© Sara Morris

How will the British monarchy survive after the Queen?

Alex von Tunzelmann looks at how Charles III's court might differ from his mother's
March 3, 2022

For seven decades, Queen Elizabeth II has been a serene constant in British life, even if other members of the Royal Family have had a bumpy ride. Her Majesty is 95. It is to be hoped that she has many more happy, healthy years ahead. Inevitably, though, in this year of her Platinum Jubilee, questions arise about what comes next.

The Prince of Wales, now 73, has a reputation for political meddling and is now helping the police with their inquiries into cash for honours. The Duke of York has expensively settled a sexual assault case brought by Virginia Giuffre, a victim of sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. The Duke of Sussex has departed the royal scene, following the monstrous reception his wife allegedly received from his own family, as well as from the media. 

Though some of these stories are very serious, there is still slight embarrassment about discussing the royals. Monarchies, even constitutional ones, are seen as irrational in the modern world. Royal fandom is often coded feminine—written off as gossipy, lightweight, trivial. Yet those who dismiss royalty as the stuff of fairy tales and soap operas have the wrong end of the stick. Royalty is precisely the stuff of fairy tales and soap operas: two of the most powerful forms of storytelling yet devised. Our societies evolve and revolve around stories. They define our identities and norms, bond us or divide us, shape our politics. 

Stories are part of what makes us human. And the story of royalty—especially British royalty—is a corker. We know (or we think we know) the intimate twists and turns of their family dramas, their loves, enmities and sex lives, going back hundreds of years. This is deeply entwined with the nation’s history. 

Though executive power lies elsewhere, royalty is the mythological engine that powers the state. In 1867, Walter Bagehot claimed: “without [the Queen] in England, the present English government would fail and pass away.” Even today, the government is Her Majesty’s Government, the monarch appoints the prime minister and the armed forces swear allegiance to the monarch, not to Britain, the government or the people. 

Moreover, the Royal Family holds tremendous power over our culture and imaginations—something just as true for those who disdain the royals as for those who adore them. Royal fandom attracts anti-fandom: those who find community in anti-royal sentiments. A person’s attitude to the royals is a statement about their own values, even when it is: “I haven’t the slightest interest.” 

So the royal story matters: how it is told, by whom, for whom. How will this drama play out over the next few years, and what might it mean for Britain?

The royal story

Royalty is replete with contradictions. It is powerful and irrelevant, ominous and frivolous, banal and magical. It is both central and marginal to British life. The royals themselves appear to us as unknowably remote, yet fans and anti-fans obsess over their intimate moments. 

It has always been so. In 1588, the lawyer Edmund Plowden wrote:

…the King has in him two Bodies, viz. a Body natural, and a Body politic. His Body natural (if it be considered in itself) is a Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident, to the Imbecillity of Infancy or old Age, and to the like Defects that happen to the natural Bodies of other People. But his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People, and the Management of the public-weal.

In the modern world, the royals have a private self, attached to their bodies natural; they may have multiple public personas, which float freely in the popular imagination. The Queen has one real birthday and several official birthdays in various parts of her realm. Approved royal personas are projected in official storytelling through the pageants of royal life: weddings, funerals, the opening of parliament and so on. The media and entertainment worlds create alternative archetypal personas around which to tell more intimate royal stories as drama, melodrama, comedy or soap opera. Some are honest about this being fiction: The Crown, The King’s Speech, The Queen, Spencer, Diana: The Musical, The Windsors. Others, such as tabloid newspapers, spin their stories as factual. 

Ordinary people may participate in royal storytelling by creating their own fan fictions and factions. Some passionately took Diana’s side; some Charles’s. Some believe the Duchess of Sussex is a victim; others that she is a villain. We should not underestimate the power of fairy tales: they often turn out to be dark moral fables with brutal consequences.

There are truths and half-truths in some royal stories—though many are pure myth. Fantasies concocted around royalty range from gossip about affairs that never happened (or wild kinks or secret children) to fully fledged conspiracy theories that Prince Philip murdered Diana, or that the entire family are shape-shifting lizards who only put on human skin
in public.

