The Petulant King

A difficult labor—30 hours!—and someone has to make the terrible decision. Right there in a Buckingham Palace bedroom, with mother and child etherized upon the table, deft hands make the cut, the unwilling baby is tugged out—and it’s done.

A boy! Clever girl.

To sleep, to sleep, to sleep.

Posted on the gates of the palace, a handwritten announcement:

Her Royal Highness the Princess Elizabeth Duchess of Edinburgh was safely delivered of a Prince at 9.14 o’clock this evening. Her Royal Highness and the infant Prince are both well.

They are both children of empire, princess and prince, though as they lie there recovering, that empire is receding, the long, melancholy withdrawing roar audible even above the cheers of the crowds outside the palace.

They have been chosen for the same fate, but only one at a time can live it out. This will at once draw them together and complicate what will be a strange and mutually disappointing relationship. In just three years, Elizabeth will become the 25-year-old Queen of the United Kingdom, but Charles won’t be King until he’s 73. What must it be like to watch yourself fade into a middle-aged man and then an old one, but still your life’s work has not begun? He is only hours old, and at the very start of the world’s longest apprenticeship.

When he finally became King in September, not even a week passed before the tabloids were talking about his poor hands looking as red as lobster claws, perhaps because never before had so many people wanted to shake them. Things were not going perfectly! But they were going well. There was the hand-shaking—undertaken, however painfully, with his mother’s famous commitment to duty—and there was the first speech to his people, with him sitting in Buckingham Palace doling out sinecures to all the good little kittens (Queen Consort for Camilla; Princess of Wales for well-behaved Kate; sweet fuck all for Meghan, who had dragged Harry off to the non-realm of California). Had he struck the right note when he referred to the late Queen as “my darling mama” rather than “my mother”? Everything he’d waited so long to do was happening so quickly.

But it was during a hop to Northern Ireland that the wheels came off the carriage, and Charles lost his cool. While signing the visitors’ book at Hillsborough Castle, he wrote down the wrong date, was quietly informed by Camilla that the pen was leaking, and seethed: “I can’t bear this bloody thing! … Every stinking time!”

There was something a little Fawlty Towers about the scene, and it gestured toward the fact that the English monarchy seemed to be downsizing. Charles’s mother had survived the Battle of Britain; he couldn’t survive a guest book.

But we’re ahead of ourselves! It’s Elizabeth who’s got to get out of that birthing bed and take the first shaky steps down the long corridors. The health of her father, George VI, is failing. Already, she has been performing some of his duties. Once she takes the throne, she’ll head off on many, many royal tours—some months long—leaving Charles, who will spend his childhood pining for her, behind.

During the first half of her reign, Elizabeth will preside—in her wholly symbolic, yet powerful way—over the final dismantling of the empire. She will be the last face of a centuries-long fiction of ownership, in which human beings, gold, precious gems, rubber—anything that could be chained up, prized from the Earth, grabbed from villages and palaces, or literally cut out of rock—was transformed into property of the British empire or its NGO, the unfathomably brutal East India Company.

Everything you saw at the Queen’s funeral—the sheer size of the regiments, their ornamental uniforms, the perfection of their marching, all of it so unbelievably out of step with modern, cash-strapped Britain—was a proud reminder of the days when Britain was the most powerful nation in the world, a place that could be hyped up in pubs and snooker halls the way football teams are now:

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves! Britons never, never, never will be slaves.

Consider the Queen’s—now the King’s—scepter, which figured so prominently in the service. What is that massive, glittering, unreal-seeming jewel at the top? The Great Star of Africa, one of many diamonds relocated from South Africa to the Crown’s vast holdings.

You would assume that Elizabeth would be despised in Britain’s former colonies—she was, after all, the great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, the first empress of India. But Elizabeth was admired by millions of people in many of those former colonies, from the earliest years of her reign to the hour of her death. Even now, when we view so much of world history through the lens of colonization and its devastations, the Queen is mourned.

[Read: What the Queen’s funeral taught me about Britain]

Queen Elizabeth II was formal, interested, uncomplaining, and always respectful. Her warehouse’s worth of matching coats and whimsical hats were an aspect of that respect. It didn’t matter if she had arrived for a tour of your rat-extermination business in Manchester; she was dressed as if attending a new exhibit at the National Gallery. She seemed to understand that her fate and that of the rat exterminators were deeply bound together—which they were. She didn’t really serve at the pleasure of God and the House of Windsor; she served at the pleasure of the exterminators and the takeaway-shop owners and the Daily Mail.

Once the sun had set on the British empire, the Queen began her more complicated mission, which was forming a coherent narrative of “England” and “Englishness” in the face of the great disrupter: 25 years of massive immigration. In 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair began relaxing immigration laws in hopes of creating an England imbued with the best traditions of a range of cultures, an England that was no longer fortified against the world but wide open to it, an oasis of people eating fusion cuisine and voting Labour.

In a way it’s sort of worked, as any episode of The Great British Bake Off attests. To watch contestants from every racial, ethnic, and religious background tell the hosts the secret ingredient in “me gran’s sponge” from inside a giant white tent pitched on the green lawns of a country house in Berkshire is to see “England” smacked down to a set of consumer preferences: Emma Bridgewater, strings of fluttering Union Jacks, cake.

