A time of transition: British royal family zips through milestones

By

Marshall Terrill

Royal watchers have had plenty of reasons to rejoice lately: Queen Elizabeth’s 92nd birthday last month, the recent birth of Prince William and Duchess Catherine’s third child, Louis; Princess Charlotte’s third birthday; and, of course, the upcoming wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19.

These are not only milestones but possible torch-passing moments as rumors of Queen Elizabeth’s retirement from public life abound. It begs several questions: what will the face of Britain’s monarchy look if that happens? Who are the players? And is everyone prepared to take on those responsibilities?

ASU Now asked Retha Warnicke, an emeritus professor in Arizona State University's School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and author of seven books, to discuss a possible royal changing of the guard. 

Woman in glasses smiling
Retha Warnicke

Question: What will the monarchy look like in the coming years given that transitions seem to be in play?

Answer: I think this royal family will follow the customary procedure. Charles will become Charles III in a grand coronation ceremony. As he has promised that his present wife will never become queen, probably she will remain the Duchess of Cornwall, while enjoying the trappings of royalty. After all, Charles won’t be the first English king to take a second wife. Since he is relatively old when succeeding to the throne and is not very popular (he actually seems to avoid publicity), his heir Prince William will almost certainly have a more prominent public role than would otherwise be the case. William and his family are already popular and are often seen in public gatherings. The media is enthralled, and we see much more of them than of Charles. I suspect Charles, who has always been somewhat withdrawn and reticent about publicity, will welcome his elder son’s and his family’s support and look to them as regular deputies. 

I cannot really see much employment for Harry, who has never played by the royal rules. I find it interesting that the public statements about his future wife, Meghan, refer to her as an American and have seemed to ignore her African heritage. The two have also not attempted to hide the fact that they have been living together at Kensington Palace. The queen, of course, approved of the marriage. I think she worried what he would do (and rightly so) if she said no. As to the future of the monarchy, despite Harry, it is popular enough, especially in the great-grandchildren’s generation so that they will continue on as they have done — appearing publicly when required and supporting whatever government is in power.

Q: Americans love royal-watching, but how do Brits feel about their own monarchy?

A: They are absolutely split on this issue. Some of the working class, in particular, are hostile to the monarchy but they are also hostile to the nobility and rich people generally. By contrast, many in the middle class are enthralled with the monarchy. The royal family attract crowds whenever and wherever they appear in public. Many Brits cannot see enough of them. The press and TV would not spend so much time on them if they were not so popular. This queen and her grandchildren (the children of Princess Diana), as opposed to her son Charles, are extremely popular, if for no other reason than she represents the monarchy that defended Great Britain during the Great War. Many still remember her father’s commitment to his kingdom. There still is a feeling of patriotism about the queen, if not her grandchildren.

Q: It appears as if the queen did exceptionally well in her duties, but how do you think Charles will fare as king of England?

A: Charles does not get high marks. He turned his back on his first, popular wife and after she died, he married his lover. Diana is still extremely popular (as are the children who are associated with her more than with their father). I think Charles will do his duties as king but he has always been shy about public exposure and will almost certainly be less prominent socially than his mother has been. I think he will rely on William and his family to make up the difference in public appearances. He will be where he must be on special occasions but will be somewhat awkward in appearance and avoid publicity when he can. I do not foresee a possibility of a personality change.

Q: What are some of the deeper issues you think Charles and the royal family will face in the upcoming decade? 

A: The lack of privacy will be a continuing, deep issue for the family. With modern technology — smartphones that take photos, for example — they will have more difficulty than ever before protecting the little privacy they have. The problem is that these instruments can be used even when the subject is unaware of them. In addition, royal family members are going to have to develop, if they have not already started doing so, guidelines for electronic usage by the members of their family. The last decade has seen a tremendous jump in this technology and it may accelerate in future years.