Nearly universal in the memorials for Queen Elizabeth II (who died on Thursday, at the age of 96) was her symbolism of stability and constancy in Britain. She was “a changeless human reference point in British life,” former Prime Minister Boris Johnson saidIn Friday’s tribute to the monarch. More than just a symbolic face of the nation, the Queen was also Britain’s lodestar and a source of comfort at a time of seemingly unending turbulence. It is now up to the country how it can move forward without her.
Although the British government has a clear path ahead (as it has done many times in the past), the fate of the British monarchy is less certain. The throne will be handed to King Charles III at a time that the monarchy is broadly supported by Britain. According to a June poll, 62% of Britons support the institution. The outpouring support and admiration of the Queen shouldn’t be confused with unwavering support of the Royal Family in general, particularly after the recent fallout regarding Prince Harry and Meghan, as well as sexual-assault accusations against her son Prince Andrew. The biggest test facing the new King is whether he can emulate his mother’s image of stability and preserve the institution that she spent so much of her life trying to protect.
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Although she rose to the throne only at 25 years old, Queen Elizabeth had many lifetimes of experience. Charles, at 73, is the oldest monarch ever to ascend the British throne. He will not enjoy the same advantages. So much of Charles’s public image has been shaped by his time as the Prince of Wales, including salacious periods of his private life—including his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, who as his wife now takes the title of Queen Consort, and his high-profile split from Princess Diana—as well as his vocal positions on issues as wide-ranging as climate change, hedgerows, China, and the British government’s controversial tactics to stymie immigration. Whereas the Queen maintained a reputation of impartiality, opting to stay above the fray and leave the politics to the politicians, Prince Charles did the exact opposite, even going so far as to wade into the highest levels of politics when he wrote a series of letters in 2004 and 2005 known as the “black spider memos,” lobbying government ministers on a number of issues, in a clear violation of the monarchy’s neutral and ceremonial role in British politics.
“Charles has activist tendencies,” says Richard Fitzwilliams, an expert on the Royal Family. Perhaps it was because his primary occupation for much of his life was to follow his passions through various charities and foundations.
Britons listen to King Charles III, a monarch, speak in front of the nation, on BBC News, as he announces that his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, has died. This was broadcast on BBC News, Appleby Village, Lincolnshire England, on September 9th 2022.
Lindsey Parnaby—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
“He doesn’t have the same level of mystique that Queen Elizabeth II cultivated very successfully over her life,” Brooke Newman, a historian of early modern Britain at Virginia Commonwealth University tells TIME. Beyond her love of corgis and horses, “she was very careful not to articulate a position on really much of anything. She became an icon around the world because people could project their hopes and dreams and fantasies and outrage on her and on the institution because she embodied the Crown in a way that I think is going to be impossible for Charles to do because he already represents certain things.”
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But for the monarchy to continue to be seen as a source of national unity and for the King to be able to carry out his ceremonial duties without inviting allegations of partisanship—something that even occasionally dogged his mother’s strictly-impartial reign—Fitzwilliam said that the new monarch will need to keep his opinions in check. Charles has acknowledged this reality in the past and, in his first national address since ascending the throne, conceded that as his role changes, “it will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply.”
Preserving the Royal Family’s symbolic value is only part of the new King’s challenge. Another challenge is to make sure the institution serves its intended purpose, at a moment when monarchies or heredity privilege are becoming increasingly outdated. Charles and his mother were in agreement here. Both recognized the imperative of slimming down the Royal Family—both in cost to the taxpayer and public appearance—in line with public opinion. Under Charles, that effort is expected to be taken even further by shrinking the Royal Family down to just seven active working royals—who are tasked with participating in official engagements, meeting foreign dignitaries, and representing the monarch in their absence—down from the current 10.
Charles’s greatest challenge will be matching the popularity of his mother, who was mostly unaffected by scandals. When TIME spoke with mourners gathered in the immediate aftermath of the Queen’s death, it was clear that no one expected Charles’s reign to rival that of his mother’s. “It will never be the same,” one civil servant, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told TIME outside Buckingham Palace. “Every monarch creates their own impression on the country.”
This doesn’t necessarily diminish the pressure he stands to face, nor will it provide any consolation should the monarchy’s perception take a turn for the worse. “Charles has had a lot of ups and downs,” Warren Cabral, who went to Buckingham Palace on Thursday to pay his respects to the Queen with his wife and son, told TIME on Thursday, “but he’s inheriting the Crown at its peak.”
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The monarchy will not be able to maintain its Elizabethan status under Charles. Quite aside from his own popularity—which could take a hit when Netflix releases its next installment of “The Crown,” which is expected to retell the story of the disintegration of his marriage to Princess Diana, later this year—Charles will have to contend with a flurry of other challenges, not least the potential breakup of the United Kingdom, the unraveling of the Commonwealth, and reckoning with the unsavory parts of the Royal Family’s past and its colonial legacy.
Charles, unlike his mother will not be responsible for shepherding the Crown over the next 70-years. It is enough for him to continue doing so until he can pass the responsibility on to his children.
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