Occasionally, royals attempt to cut through the noise and speak to the public directly. In some cases—Prince Andrew’s—this has made things much worse. Even in less disastrous instances, telling the story first-hand does nothing to end speculation. Fans or critics seize on any detail to affirm the version of the narrative they already prefer and ignore the rest. 

Meghan is viewed positively by 45 per cent of Labour voters versus 12 per cent of Conservatives

We can become fiercely attached to our royal narratives. They define in-groups and out-groups that intersect strikingly with other identities. For example, going on YouGov data from August 2021, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, is viewed positively by 45 per cent of Labour voters versus 12 per cent of Conservatives, 37 per cent of Remainers versus 12 per cent of Leavers and 50 per cent of 18-24 year olds versus 13 per cent of those aged 65-plus. 

Royals retain a form of spiritual power that is qualitatively different from that wielded by mere celebrities. Kingship and religion are inseparable. According to the anthropologist AM Hocart: “the earliest known religion is a belief in the divinity of kings.” For all that royalty might regularly be abased by scandal, the sense of magic or divinity can always be reasserted. This was demonstrated when Diana died in 1997 and underwent an instantaneous folk canonisation. One floral tribute outside Kensington Palace read: “Born a
Lady. Became a Princess. Died a Saint.” The journalist Paul Johnson admitted in 1998 that he prayed “for, and to” Diana, describing her as “a potent religious force.” “Despite her silly, pleasure-loving side,” he wrote, “she was the grace of anti-materialism made flesh.” Fantasy transforms the royals into whatever we need them to be.

The Sanskrit word darshan describes the act of seeing and being seen by a divinity or sacred object. Royal events are darshans. We see them, they see us; they are anointed, we are blessed. Even those who are not royalists understand this power. When former IRA commander and Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness shook the Queen’s hand in 2012, it was hailed as a major step in the peace process. McGuinness connected to the Queen’s body politic through contact with her body natural. The handshake, he said afterwards, “was in a very pointed, deliberate and symbolic way offering the hand of friendship to unionists through the person of Queen Elizabeth for which many unionists have a deep affinity.” 

A family drama

It is central to the story that the Royal Family is a family. Royal births, marriages and deaths are not trivial, but the source of their sacred legitimacy. The past is recorded; the future determined. The current line of succession goes: Charles, William, George, Charlotte, Louis, Harry, Archie, Lilibet, Andrew. In due course, William and Harry’s children may have children of their own, shunting the regrettable Andrew further down the hierarchy.

Last year, Newsweek found 58 per cent of us wanted William to be the next king, 23 per cent Charles, and 19 per cent didn’t know. There is no point running such polls—except, of course, to create a story. In a monarchy we don’t get to choose; God does, through divine right. Prince Charles goes next unless he predeceases his mother, abdicates or converts to Roman Catholicism. (Other faiths are technically not prohibited by the Act of Settlement, though the Church of England may take a view on whether a non-Anglican could serve as its supreme governor.) Royalty has incredible continuity: “the king is dead, long live the king” announces that the show has already been recast and will continue without a break in transmission. 

Once, the accession of a new monarch would have represented a significant rebalancing of power. Now, it will mostly be a change of press office and some flunkeys. But it is a major test of how the monarchy will engage new generations of subjects. The royals currently have a number of difficult plotlines to work out, including the future of the Duke of York, and the possible rival court of the Duke of Sussex in California. 

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales joins members of the British Asian Trust for a short bicycle ride as they kickoff the charitys "Palaces on Wheels" cycling event at Highgrove on 10th June 10 2021 © Arthur Edwards/WPA Pool/Getty Images Prince Charles, Prince of Wales joins members of the British Asian Trust for a short bicycle ride as they kickoff the charitys "Palaces on Wheels" cycling event at Highgrove on 10th June 10 2021 © Arthur Edwards/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales joins members of the British Asian Trust for a short bicycle ride as they kickoff the charitys "Palaces on Wheels" cycling event at Highgrove on 10th June 2021 © Arthur Edwards/WPA Pool/Getty Images

However royalists weave the story around these difficulties, the advantage they have is that levels of republicanism in Britain remain exceptionally low. For the last few decades, support for an elected head of state has hovered at around a fifth to a quarter of the population. It reached a peak of 24 per cent in a YouGov survey of May 2021. The only age cohort that preferred an elected head of state to a monarch (by 41 per cent to 31 per cent) was 18- to 24-year-olds.

