A lot of overheated media commentary at the time of Prince Philip’s death insisted that his passing marked the end of an era. Certainly, he was the last British royal to have meaningful connections to a wider network of royal families – a result of a culture of European dynastic intermarriage that persisted through the first half of the twentieth century. And, as a leading member of the House of Windsor, the duke of Edinburgh unquestionably did more to ensure the survival of monarchy in Britain than any other royal man since the Second World War.
But his death did not signal the end an era. Rather, it was an unfortunate but timely reminder that a period of history is steadily drawing to a close and that is the Second Elizabethan Age. As we near this terminus, it is worth asking: what comes next?
In the week after her 95th birthday, media reports on Queen Elizabeth II remain fixated on her bereavement. There is real grief here; but also imagined grief. In the absence of any true insight into the queen’s inner thoughts and feelings, journalists have cast the monarch in the age-old role of ‘suffering royal widow’, embellishing their accounts with lashings of sentiment so that we might identify with her.
Historically speaking, Windsor family tragedies, as much as the triumphs, have worked to engender empathy for the royal individuals concerned. This emotion has often translated into a more profound respect for the institution they represent. This is particularly the case when the royal protagonists are seen emerging from their grief in order to ‘get on with the job’. The same script played out when Elizabeth II’s father died prematurely in 1952 and she became queen aged 25. A language of duty, service, and self-sacrificepredominated then too.
Almost seventy years on, it is clear this will be the monarch’s final performance; and the last act in this royal drama is largely predetermined. Since her official period of mourning came to an end, the queen has returned to public life accompanied by much journalistic fanfare on the difficulties of carrying on without Prince Philip by her side. The fact that the duke’s ailing health regularly prevented him from accompanying his wife at public events over the last decade will likely be overlooked as part of this story of royal grit in the face of adversity.
As well as a return to the world outside Windsor Castle, the queen will be looking inwards and getting her house in order in preparation for what comes next. To this end, there is already a review of internal procedures underway in light of the allegations of royal racism set forth by Harry and Meghan in their interview with Oprah Winfrey. Just as significantly (although less publicized), the monarchy appears to be moving with the tides of history in re-examining its role in the nation’s complex imperial past.
Empire has long been the elephant in the room for the royals. However unpalatable sections of the public and commentariat might find it, the reassessment of Britain’s history is well underway and, despite the current UK government’s attempts to obfuscate at every turn, the legacies of a coercive and often violent colonialism are becoming clearer to see. As part of this revisionism, Royal Palaces (the charity that manages unoccupied royal residences on behalf of the queen) is undertaking research into the monarchy’s historic links to the slave trade. The uncomfortable truths this work will uncover will lead to increased scrutiny of the central role played by the crown from the 16th to mid-20th centuries in the formation and maintenance of the empire – the remnants of which we today call the Commonwealth.
As historian Philip Murphy has shown, Elizabeth II and her family played key roles in the transformation of the British empire into the modern Commonwealth in the decades that followed the Second World War. The crown lent the new enterprise substance and, with its sprinkling of glamour, helped to soften the rougher edges of empire. It seemed that the duke and duchess of Sussex were destined to oversee a new phase in Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth centred on an increased sensitivity to racial inequalities and social justice – possibly as a way of confronting past injustices. Given the couple’s impromptu departure, Elizabeth II and her advisors will now be rethinking the monarchy’s approach, particularly given the renewed calls by some Commonwealth nations to cut ties with the crown.
Prince Charles is already guaranteed to succeed his mother as Head of the Commonwealth when he becomes king, as was agreed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2018. This is just one example among many of how the queen’s powers – symbolic and real – are already transitioning to her heir. Charles’ succession will therefore be defined by a sense of continuity, but we should also anticipate innovation.
The queen’s strict interpretation of duty is not shared by her eldest son. He will undoubtedly continue with the steady programme of royal public engagements, which is the bread and butter of modern monarchy. However, the environmentalist king-in-waiting has, as Prince of Wales, demonstrated a determination to have his voice publicly heard on issues that matter to him in a way that is anathema to the ever-discrete Elizabeth II. Such advocacy has been deemed broadly acceptable, given how it addresses non-partisan issues that governments, no matter the shade of colour, can get behind. Problems have arisen only when the prince has held forth on controversial topics – such as the medical benefits of homeopathy – that run counter to conventional wisdom. His ‘black spider’ memos also indicate that he is ready to use his high position to lobby – however subtly – elected government officials.
