With those words—“Her Majesty’s Government will…”—the speech from the throne was not read by the monarch. For the first time since the beginning of the present reign, this important address to Parliament was read for her by her 74-year-old son, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. Queen Elizabeth II, this most dutiful of heads of state, has never before missed the ceremonial opening of the Houses of Parliament.
Most of those addresses, to be candid, were a bit of royal humdrummery. The queen typically reads the text that her ministers provide. It is nothing that could not be more easily accessed online in this Internet era. So why now a bit of apprehension?
In old England, it was an act of lèse-majesté even to speculate about the death of kings. No longer. Especially no longer for us, their American cousins.
We saw some of this doubt when my family visited London more than 20 years ago. At the Tower of London, a Beefeater addressed us. Beefeaters are guards, recently retired chief warrant officers of the British Army.
Our red-headed Beefeater loved to tell some of the bloodier episodes of the Bloody Tower’s past. Then the heads on pikes were especially attractive to the resident crows, he said. He offered grisly grins for the children who delighted in his sanguine recitation of his story.
When he described his tunic, he showed us his “E II R” stitched in gold thread onto the breast of his scarlet tunic. Elizabeth Regina with the numeral two meaning the Second Queen of that name. After this, he tapped his chest. He said it may one day be embroidered with “C III R,” signifying King Charles the Third. Then, as he gazed heavenward, our ginger guide rolled his eyes! Did this mean “God Save the Queen”? Or, was it a worry about the accession of her son? Heaven forfend!
In 1952, Elizabeth II pledged to serve all her life. She has dutifully kept that oath. But Charles has not, or not yet, offered to reign for life.
He has been publicly dubious about his role. Would he be Defender of the Faith? That’s the title that Pope Leo X in 1510 gave King Henry VIII when he attacked Martin Luther in a scatological screed. King Henry later decided to break away from Rome and seize all the Catholic Church properties in England. But he kept his title Defender of the Faith—and made himself head of the Church in England, to boot.
Prince Charles has said he would no longer be Defender of the Faith. Rather, he would be Defender of All Faiths. That’s a bit like a bridegroom vowing to be faithful to all wives.
It’s hard to imagine a septuagenarian “new” king who can excite a pandemic-stricken, war-weary, inflation-battered British people.
Prince Charles’ food fads, his distaste for any architectural innovations, and his fondness for trees more than some folks have made him the butt of decades of jokes. I can remember a British ex-pat of my college days who sneered at Charles as “our soup tureen of a future monarch.”
And, all the world will be reminded of the much-loved Princess Diana’s tragedy. She complained of “three people in this marriage.” She did not mean Jesus.
Prince Charles could make himself popular in Britain if he turned over the future of the monarchy to his son, William, and his even more wildly popular daughter-in-law, Kate. He could pass on the Crown, the Orb, the Sceptre to his son in the same ceremony.
Then, as former King Charles III, he and his true love could return to the daily routine he’s made of his favorite charities—unexceptional—and his hobbies—largely harmless.
Walter Bagehot’s 1867 classic The English Constitution explained to skeptical American readers why monarchy made sense. Bagehot said the mass of people cannot grasp the complexities of government. In our time, who understands tax codes, nuclear codes, or genetic codes?
But the common people do understand a family. People live in families. So, Bagehot argued, let Parliament debate and decide all the policies of government. This would be the Efficient Part of government.
Then, let the monarch ratify all this with due pomp and circumstance as the Dignified Part. That’s how the United Kingdom has been a successful theory of government. At least as Bagehot saw it. I am no royalist. As the Yankee-est of Yankees, I agree with those Roundheads who wanted No King but Jesus.
Yet even so patriotic an Englishman as George Orwell, a sincere socialist, could not see Britain without a king. In The Lion and the Unicorn (1940), he convinced me. For them. So, Long Live the King over the Water. (And Especially Queen Kate!)