Queen Elizabeth II sadly died yesterday, bringing to a close the longest reign in British history. Robert Hazell and Bob Morris offer a brief guide for The Constitution Unit into what happens next, as King Charles III prepares for both the funeral of his predecessor and his own coronation. They also explore how the new king will have to adapt to his changed constitutional status.
This post was first published on The Constitution Unit Blog. Read the original blog post here.
At the age of 96 and after a record-breaking reign of 70 years, Queen Elizabeth II has died. A life of service to which she committed herself as a young woman has ended:
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.
There will be great public mourning for a woman who has been at the centre of the UK’s public life for so long, and many heartfelt tributes. It is not only for her longevity that she will be remembered, but also for her impeccable devotion to her public duties. In this post we explain what happens next, in terms of the accession of the new monarch, and plans for his coronation.
Demise is the technical term which relates both to the death of a sovereign and the passage of the crown to the heir. It embodies the old common law maxim ‘Rex nunquam moritur’, that is to say that the sovereign may die, but the crown never does: the heir’s succession is immediate on the death or abdication of a predecessor, so as to preserve the continuity of government. Thus, Charles is already King.
As soon as possible after the sovereign’s death, a specially augmented meeting of the Privy Council known as the Accession Council is summoned by the Lord President of the Council to meet in St James’s Palace. Whereas hitherto all Privy Counsellors were customarily free to attend, it has been decided that the modern size of the Council – over 700 members – makes continuing that custom impracticable. It follows that it can be expected that on this occasion that attendance of Counsellors will be focused on current, constitutionally active office-holders.
There are two parts to the proceedings and the new King attends only the second part (see below). The Accession Council does not install the new monarch, because under common law he automatically becomes King on his mother’s death. What instead the Council does is proclaim the new sovereign and his style in London and make arrangements for proclamations also to be made in the capitals of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The new King has chosen to be styled King Charles III.
The new King presides shortly afterwards in a different room at St James’s Palace at his first Privy Council attended only by members of the Council. Customarily, his first action is to make a personal declaration. Traditionally this includes regret at the passing of his predecessor, a ringing assertion of fidelity to the nation’s constitution, and a humble request for the nation’s help in carrying his new heavy burdens. Though short, the declaration can be imbued with considerable emotion. His next action is to swear and sign copies of the oath required by the Scottish Union legislation of 1706–7 to support the Presbyterian form of government of the Church of Scotland. Orders are also issued for the lying-in-state and for the late Queen’s funeral – expected to take place at Westminster Abbey for the first time since 1760. Arrangements for the King’s coronation will be announced at some later time.
It is planned that the new King will broadcast to the nation the same evening and then commence a series of visits to the devolved capitals to attend memorial services for the late Queen. Parliamentary business will be rejigged to allow members to pay tributes to the Queen and take oaths to the new King. On the fourth day following Demise, the body will be conveyed from Buckingham Palace to lie in state in Westminster Hall for four days and transferred thence to the Abbey for the funeral.
Constitutional consequences for the new King
Charles, at age 73, has now started a new life and will leave behind the greater public freedoms open to him as Prince of Wales. That was a largely unregulated position with few constitutional duties beyond occasional service as a Counsellor of State during his mother’s temporary illnesses or absences abroad, together with the potential role of Regent should the Queen have become incapacitated.
The five main consequences are:
He must at all times remain scrupulously impartial not only in politics but also in any matters of significant public controversy. The whole rationale of a hereditary monarchy in a democratic system is to provide a head of state who is completely impartial. The monarchy must always be a unifying rather than divisive institution. It also enables a head of state who can simultaneously be head of the nation, and speak for and to the country as a whole: as the Queen did in her Christmas message to the nation, and in her special broadcast at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. Style of Camilla
In her most recent Anniversary of Accession speech, the Queen put beyond doubt that it was her ‘sincere wish’ that Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, would in the normal way become Queen Consort to her husband on his accession. It may, therefore, be expected that she will attend and be anointed in that capacity at the coronation.
3. The King’s charities
As Prince of Wales, Charles notably pioneered innovative charities for which he was a formidable fundraiser. The public concerns to which this gave rise, including a police investigation of allegations that honours had been offered in exchange for donations, must in future be avoided. No King can afford to appear beholden to any private interests. It follows that he must divest himself of all personal involvement, devolving patronage of his charities to other members of the royal family.
4. Size of the royal family
Charles is said to want to reduce the size of the ‘active’ family. In these days of a ‘service and welfare monarchy’ size does matter. This is because, as the late Queen put it, she had to be seen to be believed – a mantra for the visibility of the monarchy as a whole if it is desired to attend adequately to the principles of service and welfare. There is also the point that, following Prince Charles’s accession, present limitations on who may serve as Counsellors of State under the Regency Acts will require review and further legislation.
The King and his spouse cannot achieve reasonable public goals without the help of others. An ‘active’ monarchy that included, for example, only the direct heirs would struggle to satisfy the modern expectations of a monarchy relating to a population of over 66 million people. The smaller size of other active European monarchies is because – with the exception of Spain – they can more easily afford it: their populations are much smaller. One of the difficulties of the present Spanish monarchy is that its active membership is arguably too small – the King and Queen and their two still very young daughters – relating to a population of 47 million.
In the longer term in the UK, there are also implications for the management of the careers of younger royals outside the direct line if they are not to be asked to share royal duties. One of the lessons arising from the departure of Prince Harry to the USA is that he was not equipped with a viable long-term non-royal occupation when it was inevitable that he would become remoter from the succession as his brother’s family grew.
5. The next coronation
The last coronation was attended by 8,250 guests, a large proportion of whom were crammed into temporary seating that rose in 11 tiers. The largest contingent was the hereditary peerage. The whole proceedings took place 16 months after the Queen’s accession and lasted nearly three hours. Afterwards, the Queen rode in a procession of British, Commonwealth and colonial forces that took three quarters of an hour to pass any one point.
1953 was the last imperial hurrah. The next coronation will need to be a more modest affair, reflecting that the UK is no longer a world power, and the hereditary character of the House of Lords largely abolished. Careful decisions will need to be made about how non-Christian religions should be represented at a eucharistic Anglican service. There may also be a need to review the coronation Oaths, now that the UK is a more secular and multi-faith society. The smaller size of the armed services is likely to reduce the size of the procession, and make a Spithead naval review impracticable on anything like the scale of 1953. As to the Commonwealth, there will be a question about how far the Realms should be privileged over other Commonwealth nations.
Our monarchy has managed to survive constitutionally by contriving to be not only no threat to democracy but also its reinforcer in a process of mutual legitimation. Political impartiality has been the key. Its capacity to reflect the nation back to itself cannot be matched by partisan politicians.
The monarchy has come to symbolise dedication to public service, and support for charitable and voluntary activities, and Charles will readily continue that tradition. He will be welcomed warmly, with the expectation that he will nurture an adaptive monarchy and continue thoughtfully to support the interests of all his people, in the UK and around the world.
The Constitution Unit’s website also has an extensive Monarchy area, which includes an FAQs page, additional detail on accession and coronation, and further discussion of what the future might hold for the monarchy.
About the authors
Professor Robert Hazell was the founder and first Director of the Constitution Unit. He is the co-editor of The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchies Compared.
Dr Bob Morris is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, and has for some time led its work on Monarchy, and Church and State. He is the co-editor of The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchies Compared.