Can King Charles III follow in the footsteps of Queen Elizabeth II?

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Queen Elizabeth II was beloved. The monarchy isn’t. What does that mean for King Charles III?

The other day, in a conversation about the British economic crisis and the newly minted British Prime Minister Liz Truss, the subject of Queen Elizabeth arose — in the form of a delicate question about her age and frail health. In one sense, the question was a left turn, given that this was a discussion about the Europe-wide energy crisis, inflation in the U.K., and various policy prescriptions to deal with those issues. British monarchs are famously agnostic — publicly at least — when it comes to the making of policy. But the question surfaced because for the first time in her seven-decade rein, the queen had greeted the new prime minister somewhere other than Buckingham Palace (Balmoral Castle), with her health given as the reason. And that prompted the question: In the current sea of crises afflicting Great Britain, would the queen’s departure from the scene make all those traumas worse?

The man who answered happened to be King’s College London professor Anand Menon, the son of Indian immigrants to Britain and, by his own admission, hardly someone with great reverence for the monarchy. And yet Menon did not hesitate in his response.

“This feels like a moment of profound fragility in our country’s history,” Menon said. “The one clear obvious source of continuity and stability is within the person of Queen Elizabeth. So I suspect that even for people who don’t necessarily approve of the monarchy or don’t really care who succeeds her to the throne, there will be a degree to which her passing is profoundly unsettling to the British people.”

And then — as if anticipating the follow-up question, Menon added: “I’m surprised to hear myself saying this, in a way. I just think, given the moment we find ourselves in as a country, were this is to happen relatively soon, that it would be unsettling.”

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When the news came

A day later, it happened. The royal family announced the queen’s death only 24 hours after Menon spoke those words. Only two days after Liz Truss bowed in the queen’s presence at Balmoral Castle. And nearly 26,000 days after Queen Elizabeth assumed the throne in 1952.

To use Menon’s word, the news will almost certainly be “unsettling,” and not only because of the current crises buffeting the British Isles.

In some ways, that makes no sense. The idea of monarchs and monarchies seems quaint and dated and almost preposterous in the third decade of the 21st century; reverence for the monarchy may seem doubly so. Yes, Great Britain is a famously class-conscious society, but anyone who has spent time in England knows there is also a scrappy and brash quality to the culture and way of life that seems utterly at odds with the pageantry and wealth and trappings of royalty. And the royal family itself has been battered over the years by unpleasant drama — Charles and Diana, Charles and Camilla, Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein — we’ll spare readers the full list, but suffice to say that the royal family has kept tabloids in business for decades.

Apart from royal scandal, there were reams of newsprint and even a feature film (“The Queen”) devoted to the queen’s own failure to grasp the moment following Princess Diana’s death in 1997, and connect more intimately with her subjects. And anyone who watched the Netflix series “The Crown” will have seen ample, detailed treatment of the not-so-pretty inner workings of the royal family itself.

Why, then, are millions of British citizens — young and old and in between — shedding tears, joining vigils and leaving flowers at the gates of Buckingham Palace?

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The simple answer may be, it’s about the monarch, not the monarchy.

“As if Big Ben were gone”

For one matter, Queen Elizabeth has been a fixture, in every sense of the word.

“It feels strange,” Louise Roberts, 19, a university student in Essex, told Grid Thursday. “She’s just always been there, you know, and now I just don’t know how to think about her not being there. It’s not because I want a royal family there, but she was there even before I was born. Maybe even before my parents were born.”

“It’s almost as if Big Ben were gone,” was how Grid’s Deputy Global Editor Nikhil Kumar put it, speaking from London Thursday. “Her passing feels almost like a national landmark has been removed.”

If that sounds like hyperbole, consider just how long this particular “landmark” has been in place. As a princess, Elizabeth walked the streets of London during the German bombardment of the country. She ascended to the throne when Winston Churchill was Britain’s Prime Minister and Harry Truman was the United States’ president. Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong were at the helm of the Soviet Union and China. A “fixture” — as in the fact that the kingdom’s stamps and currency bear the queen’s image. “You bow before your monarch, and yet you hold their head in your hand, and use it to pay for potatoes,” the Economist reminded readers Thursday, in a memorable phrase.

