The Queen’s Era Is Drawing to an End as Prince Charles Assumes New Royal Duties

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David Parker / Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II arrives to meet with patients and staff at the defense medical-rehabilitation center in Headley Court in Surrey, England, on May 2, 2013

Often what British royals do is far more consequential than what they say. At today’s State Opening of Parliament, Queen Elizabeth II will read out her government’s agenda for the coming session, this time expected to include immigration reforms, a cap on the cost of social care, a measure to control dangerous dogs and another to ban wild animals in circuses. Some of these legislative plans might appear a little weightier than others, but the really big news will be sitting mutely alongside Her Majesty. For the first time, the Queen will be accompanied on the dais at this annual ceremonial fixture not only by her doughty husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, but by their son — and her heir — the Prince of Wales and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall. Their presence will signal a shift in public life that is likely to impact far more Britons than any law about muzzling pitbulls. After more than 60 years, the Elizabethan era is drawing to a close, and the Charlesian age is dawning.

On May 7, on the eve of the State Opening, Buckingham Palace also announced that for the first time since 1973 the Queen, the head of the Commonwealth, will not attend November’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Prince Charles will deputize for her, traveling to Sri Lanka in her place. The Queen, at 87, looks frail, but is in good health, according to a palace insider, who does concede that officials “are pacing her commitments.” Charles will “increasingly share constitutional duties.”

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The palace had not planned to draw attention to this shift, which has been taking place under the radar. Palace strategists, including the royals themselves, believe the best way to sustain Britain’s monarchy is through a process of constant, near imperceptible adaptation. And for years, those strategists have been plotting how to apply those techniques of change management to the biggest change the palace hopes to weather: the succession. Not for the Windsors the gamble taken by the Dutch royals last week, when Queen Beatrix stood down in favor of her son, the new King Willem-Alexander. Polls in the U.K. have consistently shown deep and steady support for the monarchy headed by Elizabeth II. The results have proved more ambiguous when Britons are asked how they feel about King Charles. Republican movements in the U.K. and in the 15 Commonwealth realms for which the Queen serves as head of state have resigned themselves to making only limited progress during her lifetime. They are looking to her departure to boost their cause substantially, maybe to even bring the Windsor reign to a close and sever Commonwealth ties to the crown. But if the Palace strategists prevail, she will not go suddenly, but in increments, and Charles will have his feet well under the desk by the time that happens.

The choreography is intricate; its cleverest flourishes are invisible. Unlike Her Majesty’s government, Her Majesty doesn’t like to publicize her policy initiatives. The announcement on CHOGM was only triggered because Downing Street confirmed that Prime Minister David Cameron would be attending the meeting, despite calls for a boycott over Sri Lanka’s human-rights record. Palace officials some weeks ago quietly posted notice of Charles and Camilla’s role at the State Opening of Parliament on the royal website, in language so carefully chosen that only the most dedicated royal watcher would understand the import.

And a hugely significant moment passed entirely unremarked, earlier this year. After the Queen had been hospitalized for gastroenteritis, she canceled most engagements but returned for one event before she was fully recovered, according to the palace insider. At Marlborough House in London, on March 11, the Queen signed the new Commonwealth Charter. Before she did so, Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma gave a speech in which he not only acknowledged the Queen’s long service as the head of the Commonwealth but lauded Prince Charles’ role and spoke of “a foundation of friendship and continuity” in the association between the Commonwealth and the royal family. The Queen responded: “I am grateful to you, Mr. Secretary General, for your kind and generous sentiments, and for your thoughtful words about the link between the Crown and the Commonwealth and its enduring value.” Later that month, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, with antipodean bluntness, spelled out, in a tribute to the Queen, exactly what the Queen and Commonwealth secretary general had meant by their exchange of pleasantries.

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“The institution of the head of the Commonwealth, standing as it does above individual governments, has been an asset of the Commonwealth since its foundation, and we need not be reticent about its future,” said Gillard. “For Australia’s part, I am sure the Queen’s successor as monarch will one day serve as head of the Commonwealth with the same distinction as her Majesty has done.”

With Charles apparently assured the warmest of welcomes at CHOGM, the Queen has been relieved of a long-haul responsibility. And with public attention snared by the younger royals, and especially the birth, due in July, of the Queen’s great-grandchild, the slow transfer of duties is set to continue, largely unremarked, mostly unchallenged. As the head of state that wears the crown lies a little easier, her successor can lie a little easier too.