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Reflection by Dr Anil Seal on His Majesty’s association with Trinity and Cambridge

In the wake of the Coronation of King Charles III, Trinity’s Senior Fellow, Dr Anil Seal, reflects on his former pupil’s time at Trinity and His Majesty’s  continued association with the College and Cambridge. 

It was, if memory serves, by no means settled that Prince Charles would come to Trinity, rather than pursue a military education. The Prince’s informal mentor, Lord Louis Mountbatten, British India’s last Viceroy, was keen that Charles should come to university; and this was the happy outcome after informal discussions between Charles’ parents, Mountbatten and Lord Butler, Master of Trinity.

In contrast to the ways in which his great-great grandfather and grandfather spent their time at university (but in line with his schooling at Cheam Primary, Gordonstoun and Geelong Grammar in Australia), the Crown and the College were agreed that Charles be treated at Trinity – as far as possible – like any other student.

Without question, his time at Trinity was a life nearer to ‘normality’ and less in the public eye than the half-century and more of his adult life which followed.

As a young Fellow resident in Nevile’s Court, I remember a group of rowdy undergraduates, including the student Prince, playing polo on bicycles under the Wren Library long after midnight, only to be persuaded, gently or otherwise, by the Head Porter, Mr Prior, to take to their beds.

In an era long before mobile phones, the Prince was given a landline of his own, one of the few privileges he was permitted at the College – having a bodyguard living nearby being more of an inconvenience than a favour for students who regard their time at university as a brief interlude between the constraints of schooling and the responsibilities which they face as soon as they go down.

The Prince, living in New Court, told me that he wanted to give his mother a meal, cooked by himself, when she came to visit him in his rooms, deploying the modest facilities of a communal gyp room and, as far as I could see, having absolutely no experience in the culinary arts.

As his Director of Studies and one of his supervisors, I know what remarkable progress the Prince made in his understanding of history in the short time he studied the subject at Trinity, which was reflected in the deep and sensitive feel for geopolitics demonstrated in his working life on an international stage.

Everything that the Prince did at Cambridge, and much of what he has done thereafter, suggests that one of his abiding characteristics has been empathy with the young, both when he was much the same age himself, and also, remarkably, after he had grown grey in the service of his realm.

What I have seen, again and again, over many decades, is the Prince’s especial concern for disadvantaged young people, not only of his realm, but also of the new Commonwealth (whether from countries in South Asia, South-East Asia or in Africa). The Prince’s Trust has helped more than one million young people in this country. In much the same way, the Prince has devoted much of his time and efforts to helping those outside the United Kingdom who are without privilege or wealth and have had the least access to higher education and the benefits which come with it.

His passion to help young people has been particularly demonstrated in his work for that curious, but effective, association known as the Commonwealth – something for which Cambridge has particular reason to be grateful to the Prince; and it is clear that Charles’ understanding of the Commonwealth, which replaced Empire, is something which was stimulated by his studies at Trinity.

The Prince of Wales has been chairman, for almost three decades, of the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust (CCT) and other trusts which extended Cambridge’s reach in the outside the world. Subsequently, when the trusts took a different path, he became patron, rather than chairman.

On 25 October 1982, more than 40 years ago, the Prince presided over CCT’s inaugural meeting, having personally persuaded most of its distinguished trustees to join him in an enterprise of great significance for young people the world over; and six months later, he was the host at Trinity of the inaugural dinner of CCT, where many of those who later became its loyal supporters first met to launch an initiative which soon became several times larger than the Rhodes Trust at Oxford.

Every year, for the first decade and more of the trusts’ existence, the Prince made a point of meeting their scholars, whether at St James’ Palace or Sandringham or venues in Cambridge, most frequently at Trinity, but later at another College which could accommodate the thousand or more new scholars each year that the trusts supported. (Later, that annual event took place every two years, a practice that continues to this day).

By 2008, under the Prince’s chairmanship, this great enterprise, in which Trinity has played a significant role, had brought more than15,000 talented students from overseas to Cambridge. Most of them came from the Commonwealth, but also from almost every other country in the world. For the students, studying all subjects, at every level, in all the colleges of Cambridge, this has been a life-changing experience. It has also been important for the Commonwealth, education being one of the silken ties which bind together this association.

But above all, by bringing much needed talent from overseas to Cambridge, it has helped the Prince’s alma mater to remain right at the top of the league of the world’s best universities.

In his innumerable visits to meet the trusts’ students in Cambridge, the Prince always has taken time (often well beyond what was scheduled) to speak to as many students who had been invited to the occasion, which was very special for them.

Photo: Alamy

The photograph above of the Prince meeting some trust scholars only a year ago gives a hint of the excitement and buzz that the Prince’s visits create when he meets the young, responding to their enthusiasm with humour, great energy and humility.

Support for students from overseas, however, is not the only reason that Cambridge has to be grateful to the Prince. He headed the appeal which successfully raised the money to save the Royal Commonwealth Society’s unique library and bring it to Cambridge.

He has encouraged Trinity’s Science Park and, through it, ‘the Cambridge Phenomenon’.

But perhaps the initiative most intimately connected with Trinity has been the Isaac Newton Trust, set up by the College in 1988, with the Prince as chairman. In this enterprise, which supports research and education in the University, he worked closely with his deputy, Sir Robin Ibbs (who served as the trust’s founder executive chairman), John Bradfield, Trinity’s Senior Bursar and treasurer of the trust, and myself, its founder director.

The Newton Trust, wholly funded by the College, has a proud record of achievement. It swiftly established itself, with the Prince’s encouragement, and had an immediate impact, recognised by the review of Sir Rex Richards, erstwhile Vice-Chancellor of Oxford. What Cambridge owes to the Newton Trust is a huge catalogue, including the scheme of Newton Bursaries for disadvantaged ‘domestic’ undergraduates, the Isaac Newton Institute for Advanced Mathematical Sciences and CRASSH, a similar institute to promote research in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

This, then, is the Cambridge context in which the Prince of Wales has pioneered his interests and support for issues, some well before their time, which have dominated his life and activities until his recent accession to the throne.

They have included a deep concern for the environment, how best to respond to the existential challenges of climate change and how to encourage the young, the underprivileged, the disadvantaged and persons of different faiths and ethnicities to work together with mutual understanding.

It would not be presumptuous to claim that that his time at Trinity for His Majesty the King was hugely formative.

As I know, the King has a deep affection for his College and Cambridge.  For our part, Trinity and Cambridge have every reason to be proud of their student Prince and all that he has achieved after he came of age.

Anil Seal

King Charles III: His time at Trinity is published on the occasion of His Majesty’s Coronation on 6 May 2023, about his time at Trinity, and his continued association with the College and with Cambridge.

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