“Fixture” — as in, while turmoil came and went, for her country and family both, Queen Elizabeth II opted for a steady, quiet stoicism. A few words when needed. If the crisis of the moment seemed daunting, the queen could (and often did) tell her subjects that the nation had been through worse. On the occasions when she chose to address the nation — after the July 2005 London terrorist attacks and in the early days of the covid-19 pandemic, to name two relatively recent examples — this was her message. “We will come to the other side.” That, and a royal version of the British staple: “Keep calm and carry on,” the phrase that was first used on posters in the run-up to war in 1939. The queen had been through it all.

At the 50th, 60th and this year the 70th anniversary of her reign, crowds thronged the celebrations. Yes, they might have come for the entertainment — this year, Alicia Keys, Diana Ross and Queen — but they also came in her honor.

The empire was gone — the number of “queen’s subjects” had dwindled — and Great Britain itself was in many ways an utterly different place than when she became queen. For one thing, the country is far more diverse and multicultural now — three top ministers in Truss’ new cabinet are people of color. But while members of those communities might not cheer the monarchy, many will mourn the queen.

This was the response Thursday from Sathnam Sanghera, a 46-year-old author born to Indian parents who immigrated to the U.K. in 1968: “People outside Britain might struggle to understand what follows here,” he tweeted after hearing the news. “Can’t speak for everyone, but for me it’s about the fact that, at a time of discord, in an age when politicians thrive by dividing us, we’ve lost someone who was constant. Someone who actually tried to unite.”

What comes next

Polls show more than 6 in 10 Britons favor maintaining the monarchy. That’s not a strong majority, and the trajectory isn’t good, given that polls have shown — unsurprisingly perhaps — less support among the younger generation.


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One particular former member of the younger generation — Truss, the new Prime Minister — once proclaimed herself as a skeptic of the monarchy, in remarks she no doubt wishes she never made. In a statement made in 1994, when she was in her late teens, Truss said, “I’m not against any of them personally. I’m against the idea that people can be born to rule. That people, because of the family they’re born into, should be able to be the head of state of our country. I think that’s disgraceful.”

The clip went viral during the campaign for Britain’s Conservative Party leadership. Then there she was Tuesday at Balmoral Castle, bowing before the queen.

The queen wasn’t just popular at home; Gallup noted Thursday that no other woman had come close to as many appearances on their annual list of most admired women in the world. Queen Elizabeth landed in the top ten 52 times between 1948 and 2020. And looking forward, it doesn’t help that the queen consistently outranked her son Charles — as of Thursday, King Charles III — in polling about the monarchy and the royal family.

A survey conducted by Ipsos just prior to this year’s celebrations of her 70 years on the throne found that, when asked to name their favorite member of the royal family, Queen Elizabeth was a runaway winner. The Ipsos summary cited high marks for the queen “as a good representative for Great Britain on the world stage … someone who unites people across Britain … and someone who has sound judgment.” In virtually every category, Ipsos said, “She has a stronger image than other members of the Royal Family.” Only 14 percent of respondents said Charles was their preferred royal.

The monarch and monarchy question reminded me of another much-revered ruler, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who as it happened occupied the throne 70 years and 126 days, just a few months shy of Elizabeth’s historic reign. Bhumipol was adored by his subjects, his portraits hung in homes and his birthday was celebrated by members of every spectrum of Thai political life. His death in 2016 brought concerns about the Thai monarchy which — while rarely addressed publicly in that country — still simmer below the surface. There are of course many differences between the two nations, and the rulers in question; the thread running through both may have been that the monarchs themselves were responsible for the degrees of reverence.

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What will all this mean for Charles? It’s far too early to say, other than the obvious point that Queen Elizabeth’s reign will be an almost impossible act to follow. The Economist’s obituary Thursday noted that “her death deprives Britain of a thread that wove the nation together and linked it to its past. In the hours and days to come the royal family will do what it does best, and mask uncertainty and emotion with ritual and pageantry. There will be flags at half-mast; ceremonies will unspool; bells will toll. But for now there is unease.”

Unease — because of all those domestic troubles the country is feeling; because of the political upheaval; and unease, perhaps, because it is hard to imagine the image of King Charles III on a British stamp or pound note.

For now there will be the long days of mourning, the funeral and an outpouring of tributes that may surprise many outside Great Britain. Some have suggested the moment may bring the country together — and perhaps even help the new King in that regard.

Meanwhile, as they reflect and look forward, those who mourn can take heart: Big Ben is still standing.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

    Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.

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UK