition, King Charles seemed intent on doing more than sharing his diagnosis and eliminating speculation about what might be going on if he was out of public sight for a little while.

It was broadly understood that he was keen to let his situation be known in the hope it would encourage other men who might be experiencing symptoms to get them checked out.

"Certainly in the U.K., all the evidence points to the fact that men in particular are bad at going to doctors, and so it has apparently triggered an increase in searches on the NHS website for this condition," said Prescott.

Indeed, reports suggested that on the day of the announcement, the National Health Service website received 11 times more visits seeking information about an enlarged prostate.

Buckingham Palace said Friday morning that Charles would like to thank those who sent him good wishes over the past week, and that he is "delighted to learn that his diagnosis is having a positive impact on public health awareness."

Three children standing beside one another hold greeting cards, flowers and flags.

The King's approach on the matter was welcomed by Emma Craske, a senior specialist nurse with Prostate Cancer U.K.

"Well, I hope it will open those conversations that men can have with each other and hopefully with their GPs," Craske told the CBC's Briar Stewart.

"Sometimes we hear men talk about how they find it embarrassing to talk about any prostate problems."

Going into new royal detail — an unauthorized version

Two people wearing formal uniforms stand beside one another as one salutes.

Any time a book purports to offer new details about royal life away from the public eye, headlines almost inevitably follow.

So it came as little surprise in recent days that reports surfaced in the U.K. about author and biographer Robert Hardman's Charles III: New King, New Court. The Inside Story.

The book garnered attention for — among many other things — its descriptions of Queen Elizabeth's final days and death (peaceful and without pain, according to a memo from her private secretary), preparations for her funeral (the one rehearsal they did have did not go well) and accounts from individuals close to the King, such as his sister, Princess Anne.

The level of access Hardman had for the book and the amount of relatively recent detail caught Prescott's eye.

"Normally, this … might have come out in 10 years or something, when whoever was around it retired and they're perhaps a bit freer to speak."

Officially, it's considered an unauthorized biography, but that designation left Prescott with a question.

A grey haired man wearing glasses and a blue tie and blazer, sitting on a park bench

"At what point does something where you have access to everyone possible … become authorized?" he said. "It's a very fine line, it seems."

The book was accompanied by a television documentary in the U.K.

"The documentary had some very good access. And this is the book equivalent, in a way," said Prescott, who described Hardman as a "very well-respected" royal author.

Some of the recent headlines focused on the suggestion in the book that Queen Elizabeth was angered by Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, saying they had her blessing to use her childhood nickname, Lilibet, for their daughter.

Three people stand on a balcony in front of an open door.

Those headlines left Vovk with some skepticism.

"I feel like if she was truly that upset about it, I couldn't see Harry and Meghan using it, because she was the one person that still was on their side on a personal level," he said.

"So it would have seemed very, very foolish of them to alienate her in that way."

Vovk said he doesn't pay too much heed to books such as Hardman's.

"These sorts of books are always being written and we have no way of gauging the accuracy without a clear paper trail."

The book is, however, the first one about the new King, and that could also be in part a reason for the focus that has surrounded it.

WATCH | The highlights of King Charles's coronation:

Missed the coronation of King Charles? See the highlights

9 months ago

Duration 2:15

King Charles was crowned, alongside his wife Queen Camilla, in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey on Saturday. See highlights from the ceremony — and the moment the newly crowned King greeted the public from the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

"There is great interest in that, and people certainly have a tremendous interest still in the passing of the Queen," said Vovk.

"I've heard many people talk about [how] they wish they could have been a fly on the wall at Balmoral to know what it was like for the family."

Still, for those who are curious, any real insight or understanding about what happens behind palace walls is still subject to whatever details do come out, whenever that might be.

"Hearsay and rumour will always persist as long as there is any mystery left in the institution," said Vovk.

"And once that mystery disappears, the institution would likely disappear as well."

WATCH | Dutch version of royal book sets off a mystery:

Dutch version of royal book Endgame sparks mystery

2 months ago

Duration 2:01

A translated version of the book Endgame by Omid Scobie purportedly reveals which senior royals allegedly made comments about the skin colour of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's first-born child. The publisher has since withdrawn the book, saying it was an error.

Royally quotable

"Let's get them out of the closet."

— Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh, regarding tampons and sanitary pads, as she spoke during a menstrual health workshop at a girls' school. The workshop was part of the charity Wellbeing of Women's #JustaPeriod campaign, "which aims to increase awareness and education around period problems and normalize conversations around the topic," the Royal Family said on X.

Several youth stand with an adult.

Royal reads

  1. Prince Harry has withdrawn his high court libel claim against the publisher of the Mail on Sunday, saying his focus is on "the safety of his family" and his legal action against the U.K. Home Office. [The Guardian]

  2. Staff at the U.K.'s National Archives reportedly redacted documents showing how the late Queen Elizabeth asked for details of a relative's wealth to be withheld from the public. [The Independent]

  3. Princess Anne is known for a frugal and no-nonsense approach to fashion. But now, she has become an unlikely style icon, after Italian fashion house Fendi revealed that she was the source of inspiration for its latest menswear collection. [The Guardian]

  4. Prince Harry and Meghan attended a premiere in Jamaica of a film about reggae singer Bob Marley. [BBC]

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Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

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