King Charles Is Going to Be Disappointed
If the British sovereign is just another human being, what possible constitutional purpose can he serve?
I have twice met the man who has just been crowned King Charles III, both times on occasions so unmemorable that I am certain he cannot possibly recall either one. I recall them very well, of course—where we were (once in London, once in Warsaw); what we wore (he, gray pinstripes; I, a black dress); what we said (nothing of consequence). That’s the essence of my relationship to the new king, and also the essence of all of our relationships with royalty. They know nothing whatsoever about us, but we remember absolutely everything about them.
Sometimes, in fact, we know an extraordinary amount about them. Without ever having tried especially hard, I know more details about the relationship between Charles and Queen Camilla than I know about, say, the relationship between my sister and my brother-in-law. Because their phones are tapped and the transcripts are then published, because their courtiers have an enormous incentive to leak gossip, because even their relatives have much to gain by talking and writing about them—because of all this, I know things about them almost by osmosis. Even if I don’t want to know the intimate details, I just do.
Not that this is their fault. Of course they can be criticized for failing to navigate the world of celebrity journalism and for their clumsy attempts to manipulate it. But they didn’t create it, and it isn’t a world they were ever going to inhabit comfortably. This royal family has been singularly unprepared to function as a national soap opera. In its modern incarnation, the British monarchy long succeeded because it was precisely the opposite, and the Windsors would have been happy to continue in that tradition.
All they have ever wanted, it seems, was to follow the rules laid out by the Victorian writer Walter Bagehot, whose influential book The English Constitution, published in 1867, argued that the ideal constitutional monarch is unknowable, unreachable. Their personality should be dull; their opinions kept to themselves. A queen is not friendly or relatable; a king is not someone with whom you would like to have a beer. The more he is perceived as a symbol—of the nation, of unity, of history—and the less he seems like an actual human being, the more effective he will be. “Its mystery is its life,” Bagehot wrote of the monarchy. “We must not let in daylight upon magic.”
The Windsors took this idea and ran with it. The late Queen’s rather rigid public persona, her careful avoidance of controversy, even her chilly (by modern standards) methods of raising her children—all of that seems to have been a deliberate attempt to fit into Bagehot’s definition. Throughout her life, she sought to preserve the mystery, to keep out the daylight. Then she taught Charles to do the same.
But during her reign the world changed. Slowly, the Royal Family agreed to do more public events, to have more contact with ordinary people, even to appear in some prime-time television specials (It’s a Royal Knockout, a kind of game show, was one notable failure). Charles, as Prince of Wales, devoted himself to sustainable farming, walkable towns, environmental causes. He was many years ahead of the curve—he made a speech denouncing the excessive use of plastics, and predicting damage to the environment, as far back as 1970—but got little credit for it. Instead, daylight was let in, the magic disappeared, and it’s not necessary to explain what happened next, because all of us know, whether we want to or not. Eventually we got to where we are now, an era of dueling interviews, staged photographs, and competing best-selling memoirs. And this is now the problem: If there is no magic about the monarch, then what possible constitutional purpose does he serve?
Saturday’s coronation, so carefully planned and orchestrated, was an attempt to fix that problem. The King did not have to be anointed behind a screen. He did not have to put on a crown containing a ruby supposedly worn by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt. He certainly did not have to travel in a famously uncomfortable golden coach, or encourage his family to dress like characters out of Star Wars. But he chose to do all of these things in an attempt to shroud himself in the same mystery that enveloped his mother. The moment he had the crown fixed on his head, he kept his face expressionless. He showed no joy, no relief after so many decades of waiting. He wanted to look like the image of a monarch on a postage stamp, and he did.
Will his subjects accept this transformation? For some it isn’t necessary; tens of thousands were celebrating along the parade route and outside Buckingham Palace on Saturday, despite the inevitable rain. For others Charles’s attempt to attain mystery and distance doesn’t matter, because even if they don’t accept this change, they can’t do anything about it anyway. A long time ago, a British friend reminded me that when Queen Elizabeth died, there would be no vote or plebiscite on Charles’s worthiness, no moment when the country paused to ask whether they still wanted a monarch. He would just become king, instantaneously: The Queen is dead; long live the King. And so it came to pass. There wasn’t a nanosecond in which it was possible to ask, “Do we really want a king?” or “Do we want this particular king?,” and probably there never will be. Habit is powerful, the pull of old traditions is real. I don’t foresee Charles being ejected from his palaces, and I would also be surprised if his son does not, in due course, become King William.
But for many other people, the unease will reflect itself in other ways—or maybe it already has. Maybe the decline of the magical part of the British constitution has an echo in the diminishing faith in so many other British institutions, from the judiciary and the Parliament to the National Health Service and the British Broadcasting Corporation. Maybe the excess of daylight inside the monarchy plays a small part in explaining why arguments about the British empire are breaking out now, in the 2020s, decades after most of that empire wound down; or why conservative newspapers that once defended the establishment used phrases like “saboteurs” or “enemies of the people” to describe judges and members of the House of Lords during the bitter debate about Brexit.
Possibly this unease helps explain why more people watched Elizabeth’s funeral last year than Charles’s coronation last weekend. One commemorated the past; the other was meant to look toward the future. But it doesn’t feel like a future in which the monarchy will become stronger or grander, or more expansive, or more powerful—or even more relevant, as the new king so clearly hopes it will be.
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