The health of the royals adds to fears about the health of the monarchy itself

Both the King and his daughter-in-law are being treated for cancer and future royals might opt out of the Firm altogether. What happens when the monarchy runs short of operational members?

March 22, 2024
The Princess of Wales updates the public on her health. Kensington Palace/ PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
The Princess of Wales updates the public on her health. Kensington Palace/ PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Forget all the conspiracy theories that have been raging around the world. In one short, dignified video the Princess of Wales has revealed just why she has taken time out from the public gaze. She spoke movingly and with dignity. Here ends the gossip. 

It’s barely six weeks since we learned that the King, too, has cancer. Both are receiving treatment. Both speak with a degree of courage and optimism about their hopes for a full recovery. We all hope and pray they make one. But Kate’s announcement heightens the increasing sense of fragility about the institution of which she has become such an iconic member. Take two key members of the family out of action (four, if you include reduced participation from partners looking after them) and the whole operation begins to teeter a bit. 

I’ve been quietly wondering about this for some time, but—even before Kate’s announcement—was jolted by the Daily Mail surrendering half its front page last week to a doom-laden warning: “If the royal family is not quite at the 11th hour, it is perilously close.”

This was a longread by its veteran royal watcher Richard Kay, who is neither a noted republican nor—as with so many royal watchers—an embroiderer of thinly sourced fantasies.

Kay wrote of a “worrying dysfunction” in recent aspects of the royal family’s behaviour. He drew attention to vast property and land empire the Duchy of Cornwall, which generated profits of £24m last year, observing: “Courtiers have asked what the Prince of Wales spends the money on—or even if he has the faintest idea what to do with it.”

Kay questioned whether William—known, he says, as the “10am to 4pm prince”—has the capacity or willingness to put in the kind of shifts his grandmother did. He was, reported Kay, contributing to a sense of aimlessness about where, if anywhere, the monarchy was going. 

Well. The age profile and health of the Firm is not encouraging. Charles is nearly 76 (the same age as Camilla) and is, like his daughter-in-law, being treated for cancer. Anne, at 73, could have been drawing her pension seven years ago. The Duke of Kent is 88; the Duke of Gloucester is 74. Of the mainstream royals, only Prince Edward, at 58, and his wife, 59, are not yet eligible for a bus pass. Harry and Meghan have retired, hurt. And Prince Andrew has metaphorically been photoshopped out of every picture, now and forever. 

Unless I’m missing someone, that’s about it. Cast forward 10 years and you’d expect Kent and Gloucester to be more or less out of the picture. Anne might still be battling on. The Office for National Statistics predicts the King can expect to live to 87: if so, he might well, in 10 years’ time, be spending more time with his herbaceous borders. We can’t expect much of assorted Beatrices, Eugenies, lesser Wessexes or Tindalls. Shakespeare would have had them as walk-on parts. 

So by then—actuarially—it might just be Will and Kate, with a bit of Anne and a bit of Wessex infill. And lots of houses, palaces, estates and money—lots of money—with Andrew, 74, still sulking (mostly invisibly) in the background. 

Attention will naturally turn to the next generation. George will be 20, perhaps in his second year at university and weighing up his options. Charlotte may be approaching her A-levels, with Louis sitting his GCSEs.  

I wonder if Charlotte and Louis will, at some point in their teens, manage to get hold of Uncle Harry’s book, Spare, with its, um, unsparing account of the life that could await them. A world of odious whispering, conniving courtiers bowing to your face while stabbing you in the back. Lives dominated by the media’s unceasing, obsessive gaze—at the mercy of “dweebs and crones and cut-rate criminals and clinically diagnosable sadists” (that’s just the British press). Your dad (in Harry’s words) “not merely my father… my boss, my banker, my comptroller, keeper of the purse strings throughout my adult life.”

Might they, like Harry, feel “forced into this surreal state, this unending Truman Show in which I almost never carried money, never owned a car, never carried a house key, never once ordered anything online, never received a single box from Amazon, almost never travelled on the Underground. (Once, at Eton, on a theatre trip)”?

“Sponge, the papers called me. But there’s a big difference between being a sponge and being prohibited from learning independence. After decades of being rigorously and systematically infantilised, I was now abruptly abandoned, and mocked for being immature? For not standing on my own two feet?”

It’s not the most enticing job description, is it? If those were your firm’s testimonials on the Glassdoor recruitment website, there wouldn’t be a stampede of applicants. 

Is it possible that some of the would-be future lesser royals opt out? If they do, who could blame them? Who then will open all those buildings, dish out the MBEs, inspect the troops, grace the fundraising dinners, tour the Commonwealth, lunch with lord lieutenants, make small talk with the Privy Council, and generally keep the flummery on the road?

On Wednesday, the King’s appointments included receiving the Royal Apothecary, an office dating back to 1660, and investing him with the Royal Victorian Order as he retired, aged a mere 67. The week before that, the King was busy using a bodkin (a needle to you and me) to prick parchment sheets—which is, apparently, an arcane procedure for choosing high sheriffs. Medieval flimflam, but time-consuming. Especially if you’re only working 10-4. 

If the palace called in auditors they might start to flag up whether, in a few years’ time, the monarchy could possibly survive as a going concern. There’s no shortage of cash—far from it—but is the institution stable enough in other ways to meet its obligations and continue its business for the foreseeable future? Which is the question auditors are supposed to ask. 

Is there a risk register locked away in one of Buckingham Palace’s 775-odd rooms? You’d assume it deals with fire, floods, falling masonry, parchment shortages and the reputational perils of errant never-to-be-mentioned uncles. They will now have upped the column dealing with serious illness to key members of the family. But does it ever look at the existential risk—that, within a decade, there will simply not be enough suitably bred employees to keep the show on the road? 

Is there a plan for the assorted London palaces? For Windsor Castle, Sandringham, Balmoral, Highgrove, Birkhall, Dumfries House, and the estates in Romania? If there aren’t enough first-rank royals to go round, what then?

And what’s the plan for the UK, assuming such an entity still exists in 2034? Who’s in charge of drawing up plans for what happens if the monarchy runs out of puff? I hope someone, somewhere is thinking about such things, because I think Richard Kay could be right: when you get to the 11th hour, time is short.

This column was updated on the evening of 22nd March in light of news that the Princess of Wales is in the early stages of cancer treatment