But the old lessons of empire were not lost on the newcomers, a few of whom brought to England the same thing that England had once brought them: contemptuous disregard of the religion, customs, habits, traditions, and shared beliefs of the native population. And that’s how you get Sharia councils in modern England.

It fell to Elizabeth—older daughter of a man who never wanted or expected to be King, a woman with many interests of her own that she would much rather have pursued—to try to maintain the fantasy of a continuous England that could absorb within it wildly different cultures. What she relied upon was the West. The Englishmen who caused so much devastation around the world did not bring any miracles with them; they brought only bloodshed and cruelty and plunder, the same forces that had ruled the world since the beginning. But by the time of Elizabeth’s reign, England understood itself as a Western nation, identifiable by its commitment to individual rights, equality, and self-determination. These values created the free world, and to the very limited extent that a Queen can stand for them—the Queen of a country with such a terrible imperial history—she was determined to do so.

Elizabeth never “celebrated” multiculturalism in the smarmy, meaningless way of college presidents or HR functionaries. But she often acknowledged how Britain was changing, never once disparaged it, and found within it a plausible case for continuity. What she did was locate—or possibly create—a unifying culture of Englishness as defined by the values of the Blitz: courage, calm, resolve.

[Read: No one performed Britishness better than Her Majesty]

Here she is just a couple of years ago (at 93!) giving a televised address about COVID‑19: “I want to reassure you that if we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it. I hope in the years to come, everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline; of quiet, good-humored resolve; and of fellow feeling still characterize this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past; it defines our present and our future.”

Well. Goddamn.

It was COVID, not war. She was just asking her subjects to wear a mask and watch the telly. But it sounded like a call to greatness.

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

It was COVID, but it was also the Battle of Britain and Agincourt and all of it. Elizabeth spoke of Englishness and its enduring character, not of racial composition or traditional custom. She—of all people—said England’s greatness wasn’t in its past. It lies in its present and its future.

And now this whole delicate operation of creating a Britain in which the old and the new don’t merely coexist, or inform each other, but are together part of a cohesive narrative of greatness, in which the monarch is both the defender of the Church of England and the symbolic leader of a country with 3 million Muslims—all of this has fallen to … Charles?

Weak, selfish, petulant Charles?

Only in fairy tales does it make sense to weep for a prince. That said, Charles’s early years were sorrowful. He longed to be with his mother, but she was often away. One newsreel of the little boy captured him immaculately dressed, standing trustingly at his grandmother’s side, looking anxiously down a train platform for any sign of his approaching mother. Once there, Elizabeth greeted her mother, and then—as an afterthought, almost—bent down neatly, pressed a light kiss on her child’s head, and went about her ceremonial duties. Charles stared up at her in a bemused way, as though the months-long dream of “mother” had not really suggested this slender, preoccupied adult.

A word so often applied to Charles in his early years that you might have assumed it was a code word for gay—which he is not—was sensitive. There is nothing his ghastly father wanted less than a sensitive son, which only redoubled his certainty that Charles had to attend Prince Philip’s own brutal, “make a man of you” Scottish boarding school, Gordonstoun, from which Charles begged to be rescued and where he complained of serious bullying. What does bullying mean in the context of a mid-century, Scottish, all-male boarding school? It means, I would imagine, that it was a traumatic experience in a variety of ways. (Gordonstoun is under investigation by the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry for accusations of physical and sexual abuse of students from the 1960s to the 2010s.)

He did the required military duty (tangling his legs in the rigging on his first parachuting exercise, getting seasick on naval ships, and banging his head on low doorways belowdecks), and after that … the long, long wait, filled with the eccentric preoccupations of a country gentleman.

The aspect of Charles’s character that makes him particularly unsuited to being King is that he’s weak. How many men in the history of the world have managed to have a wife and a mistress without damn near burning down civilization? In his first address to the nation, he sounded less like he was assuming the throne of England than throwing his hat into the Pennsylvania Senate race. He promised to respect people no matter their heritage and beliefs and to uphold “constitutional principles” (well, that’s a relief).

More than anything, what Elizabeth was able to do, for an astonishing 70 years, that her feckless son will not be able to do was prevent a very large bill from coming due. She was allowed to keep the Great Star of Africa and the palaces and the untold billions of pounds because she was Elizabeth.

But make no mistake, Charles has been handed an England in which a growing percentage of the population has no inclination to continue making nice with the Crown. After the racial-justice protests of 2020, statues of English slavers were taken down, one famously stomped by a mob. This is not an era of reconciliation and bygones being bygones. This is an era of reparations. A lot of people around the world don’t want to “celebrate diversity,” a concept wholly born of the dying West. They want their treasures back, and they know where to find them.

Most of them were stolen, and in the most sadistic way possible. Will Charles—Boomer Zero—be able to keep hold not merely of the things but of the idea of England that his mother helped create?

Doubtful.


This article appears in the December 2022 print edition with the headline “The Petulant King.”

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