What Does Prince Charles Do All Day?

Getty Images
Getty Images

With the Queen recently surpassing Queen Victoria as Britain’s longest reigning monarch, it’s become evident that she’s probably never going to die. Which means that her heir apparent, Charles, Prince of Wales, needs to find some other things to fill his time. So what does he do all day?

Before we get started, some background: Though Charles is Queen Elizabeth II’s son and heir, he isn’t entirely supported by the state; he earns his income from the hereditary estate of the Duchy of Cornwall, which has been given to successive Princes of Wales since 1337. Currently, it encompasses some 53,408 hectares of land in 23 counties, as well as major venues like the Oval cricket ground and a host of other solid investments. This June, it was reported that the Duchy of Cornwall earned Charles a record almost £20 million that fiscal year alone. The Duchy (and by extension, Charles) does, however, receive some funding from the government and from the Sovereign Grant (government aid to the royals, totaling £36 million), to the tune of £2.2 million a year. 

So that’s how he makes his not inconsiderable money. But what’s his job description? In a constitutional monarchy, as Britain has been since the end of the 17th century, the monarch is the Head of State in name only—the ability to pass legislation is in the hands of Parliament. According to the official website of the British Monarchy, “The Sovereign acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognizes success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service.” The same basically goes for the heir apparent. And that means…

1. A LOT OF CHARITY WORK

The Prince’s Charities is an umbrella group of 14 charitable organizations of which HRH is president (read: mostly a figurehead, but a well meaning one); according to his press materials, he founded 13 of them himself. These charities range in character from the Royal Drawing School, an educational initiative he co-founded with artist Catherine Goodman that offers free, high quality drawing instruction to worthy students; to the Prince’s Regeneration Trust, which works to preserve historic buildings; to the British Asian Trust, which helps funnel donation money to local charities in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the UK. Also according to his press materials, The Prince’s Charities is the largest multi-cause charitable enterprise in the UK and brings in more than £100 million annually. But that’s not all—the Prince is patron or president of some 400 other charities. Sound like he’s bitten off more than he can chew? Maybe—but again, it’s mostly a figurehead thing. The Prince’s projects that appear to be nearest and dearest to his heart involve sustainable agriculture and environmental preservation, so look for him to be more hands-on there. 

2. REPRESENTING THE QUEEN—AND ACCEPTING GIFTS

If the Queen is busy and can’t meet some foreign dignitary or another, Prince Charles is your man. Last year, he and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, hosted almost 6000 guests at events at their royal residences, and attended 99 seminars, luncheons, and dinners in the name of duty. He’s also frequently called on for overseas travel; last year, for example, he travelled more than 64,380 miles on official business (think shaking hands with important people in other nations, or rallying troops serving abroad). In a nod to these strained economic times, Charles agreed to foot the bill for his overseas travel; according to The Guardian, his cost to taxpayers fell 50 percent in fiscal year 2013.

On the upside, all this travel and visiting foreign nations means that he, like the Queen, has been the recipient of some rather odd but welcome gifts. Each year, the royal family releases a list of gifts they’ve received during their overseas visits; in 2013, Prince Charles received a silk tie, a portable water filtration kit, and a bag of dried organic apple rings (among other things). The royal family doesn’t usually disclose what happens to the individual gifts; sometimes they’re used—especially in the case of perishable items—but other times, they’re simply packed off into storage.

3. MORE VISITING THINGS

A big part of the royal life is visiting. Just visiting. Showing up and waving. Last year, Charles and Camilla made appearances in more than 75 British and Northern Irish towns and cities. The week after the royal prince was born, Charles and Camilla were back at it, first putting in an appearance at the Royal Welsh Show, a massive agricultural fair, before opening the new garden at Kemble Railway Station in Windmill Hill, Kemble, Gloucestershire on Thursday. Such is the life of a royal—official duties often consist of visiting schools, opening new business ventures, christening railway stations, and touring the studios where Doctor Who is filmed. Which is actually pretty exciting.

4. SUPPORTING HIS SONS

All parents support their children, but Charles really puts his money where his mouth is. According to recent reports, Prince Charles pays out £1 million a year to support his two adult sons, Princes William and Harry, as well as their dependents and staff. Neither makes enough to support the kinds of travel and living that royalty requires. 

5. NOT PAYING ENOUGH IN TAXES

So, the Duchy of Cornwall is a bit of a money-spinner—good for crown and country? Not exactly. According to recent reports in the British media, Prince Charles pays less tax on the massive £19 million annual income from his Duchy of Cornwall estate than his servants do. The Prince came under fire in 2013 for paying just under 24 percent in direct and indirect tax on his earnings from the estate, as well as for legitimately writing off much of his expenses incurred from official duty as business expenses. Labour MPs put the Prince in the same camp as “tax dodgers” Google and Starbucks, with now-former MP Austin Mitchell claiming that not classifying the Duchy of Cornwall as a corporation—a “medieval anomaly”—was just an opportunity for the Prince not to pay corporation tax.

6. WRITING BOOKS

Prince Charles is, as we’ve mentioned, legitimately passionate about matters of ecological concern. He’s even written two books about the subject: Harmony: A New Way of Looking At The World, which describes itself as in the same vein as An Inconvenient Truth, and On the Future of Food, taken from his keynote speech at the Future of Food conference at Georgetown University in 2011. But that’s not all! In 1980, he wrote a children’s book based on a story he used to tell his younger brothers Andrew and Edward; The Old Man of Lochnagar is the tale of a gruff old man in a desperate search for peace and quiet and a hot bath. The book was made into a BBC animated film, with the Prince narrating, and later, with the Prince’s permission, a ballet.

