At 88 years old, the British monarch – having already reigned for 62 years – is older than the aforementioned people who have decided to pass power on to somebody else, and is Britain’s longest-lived monarch. Now she is on course to surpass Queen Victoria as the longest-reigning monarch in Britain’s history.
If and when that milestone is passed on September 10, 2015, the question will probably grow a bit louder: “How much longer can she go?”
Elizabeth II and her 93 year old husband, Prince Philip, are still going strong with a busy schedule of engagements and other activities.
Earlier this year, they took a day trip to Rome where they met Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Pope Francis. Over the course of five days at the beginning of June, they attended the State Opening of Parliament, hosted a garden party at Buckingham Palace, and traveled to France for a three-day state visit which included the commemorations for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings of Normandy during World War II.
Beginning on June 23rd, they will visit Northern Ireland for a three-day visit which includes a tour of the Titanic Studios in Belfast, where among other things, the popular television series Game of Thrones is filmed. Then comes Holyrood Week, during which the Queen will move her court to Edinburgh and take up residence at the Palace of Holyroodhouse to carry out a series of engagements in Scotland, including the launching of the Royal Navy’s largest-ever ship – a super aircraft carrier named in honor of Her Majesty.
Yet for all of this activity, there is concern for the Queen’s health as she continues to age. Long-haul travel is being evaluated on a case-by-case basis for the remainder of her reign, and other members of the Royal Family are becoming more prominent as they take on some of her duties – most notably her eldest son and heir, Prince Charles. Last month, it was Charles who stood in for his mother during the central part of the Order of the Bath service, which required an ascent up a flight of steps deemed too steep for the Queen.
With this in mind, the word “abdication” is being uttered more frequently. There have been suggestions that the Queen has done her bit and deserves a well-earned retirement; that the time has come for a new generation; that if the Queen had the monarchy’s best interest at heart, she would be unselfish and take this sensible step of abdication.
However, the simple fact is that abdication is not in the lexicon of the British monarchy. If anything, it is seen as a disgraceful act thanks to the actions of the Queen’s uncle Edward VIII (known as to the family as David), who in 1936 infamously plunged the country into a constitutional crisis and then abdicated the throne to marry the woman he loved – the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson.
Because of this, the Queen’s father succeeded as George VI into a role for which he was not destined, and for which he was not prepared to take on. Eventually, he became a much-beloved monarch, in large part because of his solidarity with the British people while the Nazi Blitz occurred all around them in London and throughout the country. However, the rigors of being a wartime king took its toll on George VI, hastening the decline of his health in the years after the war ended, resulting in his death at the relatively young age of 56 in 1952.
It has long been believed by members of the Royal Family (not least the late Queen Mother) that were it not for King Edward’s abdication – the only voluntary abdication in British history – his brother would have been spared the pressures of kingship and possibly lived longer. This view condemns Edward for abandoning the throne and shirking his duties, which ultimately led to his brother’s premature death. More severely, the abdication was an embarrassment that brought shame to the monarchy and nearly wrecked it.
For the reigning Queen, the lesson learned from the abdication crisis was the mantra of “duty first” above all else, including personal passions and/or desires. So as Princess Elizabeth in 1947, she marked her 21st birthday by making a radio broadcast from South Africa to the British Empire and Commonwealth, in which she said:
“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.”
By making this statement, she vowed to serve for life, indicating that she would not follow in the steps of her “Uncle David” and place anybody in the same position as her father in 1936.
This commitment to duty was solidified when Her Majesty took the Coronation Oath at Westminster Abbey, in which she solemnly promised and swore to govern her peoples throughout Britain and the Commonwealth, and then was anointed with holy oil. By all accounts, the Queen takes her Christian faith seriously and considered the anointing as the most sacred part of the Coronation ceremony – so sacred, that it was not televised nor filmed during the live broadcast.
For her, this is not about being selfish or a self-righteous grip on power. This is about being at the unfailing service of her peoples, as she has been doing for over 60 years, and as she will continue to do for as long as she can do so. There is also a concern that if she takes this step, then it may set a precedent for future monarchs to do the same when they reach a certain age, which again, is not in the British tradition. It is entirely possible that she will live to be a centenarian like her mother, by which time she will have reigned for 74 years, and the Queen Mother was still active in her Royal duties until almost the end.
So Elizabeth II will continue on until she draws her last breath as well, or until she is incapacitated from carrying out her most essential functions as a monarch, such as meeting with ministers, reviewing state papers, and opening parliament. Under such a scenario, Prince Charles would officially act in her stead as a regent by Act of Parliament – which is similar to what happened in the 19th Century, when George III succumbed to his madness and his son ruled on his behalf for a decade, before becoming king in his own right as George IV.
Already, there are transition plans being implemented – with Charles carrying on more of the Queen’s ceremonial duties, such as investitures, as well as representing her on long-distance travels. However, he himself may not be in any rush to accede to the throne, for as Prince of Wales, he has more freedom and flexibility to carry on with the work of his charities and to speak out on issues that are important to him, such as the environment, architecture, and youth opportunity. As a constitutional monarch, he will likely have to cut back on his advocacy and adapt to the constraints of kingship, which by convention require him stay above politics and to serve as a force of unity around which the country can gather.
That is what the Queen has been doing for over 60 years, and she has done an exemplary job – rarely putting a foot wrong. In the process, she has dutifully been at the service of the people in accordance to the promises she made so long ago. This is why she will not abdicate.
Wesley Hutchins is a 2012 graduate of the University of Georgia in the United States, with a degree in Economics. However, he has a passion for the history of several subjects, including the British monarchy, and as such is the author of Yankee Royalist – an American’s guide to the monarchy, with insights on its past, present, and future.