The Queen's Problems Are a Prelude to the Crisis Awaiting a Newly Crowned King Charles

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When Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne in 1952, Harry Truman was in the White House. Joe Biden, who would become president 13 administrations later, was in elementary school, and around 85 percent of Elizabeth's 68 million present-day subjects weren't even born yet. If the 95-year-old queen—whose mother, the beloved "Queen Mum," lived to the age of 101—remains on the throne for another 30 months or so, she will surpass Louis XIV of France as the longest-reigning sovereign in recorded history.

As it happened, Louis was also one of the last Bourbon kings of France before the Revolution swept away his great-great-great-grandson Louis XVI. When the last chorus of "God Save the Queen" is sung, the British throne will pass to Elizabeth's first-born son, Charles, the brooding, diffident Prince of Wales, who has never escaped the shadow of his sainted ex-wife, Diana.

If the queen, 95, stays on the throne for another 2-1/2 years or so, she will surpass Louis XIV of France as the longest reigning sovereign in recorded history. Chris Jackson/Getty

Charles is a senior citizen himself. He turned 73 on November 14, which also was the day his mother was scheduled to make her first public appearance since a brief, and unexplained, overnight hospital stay three weeks earlier. The occasion was an important one for her, the laying of a wreath to commemorate Britain's war dead on Remembrance Sunday, the British equivalent of Veterans' Day in the U.S. But on Sunday morning, the Palace issued a statement that "having sprained her back," the Queen "has decided this morning with great regret that she will not be able to attend today's Remembrance Sunday Service at the Cenotaph. Her Majesty is disappointed that she will miss the service."

That explanation inevitably fueled speculation about her condition. "There's something we're not being told about the Queen's health," the commentator Piers Morgan tweeted. "It's clearly a more serious situation than the Palace is saying."

The Palace staff, an insider told Newsweek, is still "hopeful" that Elizabeth will continue to pursue her "light duties," including video meetings. But on this increasingly frail elderly woman, a widow since the death of Prince Philip in April, rests the fate of a monarchy that over the course of 10 centuries has survived innumerable wars, scandals, rebellions and a cataclysmic abdication, but now faces a future in which its strongest assets—tradition, pomp and pageantry—count for less and less in a world dominated by the finger-flicking power of social media.

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The Duke of Edinburgh’s coffin, covered with His Royal Highness’s Personal Standard is seen on the purpose built Land Rover. Samir Hussein/Getty

The public doesn't get to choose their sovereign, which is just as well for Charles, whose popularity has been in decline for decades. In 1991, 82 percent of Britons thought Charles would make a good king, according to the international polling firm Ipsos MORI. Five years later, after the revelations about his adultery with Camilla, the tearful testimony from Diana about his dismissive treatment of her, and the scandal of their divorce, that number had been cut in half, and it has continued to decline: in May, a YouGov poll pegged it at 31 percent, compared to 35 percent of his future subjects who thought he would be a bad king—a situation that in American political discourse would be described as "underwater." (Elizabeth herself had an overwhelming approval figure.)

Not that it matters; quite a few of Charles's ancestors and predecessors undoubtedly would have polled even worse, had techniques for sampling public opinion existed at the time. ("Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they opposed the beheading of Anne Boleyn by King Henry VIII, and more than half described him as 'somewhat' or 'very' tyrannical...") As if to underscore the Palace's determination to carry on as usual, someone in a position to possess the details of the contingency plans for the Queen's death and funeral (codenamed "Operation London Bridge"), and for Charles' accession to the throne ("Operation Spring Tide") leaked them to Politico, which published the documents in September.

All this is happening at what should have been a satisfying time for Charles. Britain hosted the just-concluded COP26 conference on climate change in Glasgow, at which Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed on to Charles' signature issue, the environment. Years of mockery of him as a plant-talking loon have given way to respect for his lifelong, and prescient, commitment to protecting the planet.

But the year has also been shadowed by his father's death, by allegations that his brother Andrew was a participant in Jeffrey Epstein's sex-trafficking ring, and by the estrangement of his younger son, Harry, and his wife, Meghan Markle, from the rest of the royal family. On July 1, a fan's account tweeted what it described as "a beautiful picture of Prince Harry and Prince William looking at the wonderful statue of their mother on what would of [sic] been Diana's 60th birthday." The photo showed William and Harry, shot from the back and sporting near-identical male-pattern bald spots, standing about as far apart from one another as could fit into the frame.

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Reunited: Princes William and Harry come together earlier this year for the unveiling of a statue of their mother Diana, at Kensington Palace in London, on what would have been her 60th birthday. Yui Mok/Getty

Andrew Morton, who wrote the definitive biography of Princess Diana with her cooperation, told Newsweek: "Everyone focuses on Meghan and Harry but they're looking in the wrong direction. They should be focusing on Prince Charles because he has got a mountain to climb. Prince Charles, our future head of state, future king in the very near future, is only polling in the low 30s and low 40s.

