The once and future king
Unlike his mother, who unexpectedly became queen at just 25 years old when her father, King George VI, died suddenly, 71-year-old Prince Charles has spent his entire life in preparation to wear the crown. He’s the longest waiting heir apparent and will be the oldest British monarch to ever take the throne – and it’s still uncertain when that will happen. Although Queen Elizabeth II is 93 years old and the longest-reigning British monarch ever, longevity runs in her family: her father may have died young, but her mother lived to the age of 101. But with recent reports asserting Prince Charles is now taking charge of the monarchy more than ever, could he become king sooner than expected? We explore the different scenarios that may play out when the beloved Queen dies – or maybe even before.
The Queen may still be alive when Prince Charles becomes king
Rumours have been swirling in the British press that as the Queen becomes older, she may pass the crown to her son, who’s fully prepared to take on all the responsibilities of the monarchy while she is still alive. This would be called a ‘regency’. But, there are many reasons Queen Elizabeth will never give up the throne.
“I think it is unlikely that the Queen will officially retire, or that the Prince of Wales will formally assume the title of regent,” says Carolyn Harris, PhD, historian and author of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting. “In a radio broadcast on her 21st birthday, she vowed to devote her whole life, whether it was long or short, to the service of her people.”
Although comparison has been made to other older European monarchs who have abdicated in recent years, Harris points out they were sworn into office through secular installation ceremonies rather than the Queen’s religious coronation ceremony in 1953, which contained sacred oaths. Even practically speaking, “the Queen is sovereign of 16 Commonwealth realms, and not all of them have a formal provision for a regency,” Harris says. “A regency might complicate the appointment of new Governors General in some of the Commonwealth realms.”
If the Queen is incapacitated, Prince Charles will become regent
But in the event that the Queen cannot actually act as queen, such as in the case of severe illness of mind or body, a regency with Prince Charles as Regent would be formed. According to the Constitution Unit of the University of London’s (UCL) School of Public Policy, medical evidence is required, and three people out of the following have to agree to declare the sovereign is incapacitated: the Queen’s consort (her husband, Prince Philip), the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Chief Justice, and the Master of the Rolls.
But, this isn’t the most probable scenario. Instead, what will likely happen as the Queen ages is, “The Queen will retain her title and certain royal duties, while her son the Prince of Wales assumes a greater number of her public engagements and increased decision-making power behind the scenes,” Harris says. “The Prince of Wales already undertakes overseas travel to the Commonwealth on the Queen’s behalf, and in the coming years, he will assume more of the Queen’s duties in the United Kingdom.”