Few across the political or media landscape even try to tell a different story. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all support the monarchy. The Green Party advocates removing the monarch’s remaining executive, legislative and judicial roles, but it currently has only one MP. The SNP has said in the event of Scottish independence it would like to retain the Queen as head of state. 

Queasiness about the monarchy sometimes expresses itself in demands not to abolish it, but to reduce its cost. The bike-riding royal families of other European countries may be cited. This is a well-rehearsed argument, and a dull one, with no appeal to storytelling. The Spectator’s answer to it in 1871 remains apt today:

There are grave reasons for questioning the utility of Monarchy in England, for doubting whether its existence does not widen the chasm between the national aspirations and the national power of realising them, for suspecting that as all real power has passed to a Sovereign Assembly all responsibility should be transferred there too. But there is not reason, or justice, or common decency in attacking the Monarchy on the ground of its expense…

article body image On your bike: Queen Maxima of the Netherlands looks more of a natural © Patrick van Katwijk/BSR Agency/Getty Images

On your bike: Queen Maxima of the Netherlands looks more of a natural © Patrick van Katwijk/BSR Agency/Getty Images

It is not by false statements as to the cost of the Monarchy or by dirty little snippings at the gold fringe on its robe that the cause of liberalism, even if Liberalism and Republicanism be identical, ought to be promoted. The Throne may be an injury, or a surplusage, or an anachronism, but at least let us sneer down the men who, keeping the Throne as a symbol, would substitute for its covering cotton velvet.

The argument for making the royal family low-budget appeals to some because it feels rational, like a compromise. In fact it is wholly irrational and no compromise at all. It reaffirms every fault of constitutional monarchy while making things look and feel slightly worse, satisfying no one. The idea of a “modernised” royal family is a contradiction in terms. Royalty is mystical and ancient: if it is not magnificent, what’s it for? Those who prefer a state that is rational, modern and efficient should find a way to tell that story on its own terms.

Change is not impossible, but it is highly unlikely unless there is something convincing to change into. In places like Russia or Iran, the dramatic fall of monarchies has been part of a momentous shift from one narrative to another. World wars, communism, fascism and various religious or nationalist movements have presented strong stories of their own. Those nations that have ceased to be part of empires have also had new stories to tell, focusing on their own national identities. Perhaps monarchies such as the Netherlands, Belgium or Norway have managed to make their royal stories so boring that something new will eventually be able to assert itself without violence or disruption. This will be much harder in Britain, where the monarchy still interests large numbers of people. Any pitch for a non-royal direction would have to be exceptionally compelling. The prospect of President Tony Blair will not cut it. 

Good and bad royals

In their puckish history of England from 1930, 1066 and All That, WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman wrote of Good Kings and Bad Kings. Good Kings obeyed the laws they passed, and promoted peace and tolerance. Bad Kings were unreliable or mentally unstable, and had favourites.

Every generation must have Bad Royals as well as Good Royals. How would we know that the Good Royals were Good if we didn’t have Bad Royals to compare them to? The Queen’s life of dignity and public service seems even more exemplary because her sister, Princess Margaret, kept falling for unsuitable men, drinking, smoking, swearing and swanning off to the Caribbean. 

Now, the papers contrast the Duchess of Cambridge’s supposed virtues with the Duchess of Sussex’s supposed flaws. Both were photographed while pregnant, holding their bellies. The Daily Mail’s headline about the Duchess of Cambridge read: “Not long to go! Pregnant Kate tenderly cradles her baby bump while wrapping up her royal duties ahead of maternity leave—and William confirms she’s due ‘any minute now.’” The same paper’s headline when the Duchess of Sussex did exactly the same thing one year later? “Why can’t Meghan Markle keep her hands off her bump? Experts tackle the question that has got the nation talking: is it pride, vanity, acting—or a new age bonding technique?” 

