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By Christopher Andersen
We think we know what will happen when the reign of Elizabeth II ends—as earth-shaking events go, this must certainly be one of history’s most well-rehearsed. Once a year every year since the late 1970s, practice funeral processions for senior members of the Royal Family such as Prince Philip, Prince Charles and the Queen have taken place in the streets of London under cover of darkness. The Queen’s funeral plans, code-named “London Bridge,” have been planned by Her Majesty herself right down to the most minute detail—from the guest list, flowers, readings and musical selections to which regimental units would participate and the color of their uniforms.
Yet before any public utterances can be made, several things must happen. First the Palace must make sure the Queen’s four children and eight grandchildren have been notified. Then the Prime Minister, who has inevitably formed a personal relationship with the monarch during their weekly tête-à-têtes, is required to immediately summon his ministers for an emergency cabinet meeting.
It is the cabinet’s job to convene an Accession Council—an assembly that includes Privy Council members, Lords of the Realm, High Commissioners of Commonwealth countries and the Lord Mayor of the City of London—to formally proclaim the new monarch. The formality is just that, since the new sovereign takes over the moment the old one has died. The Accession Council will also formalize the new monarch’s name. Since he was christened Charles Philip Arthur George, the Prince of Wales has weighed several options over the years, including being known as George VII or even King Arthur I. He has waited too long to make his mark; as expected, he will almost certainly go down in history as Charles III.
Although the Palace has made use of social media to promote the image of the monarchy, it will use a more traditional medium—television—to break the news. Despite all the speculation, the planning and preparation—or perhaps because of it—this new reality will be hard to accept. It is not difficult to see why. By the time she turned 90 on April 21, 2016, Elizabeth II could lay claim to being not only the oldest British monarch in history, but also the longest-reigning sovereign (she surpassed Victoria’s reign of 63 years, 216 days on September 9, 2015). Elizabeth has, after all, been at the center of world events for five generations, an enduring symbol whose reign spanned thirteen American presidents, thirteen prime ministers, and seven popes. Simply put, fully 98 percent of the earth’s population has only known a world with this queen in it.
In that critical period between the Queen’s state funeral and the new monarch’s coronation—two historic events that will have an estimated three billion people around the world glued to their screens—there will be the inevitable speculation about what kind of king Charles will make. The Prince of Wales has had plenty of time to ponder that question himself. At 67, Charles is three years older than the oldest person ever to assume the throne—William IV, who succeeded George IV in 1830. Given the fact that the Queen Mother lived to be 101, it is not altogether unlikely that Charles might be in his late 70s before he is finally crowned king.
Not that he hasn’t at times tried to speed up the process. Despite the widely-held belief that the Queen will never abdicate, she has never publicly stated whether she would or she wouldn’t. In the aftermath of Diana’s untimely death, when the Queen clearly underestimated her people’s sense of loss, Charles made his move by allowing his press secretary to leak the story that he would be “privately delighted” if the Queen stepped aside. Furious, Elizabeth summoned her son to Buckingham Palace, and then insisted on—and got—a profuse apology.
To be sure, Diana’s ghost continues to haunt the Windsors, and in a very real way reshape the monarchy. She had openly vowed to do everything in her power to make sure William succeeded her mother-in-law on the throne, not Charles—something that polls consistently show most Britons want to happen. Two-thirds of the populace find the prospect of a dynamic young King William ruling with Queen Kate at his side irresistible—particularly when the alternative includes Charles making sure his longtime mistress turned lawful wife Camilla, Diana’s nemesis and once the most despised woman in the realm, is crowned queen.
The Royal Family no longer generates the sort of torrid scandals that made tabloid headlines for decades. Instead, the back-stabbing, duplicity, maneuvering and scheming have gone underground as royal players and the “Men in Gray” as Diana called them—the shadowy Palace figures who have always actually run the show—jockey for position in anticipation of what the Queen herself has somewhat enigmatically referred to as “a change of reign.”
Barring some unforeseen calamity, Charles will be king, and in that role he will wield an arcane form of power that until recently has been dismissed as purely ceremonial—the power of Royal Assent. Once a bill is passed by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, it must receive Royal Assent before it becomes law. This is accomplished by the monarch signing a “letters patent”—the written legal instrument that confers power from the Crown—in much the same way a sitting U.S. president signs a bill into law.
Ironically, abuses of power by the two previous kings named Charles are what forced Parliament to curtail the power of the throne. Charles I dissolved Parliament in 1629 after it sought to limit his capricious exercise of power. Eleven years of what would be known as “The Personal Rule” (or the “11 Years’ Tyranny”) followed, during which Charles I ruled unchecked by Parliament. This led to the English Civil War that brought Oliver Cromwell to power as Lord Protector and resulted in Charles I’s beheading in 1649.