7. PAINTING

Charles is a keen watercolor artist, with a good eye for scene, coloring, and, of course, making money; limited edition lithographs of his paintings can be bought from his Highgrove shop for around £2500. In 2013, 130 of his works were published in an online gallery; one critic denounced the Prince’s artistic efforts as “torpor-inducingly conventional,” and “so pedestrian to be almost laughable,” though he did admit that they weren’t all bad, by any means, and that the Prince was indeed tapping into a longstanding British royal tradition—Queen Victoria herself was a watercolor artist.

8. LOBBYING

The British monarch has been more of a figurehead since the Georges, when the power of Parliament demonstrably outstripped that of the crown; accordingly, members of the royal family aren’t traditionally meant to use their position to influence politics. But in May of this year, evidence that Prince Charles may have been using his title to push his own agenda came to light. The “black spider memos,” so-called after the Prince’s idiosyncratic scrawled handwriting and released by The Guardian after a freedom of information request and years-long legal battle, are a series of letters written by the Prince to sitting British government ministers and politicians. In them, he’s self-deprecating and empathetic—and always clear about what he’s asking for. 

So what was he asking for? Well, nothing that the public didn’t already know: The Prince’s concerns for the kingdom have always been a bit random. From then-prime minister Tony Blair, he demanded better equipment for troops serving in Iraq, but also lobbied against the outlawing of certain herbal remedies; from other ministers, he asked for action on the common weed ragwort, greater protection for the Patagonian toothfish (also known as Chilean sea bass) and the albatross, help for small farmers, and more funding for the preservation of historic buildings and sites.  

The reaction of the British public and press was less outraged and stunned than The Guardian could have hoped; some even defended the Prince for having opinions about the nation he will someday rule. It’s also clear that though ministers were obliged to write back long and vaguely sycophantic responses—signed, in some cases, “your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant,” per custom—few actually acted on his suggestions. Perhaps all the memos really did was to underscore how limited his influence actually is.

9. FIGHTING CLIMATE CHANGE

Prince Charles’s commitment to protecting the environment is long-standing and, judging from the “black spider memos,” clearly heartfelt. One area that he’s particularly concerned about is climate change. This March, he told an audience in Kentucky, during his quick visit, that “If we wish to maintain our civilization, then we must look after the Earth … In failing Earth, we are failing humanity.” And on the subject of those grandchildren, Charles added, “As a grandpa, I have no intention of failing mine or anyone else's grandchildren.” More recently, Charles made headlines when he gave a speech at a University of Cambridge Institute For Sustainability Leadership event calling for a “rewiring” of the global economy to ameliorate climate change: “The need to join up disparate efforts on finance, sustainable development, climate change and a whole range of related challenges has been apparent for decades. But the irresistible power of ‘business as usual’ has so far defeated every attempt to ‘rewire’ our economic system in ways that will deliver what we so urgently need.”

10. WAITING, WAITING, WAITING

On September 9, 2015, Queen Elizabeth II became the longest reigning British monarch, beating the record held by Queen Victoria. But Prince Charles, now 67, made his own record back in April 2011, when he became the longest serving heir to the throne in British history (according to media reports, he's getting impatient). And when—or if—he does take the throne, he will be the oldest person to do so.

So why wouldn’t he become king? Well, the problem, several commentators have pointed out, is that Charles isn’t very well liked. According to a survey of 2000 Britons conducted right before the birth of Charlotte, the most popular members of the royal family are the Princes William and Harry, liked by 79 percent of respondents, with the Queen hot on their heels at 77 percent. But respondents were much more equivocal when it came to Charles: 40 percent think that when his time comes, he should abdicate in favor of William, and 43 percent think he shouldn’t.

11. PRACTICING MAGIC

OK, probably not so much anymore. But this is one of my absolute favorite Prince Charles facts: In 1975, Prince Charles became a member of the Magic Circle, a society of stage magicians founded in London in 1905, after passing his audition with a “cup and balls” trick. The actual cup and balls are on display at the Magic Circle’s museum in London. Here’s hoping that Grandpa Charles brushes up on his magic tricks for his grandchildren!

Does Pushing the Button at a Crosswalk Actually Do Anything?

Pressing this crosswalk button may or may not do something.
Pressing this crosswalk button may or may not do something.
David Tran/iStock via Getty Images

Since crosswalk signals rarely seem to give you the green light (or more accurately, the white, human-shaped light) right after you press the button, you may find yourself wondering if those buttons actually work. The potentially exasperating answer is this: It depends.

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that crosswalk buttons aren’t designed to have an immediate effect; they’re just supposed to tell the system that a person is waiting to cross. As CityLab explained, some systems won’t ever give pedestrians the crossing signal unless someone has pressed the button, while others are programmed to shorten the wait time for walkers when the button has been pressed. No matter what, the system still has to cycle through its other phases to give cars enough time to pass through the intersection, so you’ll probably still have to stand there for a moment.

During busy traffic times or under other extenuating circumstances, however, cities can switch the system to what’s known as “recall mode,” when pedestrian crossings are part of the cycle already and pressing the button quite literally changes nothing. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell if a particular button is in recall mode, short of calling your city officials and asking an expert to come inspect it.

But if you feel like a button isn’t doing anything, there’s a pretty good chance it’s been permanently deactivated. As congestion has increased and the systems to manage it have become more advanced over the years, cities have moved away from using crosswalk buttons at all. In 2018, for example, CNN reported that only around 100 of New York City’s 1000 buttons were still functioning. Since actually removing the buttons from crosswalks would be a costly endeavor, cities have opted to leave them intact, just waiting to be pummeled by impatient pedestrians who don’t know any better.

What about 'close door' buttons on elevators, you ask? That depends, too.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. For 2020, that means February 17 through March 10; June 18 through July 12; and October 14 through November 3. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury in Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER