When Queen Elizabeth II passes away, Prince Charles – her eldest son – is set to take the throne. That’s how it’s worked for hundreds of years, the crown is handed down from parent to child. But could this ancient tradition be about to change? Well, one royal expert speaking to Vanity Fair certainly thinks so. And, if that were to happen, there would be some pretty massive ramifications…
Royals take the line of succession very seriously. At the moment, Charles is first in line to the throne, followed by his son Prince William. Next, we’re onto the generation who are still just children. Prince George – who was born in 2013 – is in line after his father, William. And, after that, his siblings enter the picture.
But in recent years, there has actually been a change to the rules around succession – and it’s a pretty major one! In 2013 the law was amended to ensure the oldest child, not just the oldest male, could inherit the throne. So, that means when Princess Charlotte was born in 2015, she would keep her place in line to the throne – even if another boy was born after her.
As it happened, Charlotte did shortly gain another brother: Prince Louis, born in 2018. And, because of the new rules, her baby brother did not displace her position. She remained fourth in line to the throne, and Louis took his place behind her. Are you with us so far? Anyway, next in line after Louis is Prince Harry. William’s younger brother is sixth in line to the throne and his baby son, Archie, is seventh to inherit the British throne.
Of course, you probably already know that Harry has stepped down from royal duties along with his wife, Meghan. As of March 31, 2020, the pair are no longer senior royals. Though that doesn’t remove Harry from the line of succession – it takes the British Parliament to do that. Harry’s position remains whether he likes it or not! But the chances of him being king one day are practically zero, anyway.
There has, however, been one notable incident in royal history where someone voluntarily refused the throne. If you’ve ever watched The Crown, you’ll know all about it. King Edward VIII – the current Queen’s uncle – was told he couldn’t marry a twice-divorced American and also remain as the monarch. The royal had to go with one or the other, his heart or the crown, and he chose his beau Wallis Simpson.
Edward VIII’s exit meant King George VI was next in line to the throne. But Albert, as he was known, was unprepared for the role, as no one had expected he would ever need to rule! Alas, he did the job anyway, and his daughter Elizabeth – still a young child at the time – became next in line. If she’d had a younger brother, he would have been the heir, but Elizabeth only had one younger sister, Princess Margaret.
This all happened way back in the 1930s. Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson were apparently not popular with the other royals. The couple were reportedly pro-Nazi and might even have betrayed the United Kingdom by plotting with the Third Reich. But there are other elements of the story that may remind you of the recent debate that sprung up around Harry and Meghan.
Meghan and Harry’s marriage provoked some major discussions, as Meghan was a divorcée. Before meeting Harry, she had been married to producer Trevor Engelson. This wouldn’t have been an issue, except the royal family tends to be, shall we say, a bit funny about divorce…
You see, the Queen is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which, throughout its entire history, has been strongly anti-divorce. Only in 2002 did it finally relax its rules and allow divorced people with living ex-spouses to remarry. And even then, this was only under “exceptional circumstances.”
Much was made in the media about Meghan’s status as a divorcée. And in May 2018 – so, just a few days before Harry and Meghan’s wedding – royal historian Hugo Vickers spoke to the Associated Press about it. He said, “It would have been probably terribly difficult for [Meghan] to have married into the royal family in the 1950s…”
How does Charles factor into all of this, though? Well, divorce and remarriage loom large in his life, too. We all know that his first wife was Diana Spencer, the mother of William and Harry. The couple were so unhappy that their marriage eventually ended in divorce in 1996. The woman Charles had really wanted to marry – Camilla – was forbidden to him.
Camilla wasn’t considered a suitable wife for Charles due to her “past” – she wasn’t the virginal bride the royals wanted to marry the heir to the throne. But Diana – who was young and beautiful – very much was. Charles married Diana in 1981, by which point Camilla was already married to Andrew Parker Bowles.
What happened next is well documented. Despite being married to Diana and having appearances to maintain, Charles couldn’t stay away from Camilla. As his marriage to the mother of his children broke down, the Prince of Wales allegedly went back to his former girlfriend and began having an affair. And yes, Diana knew all about it.
Then came Charles and Diana’s separation and divorce, which was incredibly messy and difficult for all involved. The separation was announced at the end of 1992, and this was shortly followed by the newspapers getting hold of an extremely explicit phone conversation between Charles and Camilla.
The divorce between Charles and Diana was finalized in August 1996. And one year later, a horrible tragedy struck. Probably everyone who was around in that era remembers where they were when the news broke. On August 31, 1997, Diana was killed in a car crash while in Paris with her boyfriend.
Diana, her lover Dodi Fayed and their driver Henri Paul all died. And when news of this reached the British public, the mourning began right away. Diana was beloved by many, and people were keen to express their grief publicly. Many Britons were also angry with the royals following the tragic news.
People were furious that the Union flag flying outside Buckingham Palace wasn’t lowered to half-mast straight away. And blame was hurled at Prince Charles, too. If he hadn’t cheated on Diana – so went the sentiment among some of the British public – perhaps she would never have been in Paris and thus never died.
After that, Charles struggled to be seen as beloved by Britons. Some would say he has never really managed it since. First of all, there was the Camilla problem. Charles still wanted to marry his beau, but the British public hated her. Rumor has it that she was once pelted with bread rolls by irate Diana supporters.
Yet Charles was determined to make Camilla his second wife and improve her standing in the public eye. The prince made sure he wasn’t seen in public with her until 1999 – two years after Diana’s death. And slowly, people’s perception of her changed. This was helped by the fact that Camilla was low-key, clearly in love with Charles, and free from any more scandal.
Charles and Camilla wed in 2005. But – unlike how it was later with Harry and Meghan – the Queen didn’t actually attend. The Daily Telegraph reported at the time that because of her religious beliefs and position as head of the Church of England, she thought it best not to go. Yet the Queen did hold a reception for them – indicating she had no issue with the relationship itself.
Interestingly, though, Camilla didn’t get the same royal titles Diana received upon her marriage, even though she was technically entitled to them. Camilla could have been the Princess of Wales, but she turned it down because it was still so associated with Diana. All things considered, that was a pretty shrewd move.
But even if Camilla has come a long way from allegedly having bread rolls thrown at her, it doesn’t appear likely that she will ever be queen. While, by all accounts, the current royal family like her very much, it seems that they believe giving her the title of queen would just not go down very well with the public. She’ll probably be known as “queen consort” instead.
Though that all begs the question: if popularity factors into what titles you can have, will Charles be king at all? The fact remains that he’s just not very liked by the British public. In 2021 the results of a YouGov poll declared him the least favorite royal family member, with only 36 percent of people thinking he was “a positive impact on the monarchy.”
In fact, one expert thinks Charles may never make it to the throne. Royal biographer Anna Pasternak – author of The Real Wallis Simpson: A New History of the American Divorcee Who Became the Duchess of Windsor – spoke to Vanity Fair magazine about this concept in May that year. And she believed Harry and Meghan were the reason.
Pasternak said, “I’m not 100 percent sure that we will see Charles ascend to the throne. The Sussexes have sparked something so fundamentally incendiary in this country that it is changing the face of Britain, and I think the monarchy as an archaic institution may well topple.” It’s a strange, but plausible, thing to consider.
Plans for Charles’ eventual coronation have been in place for ages – that’s just how the royal family works. There will be a lot of work to do on the day the Queen dies, and much of it will be down to Charles. Reportedly, he’s supposed to make a speech to the nation the very evening of his mother’s passing.
Royal advisors have already discussed the details of Charles’ first days as king. One told The Guardian in 2017, “From [the first day], it is about the people rather than just the leaders being part of this new monarchy… It is see and be seen.” Essentially, Charles will have to go out and meet people whether he wants to or not.
But in the eyes of the experts who spoke to Vanity Fair, there’s still a chance none of this might happen. According to Pasternak, “It may be that there is such a groundswell of public opinion against [Charles] that it’s deemed by the firm preferable for William to ascend then because he’s younger [and] more relatable.”
According to Martin Wiener – a professor at Rice University and researcher of British history – the states in the Commonwealth may decide to drop out after Queen Elizabeth dies. Or as he put it, “It’d be like, ‘Who wants Charles to be our head? We’re stuck with Charles.’”
The idea of skipping over a whole generation of the royal family and opting for William rather than Charles is something that’s quite captured the imagination of British writers. The 2014 play King Charles III – adapted as a TV film in 2017 – has the royal’s reign go so disastrously that he’s forced to abdicate in favor of William.
The production naturally sparked a lot of controversy. One politician, British MP Andrew Bridgen, declared to the Mail on Sunday that it was a “distasteful” “flight of fantasy” that “denigrates and undermines our royal family.” But it also got people questioning if such a thing could happen in real life.
Tim Pigott-Smith – the actor who played Charles – was asked at the 2017 Television Critics Association press tour about the possibility of the crown skipping to William. He replied, “I think, ten years ago, people sort of went, ‘Oh, well, maybe William and Kate would be a great young king and queen.’ I think now, actually, people respect Charles and would be quite happy for him to be king.”
Pigott-Smith went on, “I think [the royals] will have to move towards a more Scandinavian or Spanish model of monarchy. I think when the queen dies, it’ll be okay for Charles for a bit, but then I think in order to survive really healthily, they’re going to have to move forward. But I think, funnily enough, that’s what they’re getting William ready for already. I think they’re preparing them for this different role of monarchy.”
Though, of course, plenty has changed since those remarks were made in 2017. For a start, Harry got married and left the royal family alongside Meghan. That sent massive shockwaves through the whole institution, as did the explosive interviews the couple gave to the media afterward.
Harry and Meghan spoke to TV megastar Oprah in March 2021, detailing their thoughts and feelings on the royal family now they had stepped down. According to Harry, Charles and the royals had cut him off financially. Yet newspaper sources claiming to be friends of Charles alleged this had never happened.
In addition to that bombshell, Harry told Oprah that he believed his family was “trapped” in the royal system. He said, “I am part of the system with them, I always have been, but I guess – and I’m very aware of this – my brother can’t leave that system, but I have. My father and my brother are trapped. They don’t get to leave, and I have huge compassion for that.”
Naturally, many people were livid with what Harry had said. One biographer, Duncan Larcombe, angrily declared to the Daily Express, “Prince Charles has been waiting to become king since the age of four… And he’s got his very popular, very high-profile son trying to sweep the mat from under his feet from saying his father and Prince William are trapped.”
Yet even if Charles actually does feel stuck in his role, that’s probably not going to stop him from wanting to be king. Some claim that Charles wants to use the position in order to get things done, but that may not be a good thing either. According to The Guardian, he has lobbied the government on political issues – things a monarch is supposed to stay quiet about.
A poll taken in October 2020 discovered that about half of Brits want William to inherit Elizabeth’s throne, while the rest are fine with Charles. It seems this is a debate that’s not going away anytime soon. But rest assured, there will be a resolution to it. The whole world will feel the shockwaves once the Queen dies.