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The Future of the British Monarchy Is More Uncertain Than Ever

6 minute read

A near-universal refrain in the commemorations for the late Queen Elizabeth II, who died Thursday at the age of 96, has been her role as a symbol of stability in Britain as well as a constant in an increasingly inconstant world. She was “a changeless human reference point in British life,” former Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in his tribute to the monarch on Friday. 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. The challenge now facing the country is how to move on without her.

While the path forward for Britain is clear (it has, after all, done this many times before), the future of the British monarchy feels less certain. King Charles III inherits the throne at a time when the monarchy as an institution is still broadly supported in Britain, with a slight majority of 62% in favor, according to a June poll. But the outpouring of support and admiration for the Queen should not be mistaken for unwavering support for the Royal Family as a whole, especially after recent fallout over the treatment of Prince Harry and Meghan as well as the sexual-assault allegations facing 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.

Read More: What We Know So Far About Queen Elizabeth II’s Funeral

The Queen, who ascended the throne at just 25 years of age, had a lifetime to prove herself. Charles, who at 73 is the oldest monarch to ascend the throne in British history, will not have the same advantage. 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 because, for the vast majority of his life, his primary job was to pursue his interests through his various foundations and charities.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II Dies at the Age of 96
Britons watch King Charles III speak to the nation on BBC News as he announces the death of his mother, the Queen Elizabeth II, in Appleby village, Lincolnshire England on Sept. 9 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.”

Read More: What King Charles III’s Past Controversies Could Tell Us About How He’ll Reign

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. Ensuring that the institution remains fit for purpose at a time when monarchies and heredity privilege seem increasingly anachronistic, is another. Here, Charles and his mother were largely in lockstep. 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.

But the greatest challenge facing Charles will be his ability to match the popularity of his predecessor, which was largely untainted by the scandals of those around her. 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.”

Read More: What King Charles III Means for Scotland’s Future in the U.K.

Under Charles, the monarchy is unlikely to remain at its Elizabethan heights. 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.

But unlike his mother, Charles will not bear the burden of shepherding the Crown for the next 70 years. He just needs to do so long enough to pass it on to the next generation in one piece.

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Write to Yasmeen Serhan/London at yasmeen.serhan@time.com