I remember 2013 as being a very hectic time for monarchists. Happily, it was the year where His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge was born, thus seeing the birth of the next generation of British kings. However, that year also marked a cluster of abdications from the older generations of European monarchs, first with Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, then King Albert II of Belgium, and finally, most shockingly of all, Pope Benedict XVI. In a matter of months, we suddenly had two new monarchs and one new pope.
The next year saw King Juan Carlos I of Spain abdicate his position as well in favour of his son, the now King Felipe VI, and now there are reports that the Japanese Emperor, Akihito, has also expressed his wish to retire.
During the buzz of the abdication craze sweeping Europe, there was a lot of speculation about whether The Queen would also follow the example of her continental peers and voluntarily relinquish the throne to the next generation – with some hoping she’d also skip a generation in doing so. Such talked remained just that. Talk. Despite her advanced years, it seems that Queen Elizabeth II is still in excellent health and will remain Queen of the Commonwealth Realms for a while yet.
And she’s not alone. As well as The Queen, it seems that the Scandinavian monarchies – Denmark, Sweden and Norway – will also retain their current monarchs, and the Prince of Lichtenstein also seems fairly comfortable in his position.
Even so, these events have highlighted a growing change in modern day monarchy. This may not be the first time we’ll see the current generation of crowned heads of state, seemingly of one accord, decide to step down from their thrones to make way for their heirs.
“Long Live the Queen” Becomes Fact, Not Wishful Thinking
One of the best perks of living in the 21st century has most definitely got to be the health care. No more applying leeches to rebalance the humours, or falling prey to illness because of malnutrition, or suffering from crippling injury because prosthetics have not yet advanced beyond “a stout stick”. Advances in medicine made over the past century have made once-fatal ailments more and more manageable. People are living longer, healthier lives with more regularity.
Some optimistic futurists have speculated that the first human to live to be 200 has already been born. Some, perhaps blessed with more enthusiasm than sense, have even suggested that some humans today will live to be 1000.
Further, we currently live in a period of unprecedented peace. The last major conflict within Europe ended decades ago, and studies have shown that the number of major wars conflicts worldwide has been steadily declining with time. This means we’re less likely to be sent off to die in a distant battlefield.
Notwithstanding the uncertainty of the future, of course.
All this applies to monarchs not least of all. Today’s royals are living longer and longer than they have ever done before. Queen Victoria reached the highly respectable age of 81 when she died in 1901, famously leaving her very middle-aged son Edward VII to inherit. Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, lived to be 101 when she passed on in 2002. The Queen has just celebrated her 90th birthday this year and shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down. There’s every possibility that Her Majesty may well match or even surpass the Queen Mother’s age.
However, this leaves the very real prospect of Prince Charles inheriting the throne at an advanced age himself. As of the moment of writing, His Royal Highness is already 68 himself. Should he choose to live out the full extent of his reign as his own mother did, this will likely mean that Prince William will also be of quite old by the time he inherits, assuming longevity is indeed an inheritable trait. The problem repeats with Prince George and any future British heirs apparent.
This guarantees that our monarchs will always be individuals who are approaching, at, or long past typical retirement age by the time they come to their position, assuming their predecessors do not die younger than expected. While not as damaging as it would have been in the past – we no longer expect our monarchs to fight on the field of battle, for example – it does mean that we get monarchs past their prime. Less able to attend regularly to royal duties, more likely to succumb to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, and less able to keep up with the rigours of day to day life as a British monarch.
It also means we have less chance to get attached to our kings and queens. The Queen’s popularity is in no doubt partly due to just how long she’s been Queen. Many subjects have been born, lived, and died without knowing any other sovereign. In many ways, she’s become the face of the British nation today. Her long faithful years of service has won her great respect and affection at home and abroad. Linked to this, she has also had a great deal of opportunity to adjust to her role as Monarch and develop her own style of leadership, as well as garner wisdom and experience that she can share with more transient governors and ministers.
This is harder to do with older heirs.
Temptation may also exist within the vapid elements of British society to denounce having an elderly person as our head of state, when the American president is so young, so sexy, and has his own YouTube channel or whatever. There will be a call for fresher faces and new blood, and to be fair there’s something to be said of that. Sometimes new life can be breathed into certain institutions by bringing in young minds, and the monarchy is no exception. One way or another, there will be serious pressure placed on the monarchy should there be a succession of geriatric sovereigns.
The Appeal of Quiet Retirement
I’m no expert in matters of royalty, yet I suspect that these issues and more may lead to the increased tendency of monarchs towards abdication rather than lifelong reigns. Indeed I fully expect Prince Charles may himself reign for a decade or two after his mother, before finally retiring his position to Prince William. Prince William will, in turn, abdicate in favour of Prince George, and so on. It’s the only logical and practical way to solve the issues raised above.
While some may find this disagreeable, I regard this as a good thing, in one way. It ensures that we can expect a frequent rotation of our royals, with no individual monarch reigning for too long. It will probably come as a relief to the monarch as well, knowing that there will be a day when they can finally put the rigours of their position behind them. While it’d definitely be nice to try and maintain traditions, there must also be room for growth where prudence demands.
This may be the case even if it’s never actually codified in law that a monarch must abdicate – it may come about simply as custom. A similar situation is already emerging in the Netherlands, where the past three generations of monarchs (Beatrix, Juliana and Wilhelmina) abdicated their thrones to their heirs, and it’s all too possible King Willem-Alexander will follow suit. Monarchy, after all, is an organic institution. It grows, adapts and changes over time in the face of new circumstances and developments., even from generation to generation. It is not static and immutable. Once upon a time English monarchs were elected, once upon a time they were feudal warlords, and once upon a time they were Anglo-Norman in speech and culture. Just as those have changed over the centuries, why not the length of their service?
As for The Queen herself, she will be the last of the British monarchs to die of old age as a reigning monarch. However much the idea of retirement may appeal to her, she is very much a woman of honour and principal, and she remembers the oaths she swore before God during her coronation. She also remembers the promise she made to her father’s subjects back when she was still a princess:
“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”