In terms of family life, Charles fares less well than his mother again. Whereas Elizabeth II’s time on the throne has been defined by narratives of service and virtuous domesticity, the prince’s colourful private life means he will begin his reign not as a fairy-tale monarch (as was the case with his mother), but instead as a slightly drab, tarnished figure with a second wife and queen consort (Camilla) who is yet to win the full acceptance of a British public still largely enamoured with his first spouse.
Without Harry by his side, Charles’ plans for a slimmed-down-monarchy look as though they have at least temporarily been put on hold too. The recent recruitment of a wider circle of family members, including the Wessexes, to preside at important public events suggests that since the Sussexes broke ranks there has been renewed concern about the number of royals available for service. With the spectre of his brother Andrew haunting the court, desperate it would seem for a way back to respectability, the heir-to-the-throne has a complex balancing act if he is to ensure the House of Windsor maintains its presence in all areas of national life while simultaneously avoiding accusations that there are too many expensive ‘hangers on’.
Prince William is a less complicated figure than his father and is notably more popular. Yes, the rift with his brother leaves questions unanswered about the longer-term image of the monarchy, particularly if Harry and Meghan pursue an advocacy agenda incompatible with that of the royal family back in Britain. But the duke of Cambridge has a ‘family man’ appeal and has done a better job than Prince Charles of disguising his opinions while at the same time clearly working to establish the monarchy’s new global aims. Also vying for the moniker of ‘environmentalist king-in-waiting’, William has created an international platform through high-profile collaborations in order to address the most pressing problems affecting the natural world. His launch of the ‘Earthshot Prize’ alongside David Attenborough in 2020 to tackle climate change was the most significant example to date of this desire to align the crown with the biggest challenge facing not just the UK but all nations.
Back at home, William and his wife, Kate, have spearheaded the royal family’s support of NHS workers through the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps more than ever, Britain’s National Health Service seems to be an organization celebrated universally across the political spectrum. Given this breadth of support, royal advocacy here has been non-partisan and has arguably done much good in focusing attention on the difficult jobs of individual healthcare professionals.
Mental health, though, is another matter. William and Harry both promoted awareness of this issue over the last ten years and were able to do so as it was a policy area neglected by successive governments. Now, with mounting calls for a strong state-led response to Britain’s looming mental health crisis, it is unclear whether the royal family risks continuing its work in this area given how politicized it could quickly become. Government budgeting for mental health services may well prove contentious and the patchwork of royal-sponsored mental health charities may hinder any state-led response, as much as assist it.
These developments are a reminder that the royal family’s fortunes will be determined as much by a wider social, economic, cultural, and political context, as by themselves. On the surface it appears that Britain is more divided than it has been in many decades. Journalists’ claims that a nation gathered on the day of Prince Philip’s funeral to mourn him were – while touching – plainly wrong (13 million viewers tuned in, equating to about one-fifth of the national television audience). This kind of royal reporting is typical and over many years has done much to conceal the true contours of public opinion in an increasingly complex country.
The media thus needs to do more to better reflect the diversity of attitudes espoused by the public towards the crown, be they royalist, republican, apathetic and everything in between. For a start, this would provide ‘the firm’ with a richer understanding of the people the royal family claim to represent and better equip them to deal with the kind of turbulent changes in national life that we have come to expect as a result of the last decade of politics.
For now, we can expect a return to ‘business as usual’. The period of royal mourning for the duke of Edinburgh is over and we have entered what historian Anna Whitelock has aptly described as the ‘twilight’ of Elizabeth II’s long reign. While change is clearly afoot, it will also be a period defined by a continuation of the royal public service that has been her hallmark as queen. Questions will persist over the internal struggles that are shaping the monarchy from within. But of greater significance are the bigger societal forces changing the institution from without. It therefore remains to be seen how and whether the crown manages to adapt to the wider transformations of a period that historians of Britain will one day refer to as the late Second Elizabethan Age.