Charles I’s son was only slightly less inclined toward throwing his weight around after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Charles II not only withheld royal assent, he also dissolved Parliament altogether in 1681 and ruled as an absolute monarch until his death four years later.
As the power of Parliament grew, the Crown became less inclined to defy the will of the people’s elected representatives. The last time it happened was in 1708 when, on the advice of her ministers, Queen Anne withheld Royal Assent from a bill that would have set up a militia in Scotland—an armed force that could, she feared, eventually turn against her.
Over the ensuing three centuries, the monarchy’s political power steadily eroded, leaving it to survive as an enduring but politically toothless symbol of imperial grandeur and national unity. Now when the Queen dissolves Parliament she is essentially instructed to do so by her Prime Minister so that new elections can be held. When Parliament passes a bill Royal Assent is always granted. As legal scholar John Kirkhope pointed out in the Sunday Times of London, the monarch’s perceived duty to essentially rubber-stamp legislation has been seen in modern times as little more than the “quaint and sweet” vestige of a bygone age. The sovereign may be head of state but her role today is strictly ceremonial.
Or is it? As the result of a lawsuit to release previously sealed documents, Britons were shocked to learn in 2013 that both the Queen and her heir have in truth thwarted the will of Parliament on dozens of occasions. Employing their little-known prerogatives of “Queen’s Consent” and “Prince’s Consent,” Elizabeth II and Prince Charles have the right to veto any legislation curtailing their authority even before it is debated in Parliament. Most glaringly, the queen vetoed the Military Actions Against Iraq Bill in 1999, which would have transferred the power to launch air strikes against Iraq from the sovereign to Parliament. For his part, over the past decade Charles has used his Prince’s Consent power to essentially veto twelve government bills. The Queen and her son wield “real influence and real power,” constitutional expert Kirkhope observed, “albeit unaccountable.”
Unfortunately, there is no defined role for the Prince of Wales other than waiting for his predecessor to die. His was a job, Charles liked to say, that he made up as he went along. Declining his mother’s offer to appoint him Governor-General of Australia once he left the Royal Navy in 1976, Charles chose instead to use his 7,000 pound military pension to found the Prince’s Trust. In addition to raising more than $175 million annually for the Trust’s 25 core charities, the Prince of Wales is now the patron of another 350 charities and organizations that extend the reach of his influence across the globe.
Tellingly, each of the causes for which Charles has raised hundreds of millions of dollars reflects the Prince’s personal interests—and a dauntingly wide range of interests it is. Fascinated with everything from architecture, education, sustainable farming, climate change and urban planning to meditation, Eastern philosophies and alternative medicine, Charles has expressed his opinions in countless speeches and long, rambling, sometimes intemperately-worded letters to government officials. These letters, known as the “Black Spider Memos” due to Charles’s distinctively spidery script, have drawn fierce criticism because the monarch—and by extension the heir apparent—is by tradition supposed to be politically neutral.
“These letters are not merely routine and noncontroversial,” Charles’s senior press advisor Mark Bolland once conceded, “but contain his views on political matters and political issues.” According to Bolland, Charles has frequently “denounced the elected leaders of other countries in extreme terms.” Charles had done more than merely write letters to make his feelings known. On one particularly memorable occasion, he infuriated Tony Blair’s government by boycotting a banquet in honor of Chinese President Jiang Zemin in protest of China’s occupation of Tibet.
The Queen has tried to rein in her son, but to no avail. Charles keeps writing his Black Spider Memos at the rate of 1,800 or more a year and has pledged to become a much more politically involved monarch once it’s his turn on the throne. Will he be the kind of king who, like his headstrong (and in one case, headless) namesakes, uses what remains of royal power to veto legislation, defy his ministers and dissolve parliaments? Will he risk his throne and even imperil the monarchy itself for what he sees as the greater good? For now, we can take a hint from the titles Charles has proudly bestowed upon himself: “Chief Dissident” and, more poetically, “The Meddlesome Prince.”
Originally published in the e-book Guide to the Season Plays 2016–2017, available for purchase on Kindle or Nook. Season ticket holders receive a complimentary print copy of the Guide each season.
Christopher Andersen is the critically acclaimed author of 18 New York Times bestsellers, which have been translated into more than 25 languages worldwide. Two of his books—The Day Diana Died and The Day John Died—reached number one. A former contributing editor of Time magazine and a longtime senior editor of People magazine, Andersen has also written hundreds of articles for a wide variety of publications including the New York Times, Life, the Economist and Vanity Fair. Andersen is also a familiar media figure and has appeared frequently on such programs as TODAY, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Entertainment Tonight, CBS This Morning, Extra, Access Hollywood, Dateline, The O’Reilly Factor, ABC World News, Hardball, 48 Hours, Hannity, The Insider, CNN Newsroom, Fox & Friends, Larry King Live, “E” Entertainment, Inside Edition, Anderson Cooper 360 and more.