It was only three months ago that the United Kingdom celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. That reign came to an end Thursday, as Buckingham Palace announced the queen’s death after spending 70 years on the throne.
It is entirely probable that Charles and his likely successor, Prince William, will oversee the unraveling of the monarchy itself.
Elizabeth’s death will spark a multitude of feelings, often conflicting, not just in Britain but around the world. The monarch has been the only head of state that millions of her subjects in the British Isles and the Commonwealth have ever known. Her presence on their coins and bank notes and their televisions has been a constant through generations, an ever-diminishing bit of continuity as the world has shifted away from the dark days of subjection and colonialism.
The crown now passes to Charles, who at 73 years old has sat in wait for his entire adult life. It was Charles who lamented in a journal that his decidedly common treatment during the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 symbolized “the end of Empire.” It is entirely probable that he and his likely successor, Prince William, will oversee the unraveling of the monarchy itself.
The state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II will be held at Westminster Abbey on Monday, Sept. 19 at 6 a.m. ET. Follow our live blog for expert analysis and takeaways at msnbc.com/royalfuneral.
The queen’s death will highlight two things: first, her power as a symbol for the British people; second, that the wheels of the state will continue turning without her. Charles now inherits a title and lands. He will grant his leave for new governments to form after the next election. But it will be done in the shadow of his mother and with the knowledge that what acts he takes are all, in a sense, playacting. The crown and scepter will be costuming, allowing him to uphold the illusion that the monarchy still has a role to play in a modern constitutional republic.
When Elizabeth was coronated, the U.K. held more than 70 overseas territories as part of its empire. India had been independent for just five years, the beginning of a trend that would continue for the next five decades. The British Empire came apart at the seams, as country after country took control of its own destiny. After fiercely attempting to put down revolutions in Egypt, Kenya and other countries, Elizabeth’s ministers eventually were forced to follow in the footsteps of King George III and accede to their demands for independence. The tiny island in the North Atlantic that Elizabeth’s great-grandmother Queen Victoria once ruled from as empress would no longer dominate the seas and force its will upon the globe. While the U.K. would put a brave face on for a time, it would increasingly turn away from the world.
Elizabeth was always a passionate supporter of the Commonwealth that kept the newly independent countries bound to the Crown. While her powers in these lands were few, many still looked to her as their head of state and sought her approval of their new governments. Though, even that number has dwindled over the years to just 14, as some have cut their ties with the monarchy entirely, most recently Barbados in 2021.
As its footprint around the world has shrunk, so too has the U.K.’s willingness to integrate itself with the continent. Elizabeth played witness to the earliest days of Britain’s dealings with the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the European Union. Her royal assent was given to the act joining the European Communities in 1972; her assent was also placed upon the act repealing it in 2018, allowing Brexit negotiations to proceed.
It would be in a sense fitting should Charles be the one to begrudgingly permit the decoupling of the British state from the monarchy.
This solitary Britain, not quite isolated but not the colonizing powerhouse that some still fondly recall and wish to restore, is the one Charles will reign over. As I noted in June, while Elizabeth remained popular among Brits, support for the monarchy itself as an institution is slipping. And while he’s faring better than he has in the past, Charles was not nearly as popular as his late mother in polls taken around the jubilee. This may change in light of Elizabeth’s death, in a sort of rally around the Crown effect, but such bumps can prove to be fleeting.
It would be in a sense fitting should Charles be the one to begrudgingly permit the decoupling of the British state from the monarchy. His earliest namesake, Charles I, was deposed and beheaded in the English Civil War, leading to the temporary dissolution of the British monarchy. Charles II returned to the throne in the Restoration, but the absolute power that the king once held had begun to yield irreversibly toward Parliament’s dominance over the affairs of state.
Over the centuries since, that shift has only grown more prominent, leaving the monarchy more a point of nostalgic pride than actual necessity. Charles, or more likely William, may yet find themselves presiding over a newfound surge of devotion to the Crown. But it is all the more likely, and better, in my view, that Elizabeth II be viewed in history as the last of the British monarchs to have any real claim of ruling the British people.