It’s reigning men! Hallelujah?
Whether you like it or not, that’s the forecast for this sceptered isle for the next 75 years or so.
As Britain mourns Queen Elizabeth II and ushers in the era of King Charles III, a relatively overlooked fact is that, barring accident or revolution, the United Kingdom is set to have a man rather than a woman on the throne deep into the 21st century, perhaps even into the 22nd.
It’s a switch at the top whose effect could go beyond the novel sight of a royal 5 o’clock shadow. Britons now lamenting the loss of a woman many describe as the nation’s grandmother may find themselves adjusting their expectations of how their monarch ought to behave or modifying their own ideas of gender roles.
Elizabeth — or as Charles calls her, “darling mama” — ruled Britannia for a record-shattering 70 years, longer than any of her predecessors and, in all probability, any of her successors. Most people in this country have known no other sovereign, nor uttered anything besides “God save the queen” during ceremonial toasts and renditions of the national anthem, nor seen anyone else’s portrait on stamps and currency.
But now they have Charles, and after him the next two heirs to the throne are also male: his elder son, William, and William’s eldest child, George. (If they keep their given names as their “regnal” names, the younger two will eventually become William V and George VII.)
“Unless something dramatic happens, such as someone abdicates” — which last occurred in 1936 — “or something tragic happens, we are going to have a series of kings for the coming decades,” said historian Catherine Pepinster, the author of a recent book on the monarchy.
In fact, if 9-year-old George lives as long as his illustrious great-grandmother, who died at 96, Britain will have a king until 2109 — and beyond, if his own firstborn is a boy.
Charles, 73, became Britain’s oldest-ever new monarch after serving the longest apprenticeship in history. He conceivably has a couple of decades ahead of him as king, judging by the longevity of his mum and his granny, Elizabeth the queen mother, who lived to be 101.
For obvious reasons, Charles can’t project the feminine glamour that many associated with Elizabeth, particularly during the early years of her reign. Only 25 when she succeeded her father, King George VI, she was a young English rose who embodied the hopes of a people trying to recover from the brutal trauma of World War II.
“The country was hoping for a better life, and here came a young woman with a young family,” said Hazel Adamson, an 89-year-old retiree who lives outside London and remembers standing in line for three hours to see George VI’s coffin in 1952. “It was called the Elizabethan Era fairly early on because she was young, and perhaps we felt it was a new beginning.”
Photos routinely showed the queen decked in jewels — tiara, necklace, rings — that unmistakably bespoke majesty, especially in the midst of postwar rationing.
At the same time, Elizabeth herself had to battle gender expectations as she tried to navigate a male-dominated world of much older advisors, courtiers and politicians. Her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, was more than three times her age.
“The order of the day was that men were in charge and women were subservient. It was in that atmosphere that she stepped up … to take her place at the head of this nation and play a huge role on the world stage,” Harriet Harman, a veteran member of Parliament, reminded fellow lawmakers in a session last week devoted to fond reminiscences of the queen. “What determination and courage that must have taken.”
Although Charles won’t face the same grubby chauvinism that can still rear its head in British public life — even after a long-reigning queen and, as of this month, the country’s third female prime minister — he may have to contend with a mirror-image challenge. He and his male successors inherit a monarchy that, over the last seven decades, has become identified with the more stereotypically feminine qualities attributed to his mother: nurturing, caring, conciliatory.
Fans of the Netflix series “The Crown” and the Helen Mirren-starring movie “The Queen” know that Elizabeth didn’t always exhibit those traits. In 1966, after an avalanche of coal slurry killed 144 people — most of them schoolchildren — in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, she was criticized for waiting eight days before visiting the grief-stricken residents. In 1997, outrage greeted what seemed to be her heartless response to the death of Princess Diana in a Paris car crash.
But those missteps have been glossed over in the fulsome tributes of recent days, which often referred to the queen in explicitly maternal terms.
“We keep hearing that repeated: the matriarch, the grandmother of the nation. Gender does play into this narrative,” Pepinster said.
“There’s been this trend in recent times for the monarch and the royal family to comfort the afflicted when there’s some terrible tragedy,” she added. “Although [Charles] has been somebody who’s gone off to disasters of different kinds, I don’t think kings perform the function in that same way. There’s still a way that we feel women have that motherly touch and males don’t bring that kind of emoting.”
By many accounts, however, the new king is a man full of passion for his causes and compassion for other people, well-suited to the role of consoler in chief.
In his few days so far as monarch, he’s tried to show a warm and human side, allowing himself to be touched and even kissed by his subjects in a way that Elizabeth, despite her dazzling smile, didn’t, carrying herself with what she thought a due measure of stately aloofness. When then-First Lady Michelle Obama slung her arm around her hostess during a visit to Buckingham Palace in 2009, royal watchers gasped at the temerity and the breach of protocol.
An ability to empathize will stand Charles — and eventually his son and grandson — in good stead because of the shift in modern perceptions of monarchy that his mother helped crystallize, according to royal historian Robert Lacey.
Gone are the days when kings were martial, hyper-masculine figures expected to lead their soldiers into battle. In constitutional systems like Britain’s, they don’t even hold any political power but serve primarily as figureheads, which means that the “caring, motherly functions” of the monarchy, as Lacey put it, have become more important.
“The qualities people expect [in] a representative monarch are, in a way, better fulfilled by a woman than a man,” Lacey told the Los Angeles Times when George, Prince William’s son, was born in 2013. “Rightly or wrongly, men are traditionally supposed to have firm and decisive opinions and actions, and that is not really appropriate in a man who has absolutely no power.”
Lacey added that both Charles and William have evinced “a tender, more feminine side” to their personalities compared with the stereotypically masculine behavior expected of men of Charles’ father’s generation and even his own.
Charles will certainly have company as king. With the exception of Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II, all of the reigning crowned heads of Europe are now more likely to need Rogaine.
If nothing else, Charles would be well advised to think hard before deviating from his mother’s example, regardless of whether it was a “feminine” one, given that polls consistently showed her to be the most popular member of the royal family by far.
“She really did her very best for the country, and I think people appreciated that,” said Joan Williams, 85, a retired music teacher who stood outside all night in central London to catch a glimpse of the queen on her coronation day in 1953. “He’ll probably do his best to follow in her footsteps, because the country loved her.”