The central theme of the royal show is duty. This may be especially resonant when the government of the day is manifestly undutiful. Good Royals attend events with charm and grace. They may serve in the armed forces; they will certainly honour the armed forces. They do not express party-political opinions. It is safe for the Prince of Wales to care about conservation, or for the Duke of Cambridge to care about mental health, because politicians of all stripes would like to claim that they care about these issues too. Good Royals’ private lives conform (publicly at least) to middle-class values: they appear faithful, stable, dignified. They look nice. Fans love to see them smiling off-duty, but want them to take their duty seriously. The writer Julie Burchill described this balance in her 1998 book Diana, talking about the Queen: 

that trick she has, when finally forced to wear the most fantastically elaborate jewels, of wearing them as though they are simply part of a uniform, part of her job, part of the entertainment—an act of drag that is indeed a very real drag for her. There is that inimitable there’s-no-fun-in-this-for-me-you-know look which comes over the Queen’s face when she is wearing her crown…

Bad Royals fail to prioritise duty. They express opinions. They have dark sides and imaginations; sometimes mental or physical health problems. They look wrong: too fat, too thin, too ugly. Even if they are beautiful, as we have seen with the Duchess of Sussex, they may not be white enough. They fall in love with the wrong people. They fail to have legitimate children, or enough of them. They are too interested in money or pleasure. They
are ungrateful.

So familiar are these patterns that there is little in royal life that does not have historical precedent. The show has been running for so long that whole storylines are repeated. 

More than a century before Prince Andrew, there was Prince Albert Victor, grandson of Queen Victoria and heir to the throne after his father the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). In 1889, a scandal erupted around a brothel in Cleveland Street, London, which provided sex with teenage boys and young men for a male clientele. Arthur Somerset, equerry to the Prince of Wales, was among those identified as a client. He fled abroad to avoid prosecution, but it was said he had named Prince Albert Victor as a fellow patron. This has never been substantiated; still, the rumour was rife. Other gossip mostly involved affairs with women and a suggestion he was treated for venereal disease in 1890. There is even a conspiracy theory naming him as Jack the Ripper. 

Royalty has survived tremendous scandals. If and when Virginia Giuffre tells her story in full, the task for the monarchy will be to make Andrew uninteresting and the Good Royal narrative compelling. Prince Albert Victor’s scandal-fuelled days ended when he succumbed to influenza aged 28. There were more conspiracy theories about the supposed “convenience” of his death, as there are about Epstein’s. Albert Victor’s younger brother George replaced him in the succession and even married his fiancée, Princess May of Teck. He later ascended the throne as King George V.

Harry is part of the royal show, and leaving just creates another storyline

Scandals are common because the weight of duty and public attention combined with exceptional material privilege tends to unbalance the royals. Bagehot again: “the place of a constitutional king has greater temptations than almost any other, and fewer suitable occupations than almost any other.” He thought the position of an heir to the throne quite hopeless: “it is not rational to expect the best virtue where temptation is applied in the most trying form at the frailest time of human life.” If a royal happens to be personally invested in duty, as the Queen appears to be, they might make it through their own storyline successfully. If they are unlucky enough to be too smart or too stupid, too shy or too loud, or if they are just not very interested in being royal and want to do something else—bad luck.

Prince Harry is becoming a television producer and may do well: his experience could certainly inform a sense of storytelling. But he cannot erase the intimacy of the connection millions feel with him because they saw him as a babe in his mother’s arms and later as a traumatised 12-year-old walking behind her coffin. “It was like I was outside of my body,” he said in 2021, “doing what was expected of me, showing one-tenth of the emotion that everyone was showing.” The performance continued despite the pain; the story had to be told in the right way. Harry will always be part of the royal show. Leaving just creates another storyline. 

