The legacy of Charles' mother is complex. While her presence was a source of stability, the societies over which the British monarchy rules — both in the U.K.'s four home nations and 14 additional countries in the Commonwealth — changed much over the 70 years of her reign.
Charles will have to make new choices about what it means to be a modern monarch, just as his mother adapted to the rapidly changing circumstances of the post-World War II years. His tenure on the throne will be defined by how he responds to new tensions in the relationship between sovereign, nations and people.
Elizabeth was not just the queen of the United Kingdom. She was also the queen of Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Canada, Tuvalu, Australia and more than half a dozen other countries. Combined, more people live in these nations than in the U.K. All are now subjects of the new king.
Whether all these countries accept the new king in the same manner in which they accepted his mother remains to be seen. Many became independent nations near the beginning of Elizabeth's reign during an era of rapid decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. A majority of Britain's former colonies, including India, Pakistan and all Britain's African colonies, became republics right before Elizabeth took the throne or in the early years of her reign. In many of these places, the British monarchy was associated with the worst inequities of the empire. For example, the British Empire in India drew heavily on the symbolism of the British monarch as a paternalistic empress or emperor at the top of a power hierarchy that left no room for Indian sovereignty or political agency.
The post-colonial states that retained the monarchy did so for a number of reasons. It gave new governments a borrowed sense of legitimacy and constitutional flexibility because they could use ambiguity about the power of the queen's representative, the governor general, a role that can potentially wield more power than the monarch can in Britain. In the former settler colonies — Australia, New Zealand and Canada — many citizens still spoke of Britain as "home" in the 1950s. This sentiment faded in subsequent decades, although it never entirely disappeared.
The tie to the monarchy also held the promise of promoting ongoing economic and political ties with the U.K. This promise was usually illusory: Elizabeth being Grenada's queen did nothing to stop the United States from invading it in 1983.
Toward the end of Elizabeth's reign, countries in the Caribbean in particular were beginning to reassess their relationship to the British crown. In late 2021, Barbados removed Elizabeth as queen and become a republic. In early 2022, Prince William and Kate Middleton were met with protesters when they visited the Caribbean, calling for reparations from the U.K. over its role in the transatlantic slave trade. Elizabeth's death may serve as an opportunity for other nations to reexamine their relationship with the British monarchy and follow the Barbadian example, once the mourning period ends.
The head of the monarchy resides in Britain, supports primarily British charities and sits at the top of British society. Royal members seemingly enjoy visiting their other realms, and many in those nations — especially traditional elites — enjoy the visits. But what these relationships mean is increasingly unclear, especially at a time when many countries are reevaluating their colonial pasts.
Challenge II: A British King?
It isn't just the relationship with countries of the former British empire that has changed over the seven decades of Elizabeth's rule. The monarchy under Charles will need to adapt to social, political and generational upheaval in Britain itself. The U.K. is made up of almost 70 million people in four deeply divided nations. They are divided by class, generation, geography and economics.
The British political system generally hides these divides more than it reflects them — it is centered in London, with a parliament representing the people of the four home nations: Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Many critics believe that Charles lacks the qualities that endeared Elizabeth to Britons of all social classes. People who met Elizabeth when receiving honors or at Royal Garden Parties projected themselves onto her. Stories in memoirs, articles and autobiographies about meeting her often described her as simultaneously special, but also "like us." Under Elizabeth, the royal family pushed a public narrative that they are inclusive of all people in their realms.
In being less discreet than his mother about his political views, Charles risks compromising his constitutional role as a monarch who reigns but doesn't rule. Under Elizabeth, the monarchy was flexible and fluid: becoming or appearing to become what British politicians, traditional elites and its many other publics wanted it to be. If Charles tries to be more proactive than his mother in the political sphere, he will likely alienate people.
A Poisoned Chalice?
If being king in 2022 sounds tricky, it's because it is. Charles will struggle to serve all his constituencies well. There are many ways he can fail. It's not even clear what "success" means for a British monarch in the 21st century. Is it influence? Harmony? Reflecting society? Setting a good example? Survival?
For King Charles III, the most meaningful choices may be about letting go as much as holding on.
Tobias Harper is an assistant professor of history at Arizona State University.