UPDATE: Since this article was written (in the fall of 2013), Queen Elizabeth has become the longest-reigning monarch. And she’s still going. But Charles still waits…

Next month, Charles, the Prince of Wales and heir-apparent to the British throne, will turn 65. His mother, Queen Elizabeth II, is 87. She is the second longest-reigning monarch in British history. To say that Prince Charles has been waiting his entire life to become King of England is a literal truth.

I’m one of those few Americans who actually does pay attention to British royalty, so I’ve spent a little bit of time thinking about what will happen when King Charles III assumes the throne. In our daily lives, of course, nothing will happen. Rivers of ink have been spilled over the supposed irrelevance of the royals. But I do believe that the monarchy will continue, and the extraordinary length of Queen Elizabeth’s reign–and the amazing history it’s covered–poses some interesting implications for Charles, who faces challenges no other heir apparent has had to deal with.

The obvious one his Charles’s age, and to understand this we need to crunch some numbers. If the Queen were to die or inexplicably abdicate tomorrow, Charles would be the oldest person ever to become a reigning monarch of Britain. And his accession is still a ways off. Though 87, Elizabeth is in pretty good health, and although she’s starting to slow down–she will not, for instance, attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next month–she probably still has a few years left to her. If her majestic rump is still warming the throne on September 11, 2015, she will break the record of the longest-reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria. Charles will then be 66, almost 67. If Queen Elizabeth dies on September 12, 2015 and Charles lives exactly as long as she did–to age 89–his reign will last only 22 years, barely a third the length of his mother’s.

british royal family

In this 1896 photo, Prince Albert (later Edward VII) is at the top right, towering over his inconveniently long-lived mother, Queen Victoria. The other man and woman in this picture are Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra.

Actually the case of Queen Victoria is instructive. She came to the throne in 1837 as a lass of eighteen and, astonishingly, lived and reigned into the 20th century, finally dying in January 1901. Her son, who came to the throne as Edward VII, was Prince of Wales for an astonishing 60 years, from his birth in 1841 to his accession in 1901. He was so old and worn out from indolent living during the Victorian era that he only reigned nine years, finally dying in 1910. Edward made no real mark on the monarchy and simply couldn’t get out from under his mother’s shadow. Charles could follow a similar pattern.

Even among people who like the royals, Charles is not very popular. He’ll always be remembered as the guy who threw over the popular Princess Diana for the coarse and unpopular Camilla Parker-Bowles. Charles will be the first British monarch ever to be divorced. Most of the press and chattering class would much rather focus their attention on his son, Prince William, whose reign is far more anticipated than Charles’s. Charles also seems to lack the strong personality needed to represent Britain ceremonially on the world stage, especially in a changing world. He’s spent his life playing polo. His mother, say what you will about her, drove ambulances during World War II.

Can you imagine Prince Charles, even with a promotion to King Charles III, successfully pulling off something like this–the famous introduction to the 2012 London Olympics?

I don’t believe Charles will be on the throne for long. At this point I’m not even sure he wants to be king, and certainly he would be cognizant of being overshadowed by the accomplishments of his mother and the popularity of his son. I suspect he’ll hang in there long enough to “get on the scoreboard,” so to speak, and then perhaps abdicate in favor of his son. In any event, I think it’s safe to say that the British monarchy’s 21st century is much less likely to be remembered as the era of King Charles III than it is King William V.

Advertisements