Princes have tried to find outside purpose before. Prince George, Duke of Kent—the fourth and brightest son of George V—joined the civil service. In 1932, prompted by an interest in social and industrial conditions, he moved from the Foreign Office to the Home Office and became a factory inspector. George V could not understand why his son would stoop to such work and piled royal duties on his son’s shoulders, disrupting his hours. Meanwhile, at the factories the prince was often recognised—at which point he would be dragged off by the bosses and literally treated like royalty, making it impossible for him to do his job. After two years, he was effectively obliged to go back to being a prince. 

It’s not easy for royals to write their own storylines. They live in what fiction writers might call a boundaried universe: the rules may be invisible, but they are almost impossible to break.

Charles’s new monarchy

All royals are presumed to be Good as children. Some become Bad as they grow up. Royal storylines last a lifetime, so some Bad Royals may eventually turn Good again. Prince Charles is on this trajectory. The precedent here may be Edward VII, who as Prince of Wales was famed for his affairs. (One was with Alice Keppel, great-grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. Camilla is said to have chatted up Prince Charles with the line: “my great-grandmother was your great-great-grandfather’s mistress, so how about it?”) Victoria reigned for almost 64 years, meaning Edward VII was 59 by the time he ascended the throne. By then, in defiance of the doubters, he had become a popular, grandfatherly king. 

Prince Charles too has now settled down into a grandfatherly existence. The shine may have been taken off that by his apparent falling out with his younger son. Perhaps it can be restored. Even if not,
his relationship with William, and the grandchildren more closely in line for the succession, may be enough to carry the story of a relatively harmless paternalistic figurehead. 

Charles now seems to have been emotionally faithful to Camilla for more than 40 years, notwithstanding his marriage to someone else for part of that time. Camilla’s future status as a royal had been uncertain for fear of upsetting two opposing fan communities: traditionalists
and Diana-obsessives. The Queen’s expressed wish that Camilla become queen consort was an attempt to move the story on, to begin embedding the narrative of the next reign.  

There has been speculation that Charles may not rule as King Charles III. Charleses I and II are unfortunate callbacks (a psychoanalyst might wonder why his parents gave him that name, knowing he would probably be king one day. Was it an unconscious act of violence against him, against the system, or both?). An alternative would be to rule as George VII, tapping into a happier backstory. George V and George VI were generally seen as solid and dependable. Change the name, change the narrative.

What next?

The challenge for the next generations of royals is not merely to steady the ship. Of course, there will be difficulties in handling the Bad Royals, but Good Royals have always had to deal with Bad Royals. They have usually made a horrific mess of it, but the ship has sailed on.

If the monarchy is to thrive, it must keep telling a story that engages people. This does not mean it should modernise. Its appeal may lie in reiterating that sense of tradition, benevolence and duty that the Queen has channelled so well. Fandoms and anti-fandoms can detect any hint of inauthenticity. The monarchy will look ridiculous if it tries to be things it is not, such as progressive or cool. Younger people are substantially more likely to
be republican. Perhaps their views will tend more towards royalism with age; perhaps they won’t. If a future generation prefers a story about a republic, things will change.

In late Victorian times, it was widely assumed that a society placing ever more emphasis on education and rationality would soon ditch the monarchy, along with the House of Lords and the Church of England. They were wrong because rationality wasn’t the point. The royal story has worked for royalty as an institution, though not necessarily for individual royals: it has often been stressful and unpleasant for them to sustain. It has worked for the government, media, society at large, royal fans and even for anti-fans. All those groups find use in the royal story, whether to entertain, to inspire, to misdirect, to sell, to love, to hate, to unify.  

The end of the monarchy is predicted with every change of reign. “England has no Republican Party, and is not likely to have one in the near future,” admitted an anonymous critic in the New Statesman and Nation after watching Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. “But I would hazard a bet that the Coronation has increased the number of inarticulate people who feel that, after all, the whole thing is out of date, antiquated stuff, deliberately revitalised as a means of setting back the democratic clock.”

The critic’s mistake was not in their contention—possibly some did feel the 1953 coronation undemocratic and antiquated—but in assuming most people would object to those things. Of course, a monarchy in the 21st century isn’t rational, just as it wasn’t rational in the 20th century, or the 19th. That doesn’t matter. What matters is whether we respond to the story.