Wherefore Art Thou, King Charles III?
Trisha de Borchgrave considers what comes next with King Charles III as people around the world reflect on the legacy of the longest-reigning British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
For many Brits, the significance of the death of Queen Elizabeth II is hard to explain. Over her seventy-year reign, she became both a shared cultural icon and the essence of the country’s social fabric. Even the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten, the epitome of anti-establishment punk rock, celebrated his monarch, scream-singing into a mike in 1976, “God Save the Queen, the Fascist regime!” From stamps and coins to Andy Warhol’s silkscreen, she was imprinted on the national psyche.
More importantly, she provided a safe outlet for British patriotism, for flag-waving and open pride in the country that no political head of state could match. And the soft power she projected across the world was enormous. When asked about the Queen’s ancestor, George III, against whom Americans rebelled in their war of independence, an American tourist delighting in the Platinum Jubilee celebrations on London’s Mall earlier this year was unhesitant, “Oh, she’s our queen too!”
The key to Elizabeth II’s success was her reluctance and ambivalence to be queen. This “possible, though improbable, successor to the throne of England,” as recorded in the announcement of her birth in 1926, was caught up in the repercussions of the abdication of her love-struck uncle, King Edward VIII in 1936.
What would have been a quiet, private life nestled inside the upper-class country pursuits of hunting, shooting, and her passion for horse-breeding, instead became a lifetime of service in the public limelight. Like her adored father, who died prematurely following the pressures of royal office, she understood sacrifice and she was powered, not by entitlement, but by the desire not to let down those who had entrusted her to the job.
This deep-seated commitment to look beyond herself sometimes included her children, who, bereft of a mother who put her duties to “queen and country” above their needs, would end up undermining the health of the monarchy. Simply put, she couldn’t do it all, despite her deep love for her family. The fallout has been profound and long-lasting, from Charles’ failed marriage, to today’s toxic relationships between William and Harry.
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The Queen, nevertheless, has kept younger British generations engaged, as summed up by a millennial who commented on her death, “It’s an odd feeling. We didn’t know her but feels like we did. The last pictures of her with [prime minister] Liz Truss reminded me of my grandmother before she passed away. I could tell she was on her way out and was impressed she met her.”
Even Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, a fierce secessionist, knows better than to tamper with cross-generational Scottish affection for their Queen and has made it clear that the British monarch would remain titular head of an independent Scotland.
King Charles III clearly has huge boots to fill, but they may not fit him. The Queen’s public persona was unique and will be difficult to emulate. Her often grumpy expression reflected not recalcitrance so much as a disregard for today’s performative age; the mere promise of her royal smile kept mile-long crowds of admirers in front of Buckingham Palace during her jubilee appearances.
As a woman, she was also able to channel (matriarchal) authority in ways that a white middle-aged man like Charles cannot. Instead, he runs the risk of coming across as sulky, patronising, or anachronistic.
Today’s socio-political climate is more complex; recent warnings include the racial dimensions to the Meghan Markle affair, and the spectacle of the young royals, William and Kate, during their tone-deaf tour of the Caribbean in 2022, parading in an open-top, colonial-style Jeep and, on another occasion, reaching to touch the hands of excited Jamaican children, seemingly corralled behind a metal fence.
With some of the fifteen Commonwealth realms considering changing their constitutional status, Charles will find it difficult to exert apolitical authority and earn the same respect as his mother. He is, after all, simply the latest member of a white, privileged family whose inheritance includes the right to reign over less deferential and more diverse populations.
Charles will find it difficult to exert apolitical authority and earn the same respect as his mother. He is, after all, simply the latest member of a white, privileged family whose inheritance includes the right to reign over less deferential and more diverse populations.
In addition, despite Charles’s impressive accomplishments through the Prince’s Trust and his long-time commitment to the health of the planet, he risks now saddling the country with another elderly monarch. Will he be capable of helping galvanize a struggling and divided country, that no longer leads an empire nor is a member of the EU’s 450 million trading powerhouse, and that is still searching for a place of consequence and influence in the world?
Charles’s maturity and calmness could be the salve to comfort those mourning the death of his mother, at a time of existential anxiety following the COVID-19 pandemic, with war in Europe, and an unaffordable cost of living. But the direction of travel for today’s monarchy remains precarious if the words of another millennial are to be heeded, “I’m not excited about Charles at all. If anything, I think he may spell the end of them. But the queen was iconic, and broke so many records. Also having a female monarch was pretty cool.”
The familial connection that younger generations felt to their grandmothers through the Queen – her ubiquitous handbag and brightly-colored outfits, the twinkling smile and avid eyes peering under the hat, and her smallness – generated fondness in ways that an elderly King dressed in expensive double-breasted suits and his own ubiquitous golden signet ring do not.
While no one is outwardly contesting his right to accession, therefore, there could be questions if he grows into an old King with mobility issues. For now, he basks in the public’s empathy for his mother. And there is a powerful historical ring to his newly anointed title, “King Charles III.” But he does not have the capital of a long-serving monarch to fall back on, should he fail to define himself as a modern ruler.
The new King’s deeply held commitments to tackling the climate crisis and social inequality are part of the answer, yet his delivery and demeanor belong to another era. Perhaps a rapper could turn Charles into a cool meme and catchy tune? It worked for Boris Johnson in Ukraine.