The Queen is dead. Long live the King. That is the call that has gone out in the last day since the news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II. It is right that as well as mourning her passing and thinking on her legacy, the United Kingdom, Commonwealth and others look to the future.
Within an hour of the news of the Queen’s death it was announced that her heir and successor would be known as Charles III. It is a title that — as everything to do with the monarchy — looks backwards as well as forwards.
The story of the two previous Charles’s is not entirely happy. Charles I presided over a bloody Civil War in England and ended up being beheaded in London in 1649. But if his reign represented disaster, that of his son, Charles II, represented rebirth. Charles II oversaw the restoration of the monarchy and the continuation of one of the most successful institutions in the world.
Their successor, Charles III, has certainly known triumph and disaster during the extraordinary 73 years in which he has been heir to the throne.
He has been much criticized for being too politically intrusive. The constitutional monarch in Britain should remain above politics. The late Queen was always there to counsel and console her Prime Ministers, but she would never have dreamed of lobbying them. Her eldest son has been known to take a different approach. In recent decades we learned of his habit of sending personally hand-written letters to members of government giving them his views. Just recently he criticized the UK government’s asylum policy. If it is an approach which is questionable from a prince it is one that is unthinkable from a king.
But then Charles is known to have strong views on many issues. Occasionally that has brought him praise. Sometimes people have recognized that on certain issues — such as the environment — he has been ahead of his time. Yet in no area of his life has Charles had more ups and downs as in his private life. Like all other members of the Royal Family this has been obsessively pored over. But then there was much to see.
He married Princess Diana in 1981 before the eyes of the world. It looked like a fairytale marriage, but as everybody now knows, it turns out that the Prince had not married his true love. That woman — Camilla Parker-Bowles — would, as Diana put it, famously become the “third person” in their marriage. The divorce in 1992 was bitter, and as Diana carefully leaked stories about her unhappiness, public feeling started to turn against Charles. When Diana died in a car crash in Paris in 1997 public feeling towards him could have turned nasty.
But their sons — William and Harry — were the Prince’s priority and the public saw and respected that. It became clear how much their father cared for them and what a priority he made of them. By 2005, with his sons’ blessing, it became possible for him to finally marry the woman who will be named Queen Consort. The British public’s feelings towards Camilla have also mellowed over time and she has become to be an accepted an even loved fixture in the royal family.
With age the Prince has certainly mellowed. And people have had an opportunity to respect the good he has already done for the nation. He has founded remarkable charities like the Prince’s Trust that has helped thousands of young people in all walks of life. He has been recognized for his tireless charitable work, and for his devotion to public service. That same devotion isn’t shared by all the Royals. The disastrous careers of Prince Andrew and Prince Harry are the most recent proof of that.
The Prince is long said to have designs on “slimming down” the Royal Family with the possibility of no place in the front line of the monarchy for Andrew and Harry. At the leading edge of any new look Royal Family would be the new Prince and Princess of Wales, William and his wife Katherine, who in recent years have taken on a more prominent role in British public life as they juggle royal duties with raising a busy brood of three children, George, Charlotte and Louis.
In Charles’s own heir the monarchy looks in stable hands for at least another two generations to come.
That will be the hope of the new king and of the nation, certainly. But it would also be the finest tribute to the “beloved mother” who he and so many others are mourning today.