King Charles’ cancer diagnosis could reshape how the British monarchy works

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Queen Elizabeth II liked to say that she needed to be seen to be believed. It is now up to his son King Charles III to test this principle, after a cancer diagnosis this will force him to disappear from public view for the foreseeable future.

For a family that has cultivated its public image through thousands of appearances a year – inauguration ceremonies, ship launches, galas, inauguration ceremonies, etc. – the sidelining of Charles could finally force the royal family to rethink the way it projects itself into the age of social media.

The king’s illness is the latest blow to the British royal family, whose ranks have been decimated by death (Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip), scandal (Prince Andrew), self-exile (Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan), and other health problems (Catherinethe wife of Prince William).

Charles, 75, took part in 425 royal engagements in 2023, his first full year on the throne, according to a tally by the Daily Telegraph. This makes him the second hardest-working royal after his younger sister, Princess Anne, who made 457. Both were busier than the previous year, when Elizabeth, although in the twilight of her life, was appearing still sporadically in public.

While Anne, 73, shows no signs of slowing down and William plans to return to public office while his wife convalescence at home following an abdominal operation, even a temporary absence of the king from the public stage would put great pressure on the skeleton crew of the working royal family.

“There aren’t that many of them,” said Peter Hunt, a former BBC royal correspondent. “There are only two who are under 50 years old. They must decide whether they continue to live up to the Queen’s mantra. What are the minimum commitments they need to make to achieve this? »

According to royal watchers, the answer to this conundrum may lie in technology and social media. During the coronavirus pandemic, when Elizabeth was sequestered at Windsor Castle, she conducted meetings via Zoom on callsbecoming comfortable enough with it, she made jokes with the pixelated faces on her computer screen.

Buckingham Palace’s use of social media may also amplify in-person exposure to family members. The royal family’s Instagram account boasts more than 13 million followers and its X account well over five million.

For young people, who spend hours a day online and follow their favorite celebrities on social media, the arrival of a member of the royal family to inaugurate a new primary school or a new neighborhood health clinic has no impact. perhaps not as important as to their parents or grandparents.

The greatest burden of the king’s illness will likely fall on his 41-year-old heir, William. He has worked to carve out a role for himself on issues ranging from climate change to homelessness. It is unclear how much time he will be able to devote to these causes while also being his father’s understudy.

Ed Owens, a royal historian who recently published “After Elizabeth: Can the Monarchy Save Itself?” “, argues that members of the royal family should withdraw from these charitable activities anyway, because they interfere with the government’s proper role in society.

“The culture of royal philanthropy,” Mr. Owens wrote, “has too often capitalized on the gaps left exposed by a broken welfare state.”

William also jealously guarded his family’s privacy: Kensington Palace, where he has his office, has given few details about Catherine’s condition. There were no photographs of the couple’s three young children – George, Charlotte and Louis – visiting their mother in hospital.

This approach contrasted with that of his father, who approved of the disclosure of an unusual amount of detail about his prostate treatment, and more recently cancer diagnosis. Experts say attention to William will inevitably increase as he takes a more central place in the Windsor family hierarchy.

Another question arises, that of the role of Prince Harry, the king’s youngest son, who bitterly fell out with his father and brother after he and Meghan stepped back from royal duties and moved to California in 2020 .

Harry arrived in London on Tuesday to visit his father, leading royal watchers to believe the crisis could spark a reconciliation between him and his family. But Harry hadn’t brought his own family and it wasn’t even clear where he would stay; the king expelled him from his residence, Frogmore Cottage, last year.

Even if Charles will leave the public stage for the moment, the palace has taken care to emphasize that he remains a fully invested actor. constitutional sovereign. He will continue to meet weekly with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and receive other visitors. He will continue to go through the official documents, which are given to him daily in a traditional red box.

There are currently no plans to appoint state councilors, who could perform some of the king’s duties if he were incapacitated by illness. Among those listed for this role are Queen Camilla and William.

There are certain rituals that only a seated monarch can perform. Charles must grant the Prime Minister’s request to dissolve Parliament before the general election. He must also ask the leader of the majority party to form a government.

None of this is hypothetical in a year that should include an electionand in which the opposition Labor Party currently has a lead of around 20 points over the Conservatives in opinion polls.

Elizabeth considered these duties so solemn that she has strengthenedtwo days before his death at 96, to meet Boris Johnson, the outgoing Prime Minister, and Liz Truss, his successor, at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

Mr Sunak, who spoke to Charles about his cancer, sought to allay concerns about the king’s prognosis. Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live on Tuesday, he said: “Luckily it was caught early.”

A spokesperson for 10 Downing Street later clarified that Mr Sunak was not passing on new information but was referring to the palace statement, which noted the “rapid intervention” of Charles’ medical team.

Whatever his prognosis, the king’s cancer propels the royal family into uncharted territory. Historians have noted that when Charles’ grandfather, King George VI, cancer surgery in 1951, the palace has said almost nothing to the public about its condition. He died five months later, putting his daughter Elizabeth on the throne, 72 years ago Tuesday.

When she died in September 2022, her death certificate listed the cause as “old age.” Gyles Brandreth, a friend of the royal family, later said in a biography of the queen that she suffered from a form of bone marrow cancer.

By choosing to be more open about his health issues, Charles walked away from a long family practice. He did so, the palace said, “in the hope that it might help the public understand all those around the world affected by cancer.”

Whether the King can refute the Queen’s mantra that you have to be seen to be believed is another question.

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