By William J. Furney
The death of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch shocked the nation and the world because there she had been, just two days earlier, with a big, beaming smile, greeting her 15th prime minister and asking her to form a government in her name.
Although Queen Elizabeth had been struggling with her mobility and declining health during the summer months, sequestered in her Balmoral estate in Scotland, many looking at what would turn out to be the last photographs of the monarch with Liz Truss on Tuesday almost certainly imagined she had the fortitude and stamina to keep on carrying on. Her mother, after all, made it to 101, and the queen was only 96.
Yet by Thursday afternoon, she was gone, just hours after Buckingham Palace announced that the queen’s doctors were concerned for her health and senior royals in England dashed to her bedside, in vain: Elizabeth had passed away, almost a year and a half after her husband, Philip died; and with her last breath, the hereditary monarchy kicked in and Charles, with his mother in her final moments, was king. Power, however ceremonial, had been seamlessly transferred.
Two new leaders, in two days.
So concluded the end of the second Elizabethan age, a period that spanned tumultuous, world-and-life-changing events including World War II, global terrorism and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout it all, the queen, ever stoic and calm, remained a figure of certainty in uncertain times. She wasn’t just Britain’s cherished, admired and loved mother and grandmother, for her appeal and influence was global and many around the world felt a connection — she may have been Britain’s queen but she was also the world’s, and a global cultural icon: the most famous person anywhere.
“Alongside the personal grief that all my family are feeling, we also share with so many of you in the United Kingdom, in all the countries where the Queen was head of state, in the Commonwealth and across the world, a deep sense of gratitude for the more than 70 years in which my mother, as Queen, served the people of so many nations,” King Charles III said in an emotional address to the nation on Friday evening.
“I shall strive to follow the inspiring example I have set,” the new sovereign said the following morning at a ceremony to formally declare him king.
Charles will be 74 in a couple of months, making the former prince of Wales the oldest to be crowned monarch in Britain; his coronation is expected sometime next year. It’s been a lifetime of waiting to start the job he was born for, and it comes at a time when he — along with his second wife, Camilla, queen consort (75), following the death of Princess Diana — should be retired and putting his feet up.
Just as throughout the last few decades, recent years have seen rolling scandals embroiling the royal family that threatened to cause irreparable harm to a more than 1,000-year-old institution admired at home and abroad. The defrocking of the queen’s second son and apparently her favourite child, Andrew, over his relationship with the late American paedophile Jeffrey Epstein and subsequent legal proceedings over sex claims was a low point, as was the fleeing of the queen’s grandson Harry to Canadian and then US shores, with actress wife Megan.
The pair’s public complaining about the “toxic” state of the monarchy has done little to endear them to people on either side of the Atlantic, and royals including William and his father are said to be dreading revelations in Harry’s forthcoming memoir that threaten to be explosive and wipe out any remaining goodwill towards the flame-haired prince, who is allegedly at odds with his sibling and heir to the throne.
Young people in Britain could hardly care less.
A YouGov poll conducted last year showed that close to half of those aged between 18 and 24 (41%) who took part believe Brits should elect their head of state instead of relying on a hereditary monarchy where no one has any say and chance of birth is what dictates rulers. Just over one-quarter of respondents in this age bracket (31%) believed there should be a king or queen of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.
Melancholic Charles has traditionally been less than popular, and seen as something of an oddity, if not an eccentric, with his talking to plants, interest in homeopathy and meddling in political affairs, when royals are supposed to be neutral. Some observers thought it would be best for the crown to skip a generation, to the far more admired William, who could connect with younger people — not that king-in-waiting Charles would ever have agreed to such a passing.
Others see the death of Queen Elizabeth as a time to push for a republic, and save the taxpayer some £120 million a year in Sovereign Grant payments to royals and their palaces and expenses.
“The queen is the monarchy for most people. After she dies the future of the institution is in serious jeopardy,” said Graham Smith of anti-monarchy group Republic earlier this year. “Charles may inherit the throne, but he won’t inherit the deference and respect afforded the queen.”
With the queen having passed away, Republic sees an opportunity to call for a debate on a referendum — do the British people want to keep the monarch or abolish it? Supporters say the royal family brings in valuable tourism revenue, but then France got rid of its royals, with beheadings in 1793, and has more foreign tourist arrivals than Britain. And really, what tourist ever travelled to London to see a member of the royal family? Detractors maintain a monarchy has no place in a modern, democratic society and is, ultimately, unfair, as it robs every citizen of the right to lead their land as head of state.
If you’re looking for an indication of how it all might go, consider the members of the Commonwealth of Nations so beloved by Queen Elizabeth: Barbados left last November and others, including fellow Caribbean countries and possibly Australia, are lining up to ditch the British monarchy as their head of state.
It may be their crowning glory.