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King Charles III: Short may he reign?

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.


  1. G. Keelie

    Many people in Britain feel that he will never be king – Queen Elizabeth can “appoint” William before or after her death, and there is a strong feeling that the longer the time before she dies the higher the chance of William becoming King and not his father. I no longer live in Britain, but agree with this idea. And…just an FYI, I was born in Britain in 1953, during the time of her “official” Coronation. You’re definitely right — she has reigned a long time.

    • Kingster

      You are wrong. The Queen cannot ‘appoint’ a chosen successor, the Monarchy may be an antiquated institution, but we do not live in the middle ages. The rules of succession are codified in British Law, The beauty of the Monarchy as an institution is that the inheritor of the Majesterial title is not chosen by anyone. The only way William could become king before Charles is if Charles dies before the Queen, although Charles could choose to abdicate before being crowned if he decides that it is better for him to step aside for his son.

      • yes, she can!! Elizabeth can point her finger at William & Kate and MAKE it happen. She’s the head of everything ((Church, Government, Royal Family, etc. etc.)) over in Great Britan…
        Plus, she PROMISED William that if the baby should be born, before she passed away, that HE (Will, not Charles) would be made King of England!

  2. Kingster

    When the Queen dies, Charles – if he is still around at the time – will become King, although it is widely speculated that he will abdicate before being crowned to allow William to take over (although this is denied by Clarence House). As an aside, though, he will not become King Charles III, the name Charles has an unfortunate history in terms of the Monarchs of the UK, and it is believed that his personal preference is to be crowned as King George VII, although Edward IX may be in the running since the birth of George of Cambridge (despite the brief and unsuccessful tenure of the last King Edward).

  3. Kingster

    Tiffanie Thomas. You are wrong. Firstly, yes the Queen IS the head of the Church, but is NOT the head of Government, that title belongs to the Prime Minister. The Queen is head of state, a very different role. As for your assertion that she is ‘head of the Royal Family’, you are again mistaken, no such title exists, although one could accept that as the monarch, she is the de facto head of the family. She has never, ever said that William will be King before Charles, and the reason she has never said that, is because she doesn’t have the authority to do so. As I stated previously, the rules of succession here are codified in our law. Please refrain from posting ill-informed nonsense, and do some research. As stated earlier, the beauty of the title is that is conferred by fate, neither gifted nor requested. It ensures that the title is held by someone who was not a ‘Royal favourite’ who used politicking to ensure a position of wealth and prestige from their predecessor, indeed it has led, many times to those having to assume the reigns of responsibility when they really didn’t want to, but had to out of a sense of duty, such as the Queen’s own father.

  4. Mardifleur

    …ahem…early in your post you state that ‘Charles III’would be England’s 1st divorced monarch?? Henry VIII springs to mind….

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