"For me it causes alarm. Harry and Meghan were ancillary members of the Royal Family even when they were part of the Royal Family."

Harry has had a fraught relationship with Charles over the years. His marriage to a divorced biracial American actress set off a lurid tabloid war of leaks and counter-leaks culminating in the now-infamous interview the couple gave to Oprah Winfrey in March. Nearly 50 million people watched worldwide as Harry accused his father's family of ignoring his pleas for help for his wife, and Meghan accused William's wife, Kate Middleton, of making her cry in the days leading up to her wedding—contrary to the widely shared narrative that Meghan made her cry.

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More than 11 million people watched the 2018 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; nearly five times as many worldwide viewed their explosive interview with Oprah this year. Samir Hussein/Getty

A lifetime of dealing with family scandals real and imagined—all richly detailed on the Netflix series The Crown—had prepared Elizabeth for just such a moment. For 36 hours the queen said nothing. Her silence was broken only when she had taken the time to choose her words carefully, showing compassion for Harry and Meghan but famously also telling the world that "some recollections may vary." Thus she showed the public that the royal family disputed the couple's account of events, which was vital in order for people to understand she was choosing, out of sympathy, not to be drawn into open warfare with them.

She had her cake and ate it too, a very rare achievement in reputation management. But some within the palace wanted to go into the trenches with Harry and Meghan, contesting their allegations point by point.

Penny Junor, the author of a sympathetic biography of Camilla, told Newsweek that Elizabeth "takes a very long view on things. Young people tend to get excited by a sudden sense of injustice if someone has said something and people are believing them, like in the Oprah interview, you want to jump in there and immediately correct it and put it all right.

"I don't think that's the way the Queen operates, she's seen everything come and go and knows that things do blow over. Sometimes it's best to let them blow over without getting involved in it. Because, by getting entangled, you do give oxygen to it."

Barring disaster, Harry, who is sixth in the line of succession (after Charles, William and William's three children) will never sit on the throne, and the British public will be spared the elevation of the incorrigible Sussexes. But one day Charles will be king, and William, who will turn 40 next June, will be heir apparent, a situation Junor thinks is fraught with the potential for more family turmoil.

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Prince Charles, Prince Of Wales shakes hands with well-wishers on November 11, 2021 in London, England. Chris Jackson/Getty

People recently ran a cover story by royal biographer Robert Lacey suggesting that the future of the monarchy is in Prince William's hands, not his father's. The theory gained credibility when William soon afterward gave an interview to the magazine, which he would not have done had the previous coverage offended him.

"I think it's always going to be a little bit difficult," Junor told Newsweek. "They [Charles and William] are two people doing a very similar job. With all fathers and sons I think there's an element of competition, the older man not really wanting to step over just yet and let the younger take his crown.

"I think that's always going to be a slight issue. I think they're closer than they were, and they're both pulling very much in the same direction."

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Prince William and his wife Catherine, backstage at an awards show, earlier this year in London. Chris Jackson/Getty

But they are facing a demographic and social tide that is running against the royal family—not just the House of Windsor, but the very idea of royalty. YouGov reported in May that 18-to-24-year-olds said they would prefer an elected head of state to a hereditary one by a 10-point margin, 41 to 31. Growing attention to gender equality is also not in the royals' favor. Britain had a woman as sovereign as far back as the 16th century, in Elizabeth's namesake, Queen Elizabeth I, and a female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in the 1980s. But after QEII, it's reigning men: Charles, then William, then William's son George.

Charles also has to live with the aftermath of his bitter divorce and Diana's account of how his coldness and infidelity left her despondent. "I think that is something that will haunt him indefinitely, unhappily," Junor said. "The problem is that at every anniversary she will be brought up again and the facts or a version of the facts will be trotted out. There will always be people who choose to believe everything they see and hear and watch.

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HRH The Princess of Wales, Princess Diana, and HRH Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales, visit Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1982. Mirrorpix/Getty

"Things like The Crown I think are incredibly damaging and are giving a false impression of Charles to the world."

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An honor guard for Elizabeth at Royal Air Force base Marham, in eastern England last year Richard Pohle/AFP/Getty

She is referring to Season Four of the series, which famously showed Diana driven to bulimia by her failing marriage. Season Five, which will cover the period leading up to her divorce in 1996 and her death a year later, is set to air next fall, so 2022 might not be a great year for the British royal family either. And one day the Crown will rest on Charles' white-haired head, and he will have the job he's been waiting for his whole life—and the responsibility of heading a large, famous, quarrelsome family with a history of troubled relationships. Not even princes, it seems, are exempt from the cautionary adage to be careful what you wish for. God save the Queen.

And then, because not even God can save the Queen forever, God save the King.

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