Christopher Silvester is a freelance journalist and author. He’s currently a columnist for The Critic and writes obituaries for The Times. He has previously reported for Britain’s satirical magazine Private Eye and written for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.
As news broke of Queen Elizabeth’s death, the staff at London’s Garrick Club immediately donned black armbands, placing a large portrait of the Queen on an easel at the entrance to the upstairs bar. At dinner, in the Coffee Room, a senior club member tapped a glass and asked everyone present to be upstanding and toast the departed monarch, Britain’s longest-serving sovereign.
Another member interjected as an afterthought: “To the King . . . Long Live the King.”
While the Queen was being toasted in this storied London establishment, frequented by many Royals throughout the centuries, crowds were swelling outside Buckingham Palace, marking a monumental transition across a mourning, and surprised, nation.
Now, a lot that’s been familiar for 70 years will change.
Only two days before, the Queen had bid farewell to her fourteenth prime minister, Boris Johnson, and greeted her fifteenth, Liz Truss. The official photograph of their meeting had been revealing. Not only did she seem frail, although impeccably turned out, but the top part of her extended hand was blackened.
It wasn’t fanciful to suppose that the Queen, like many a person approaching death, was determined to reach a particular final milestone before giving up the ghost. But when she did, it was still a jolt for a nation so used to her.
On Friday, all of London was on pause, except around Buckingham Palace. Trade unions postponed planned strikes for national mourning; sports matches were cancelled. Watching coverage on GB News — Britain’s equivalent of Fox News — it was telling how even former United States President Donald Trump struck a temperate, even reverential, note, his ego evidently gaining the upper hand over his overcharged id.
So much will seem different now. King Charles III’s name, image and insignia will begin to appear on banknotes, coins, stamps, post boxes, passports and police helmets — not just here in the United Kingdom but in some Commonwealth nations too.
The Queen’s Award for this or that will become the King’s Award. Senior barristers and solicitors appointed by the monarch will switch from being Queen’s Counsel to King’s Counsel. And the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s children will become Prince Archie and Princess Lilibet, just as had always been intended once the line of succession moved on a notch.
But it isn’t only the symbols of monarchy that will change as King Charles assumes leadership of “the Firm.” As the new chairman and CEO of the business, he’ll have his work cut out for him, filling his mother’s sensible shoes.
Already, his plans for a slimmed-down monarchy to help preserve the institution had been approved by the late Queen. And while his mother had little time to train for the job, her father dying young, Charles has prepared for this moment his entire adult life.
Coincidentally, Britain recently marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, which had seriously damaged the Firm’s public standing, Charles’ reputation in particular.
For years afterward, he was so unpopular, many wished fervently that some constitutional mechanism might be introduced, whereby the Crown would skip a generation, passing straight to Diana’s eldest son, Prince William. That was never going to happen — it would have broken the bonds linking Britain’s monarchy back to Athelstan of Wessex, the first king of England and the thirtieth great-grand-uncle to Queen Elizabeth II.
As such, since Diana’s death, Charles has worked unstintingly to make his way back in public favor, embarking on an incremental process of rehabilitation, whereby his former mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, initially became his unofficial companion, only formally introduced to the Queen in 2000. She then married Charles in 2005, becoming the Duchess of Cornwall, as well as the Duchess of Rothesay in Scotland. And from 2005 until 2022, it was stated several times that she would be styled Princess Consort, rather than Queen Consort, when Charles succeeded to the throne.
However, the long process culminated in the Queen finally naming Camilla as Queen Consort in her Accession Day message earlier this year.
As part of his plan to conserve the monarchy for the future, King Charles III will now preside over a toned down institution in which there will only be seven working members: the King and his Queen Consort; the new Prince of Wales, William, and new Duchess of Cornwall, Kate; the Princess Royal, Anne; Prince Edward; and the Duchess of Wessex, Sophie.
Still, there are multiple threats that could undermine the monarchy, unless Charles is careful and able to contain them.
The first is how to handle his brother Prince Andrew, the Duke of York. Andrew was forced to withdraw from public life by the Queen, Charles, and William back in 2019, when Virginia Robert Giuffre brought a civil suit against him for sexual assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress, claiming she had been trafficked to the prince by pedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein. The wisdom of their decision to sideline him was confirmed when he settled the suit for an undisclosed sum of money, believed to be around £12 million.
During this year’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, Andrew’s only public role was that of a loving son escorting his frail mother to church services. But it’s widely suspected he yearns for some renewed public role, however minor, and begrudges his obscurity.
As long as U.S. prosecutors keep an open file on the Jeffrey Epstein case, however, it makes sense to keep Prince Andrew under a form of benign house arrest. However, as a sop to Andrew, his eldest daughter Princess Beatrice will become a royal counsellor, which means she would deputize for one of the senior members of the family when they are ill.
The King’s next challenge then comes with Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex, with little sign that either is willing to curb their criticism of the Royal family. Buckingham Palace is braced for the publication of Harry’s autobiography, fearful of the claims he might make.
“The Sussexes are obsessed by self-promotion at the expense of the royal family,” noted the Duchess’ biographer, Tom Bower. “Harry’s fate now depends on successfully promoting his poisonous auto-biography. High sales success depend on smearing his family.”
Charles reached out to Harry and Meghan in his first address to the nation as its new monarch, wishing them love and happiness. But whether such sentiments will survive the book’s publication at the end of the year remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the other dark cloud over Charles’ reign comes from his own past. A cash-for-access scandal involving his private charities forced his his long-standing aide Michael Fawcett to resign. Further media scrutiny this summer also drew attention to Charles being given bags full of cash as charitable donations by an Arab sheikh. And though there have been no suggestions of any impropriety involved on his part, it does suggest he can be careless.
Now that he’s King, Charles will also have to step back from promoting some of the causes he has strongly advocated for, including climate action and other environmental issues.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he expects Britain’s new monarch will look to Prince William to promote the causes he’s been passionate about. There will be no more so-called “black spider” letters to prime ministers and cabinet ministers — so-called due to his spidery ink signature — urging action on this or that matter.
But just as he recently told a documentary filmmaker at the BBC, he’s not stupid and understands the danger of getting embroiled in politics — a change he referred to in his first speech to the nation. The future of the monarchy hangs in the balance.