A he almost universal refrain in celebrations of the late Queen Elizabeth II, who died on Thursday at the age of 96, has been her role as a symbol of stability in Britain as well as a constant in an increasingly volatile world. She was “an immutable human reference point in British life,” former prime minister Boris Johnson said in his tribute to the monarch on Friday. More than the symbolic face of the nation, the Queen was also Britain’s guiding star a source of comfort in a time of seemingly endless turbulence. The challenge for the country now is how to continue without her.
While the way forward for Britain is clear (it did, after all many times before), the future of the British monarchy looks less certain. King Charles III succeeds to the throne at a time when the monarchy as an institution is still widely supported in Britain, with a slight majority of 62% in favour, according to Survey in June. But the outpouring of support and admiration for the Queen should not be confused with unwavering support for the Royal Family as a whole, especially after the recent controversy over treatment of Prince Harry and Meghan as well as allegations of sexual abuse facing her son, Prince Andrew. The biggest test facing the new king is whether he can emulate his mother’s image of stability and preserve the institution she spent so much of her life trying to protect.
The Queen, who ascended the throne at just 25, has had a lifetime to prove herself. Charles, who at 73 is the oldest monarch to ascend the throne in British history, will not have the same advantage. So much of Charles’ public image has been shaped by his time as Prince of Wales, including indecent periods in his private life – including his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, who as his wife now takes the title of Queen Consort, and his high profile separate from Princess Diana, as well as his vocal positions on issues as broad as climate change, hedges, Chinaand the British Government controversial tactics to stifle immigration. While the Queen maintained a reputation for impartiality, choosing to stay above the fray and leave politics to the politicians, Prince Charles did the exact opposite, even going so far as to enter the highest levels of politics when he wrote a series of letters in 2004 and 2005, known as the “black spider notes”, lobbying government ministers on a range of issues, in clear breach of the monarchy’s neutral and ceremonial role in British politics.
“Charles has an activist bent,” says Richard Fitzwilliams, an expert on the royal family. Perhaps because for most of his life his main job was to pursue his interests through his various foundations and charities.
Britons watch as King Charles III addresses the nation on BBC News as he announces the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, in the village of Appleby, Lincolnshire, England on September 9, 2022.
Lindsey Parnaby—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
“He doesn’t have the same level of mystique that Queen Elizabeth II cultivated very successfully during her lifetime,” Brooke Newman, a historian of early modern Britain at Virginia Commonwealth University, told TIME. Beyond her love for corgis and horses, “she was very careful not to formulate a position on many things. She became an icon around the world because people could project their hopes and dreams and fantasies and outrage onto her and onto the institution because she represented the Crown in a way that I think will be impossible for Charles because he already represents certain things .”
But for the monarchy to continue to be seen as a source of national unity and for the king to be able to carry out his ceremonial duties without provoking accusations of partiality – something that even haunted his mother at times strict impartial reign“Fitzwilliam said the new monarch would have to keep his mind in check.” Charles has acknowledge this reality in the past and in his first national address since ascending the throne, he admitted that with the change in his role “it will no longer be possible for me to devote so much of my time and energy to the charities and issues that I care so deeply about.”
Preserving the symbolic value of the royal family is only part of the new king’s challenge. Another is to ensure that the institution remains fit for purpose at a time when monarchies and the privileges of heredity seem increasingly anachronistic. Here Charles and his mother were largely in step. Both recognized the need to reduce the royal family – both of them cost to the taxpayer and public appearance-in accordance with popular opinion. Under Charles, this effort is expected to continue even further, with the Royal Family shrinking to only seven active working royals— tasked with attending official engagements, meeting foreign dignitaries and representing the monarch in their absence — down from current 10.
But Charles’ biggest challenge will be his ability to match his predecessor’s popularity, which was largely untarnished by the scandals of those around her. When TIME spoke to mourners gathered in the immediate aftermath of the queen’s death, it was clear that no one expected Charles’ reign to rival that of his mother. “It will never be the same,” one civil servant, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak freely, told TIME outside Buckingham Palace. “Each monarch creates his own impression of the country.”
This does not necessarily reduce the pressures he faces, nor will it provide any comfort if the perception of the monarchy changes for the worse. “Charles has had a lot of ups and downs,” Warren Cabral, who went to Buckingham Palace on Thursday to pay his respects to the queen with his wife and son, told TIME on Thursday, “but he’s inheriting the crown at its peak. “
Under Charles, the monarchy was unlikely to remain at its Elizabethan heights. As well as his own popularity – which could suffer when Netflix releases its next installment of ‘The Crown’, which is expected to retell the story of the breakdown of his marriage to Princess Diana later this year – Charles will have to contend with a wave from other challenges, not least potential breakup of the United Kingdomon the dissolution of the British Commonwealthand compliance with unpleasant parts of the royal family’s past and its colonial legacy.
But unlike his mother, Charles will not carry the burden of guarding the crown for the next 70 years. He just has to make it long enough to pass it on to the next generation in one piece.
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