If the Queen is anything like her mother, we can expect her reign to last until at least 2027. Prince Charles will be 78. Should he enjoy the longevity of his father, Prince Philip, Charles would reign until at least 2040. A 58 year-old Prince William might then assume the crown. If he too lives healthily into the late nineties, that reign would expire around 2080.
Which means that our newborn prince would be more than 70 years-old before becoming king. As British reporters breathlessly announced his birth, I was struck by the sombre realisation that life expectancies are finally catching up with the monarchy. For the foreseeable future, the throne will be occupied by very wrinkly, very agèd bottoms.
The political implications are quite grave. Within the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth realms, the rule of the monarchy is contingent on public grace and favour. High profile republicans in Australia advocate for a constitutional change at the end of the current Queen’s reign. They know that she retains public affection: a fairytale princess like Victoria who, through inexhaustible endurance – and genetic good fortune – has become a venerable international matriarch.
But they also know that the public will not easily acclimatise to her 64 year-old successor. With his marital history, outspoken taste in architecture, and bizarre support for homeopathy, Prince Charles is not quite likeable enough nor youthful enough to save the Australian crown from our latent, naturally suspicious nationalism.
The same might prove true of the United Kingdom. Four generations of elderly rulers will no doubt erode much of the popular enthusiasm for monarchy, replacing it with exhaustion and apathy.
Other European monarchs have acknowledged this threat through a series of rare abdications. In February, Pope Benedict XVI resigned the papacy citing poor health. That decision stood him in stark contrast to Pope John Paul II who persevered in the office through debilitating illness. Effective April, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands abdicated the throne in favour of her 46 year-old son, “to place the country in the hands of a new generation”. And earlier this month King Albert II of Belgium followed suit.
Yet the British monarchy is invested with considerably more symbolic, historic and religious significance than many of its continental equivalents. Abdications are rare, and usually ignominious. Since the Wallis Simpson debacle, the House of Windsor has viewed the practice with mistrust.
As such, the Commonwealth had better get used to the elder statesmen model of monarchy. Young kings and queens invariably elicit excitement, but they are products of historical accident: namely, the exile, regicide, conquest, lunacy, childlessness or premature death of their predecessor. Had George VI lived to 90, the Queen would have ascended to the throne in 1986 at age 60 – not 25.
The delivery of the Prince of Cambridge invites us to reflect, then, on two pressing issues. First, he has been born into something resembling perpetual heirdom. It is unfair to expect of him what was expected of Prince Charles – that he lives a life of patient anticipation, relegated to minor public service until A-Day. The most privileged childhood in the world cannot compensate for a lifetime of waiting.
Second, the Royal Family will eventually have to consider the effect of their advancing age on popular support – including outside the United Kingdom. They have probably done so already. Perhaps Prince Charles quietly plans to act as a circuit breaker, renouncing the throne in favour of his son. Perhaps they will adhere to the usual customs of succession. But in any case, the modern public is unlikely to abide nonagenarian kings clinging tenaciously to their office.
There have been elderly, immensely popular monarchs before. There have been backlogs of heirs this long too. Yet the law of succession has never had to contend with life expectancies quite this high, nor heirs quite this healthy.
It sounds indelicate to talk frankly about the health of our sovereigns, as if the actuarial table was nothing more than a workplace roster. But unfortunately, that is the reality of royalty. The popularity of our leaders increasingly depends on their vitality and exuberance. If so, Baby Cambridge and his father might need to be accelerated through the ranks. Doggedly observing ancient, ossified tradition will slowly but surely desiccate the British monarchy.