Prince Charles was with the Queen at Balmoral facing the sad reality the death of his beloved mother would lead to the greatest transition of his life: from heir to king.
And then, on Thursday afternoon, it happened: Buckingham Palace announced she had passed away.
Charles, 73, now King Charles, has been next in line to the throne for seven decades – by a distance the longest wait in the history of the British monarchy. Neither he nor his courtiers have ever wished to speak publicly about the moment it is over. The prospect of the Queen’s death has always been considered a matter of great private sadness.
“He never wanted to think about accession, because it meant the death of his mother,” a former aide said on Thursday.
But with the Queen’s doctors voicing concern for her health and her other children and grandchildren scrambling to be with her, the role of heir that has defined Charles’s life since the age of three when his mother acceded to the throne in 1952, appeared to be drawing nearer.
A new, inevitably shorter, chapter of Charles’s life will begin. Becoming monarch of the United Kingdom and 14 Commonwealth realms from Canada to Australia will allow him to answer a question that has followed him for decades: after a lifetime of outspoken interventions in public life, what kind of King will he be?
In the immediate days he faces the twin challenges of personal bereavement and leading the nation in mourning.
“He will be focused on the personal and the family, but for the palaces it will be a question of [choosing] the right things to say and do that lead the nation in mourning but also establish the first steps of the new reign,” said another former aide. Charles, they added, had a “deep emotional facility” with bereaved people which they predicted would serve him and the country well in any period of mourning.
On Thursday, the focus of attention was squarely on the family as the Queen’s children and grandchildren gathered around the Queen. The Duke of Cambridge, who is in line to become the Prince of Wales and first in line to the throne, rushed from Berkshire to Balmoral, while Kate, Duchess of Cambridge remained in Windsor to take care of their children, George, Charlotte and Louis, who had their first full day at their new school. Now his father has become king, the Duke of Cambridge will also take on the responsibility, and multimillion pound income, of the Duchy of Cornwall estates.
The Queen’s second son, the Duke of York (who remains stripped of royal duties over his links to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein), and the Earl and Countess of Wessex were on the same RAF plane as the Duke of Cambridge which touched down in Aberdeen just before 4pm. They were joined at Balmoral by the Princess Royal, the Duchess of Cornwall, who is in line to become Queen consort, and the Prince of Wales. The couple have been carrying out engagements in Scotland in recent days and Charles was said to have been making regular morning visits to see his mother as she continued to struggle with her mobility.
A spokesperson for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex who happen to be on a visit to the UK from their home in California were also travelling to Scotland. They had been due to attend the WellChild Awards ceremony in London on Thursday evening. The Press Association later reported that Harry would be travelling alone.
It was only in April 2021 that Charles lost his father, Prince Philip, who passed away aged 99 at Windsor Castle. His “dear papa”, he said shortly afterwards, “was a very special person”.
In June he gave a very personal address to his “mummy” at a celebration of her platinum jubilee outside Buckingham Palace. “You laugh and cry with us and, most importantly, you have been there for us, for these 70 years,” he said before looking forward in hope that they could celebrate one of her horses winning the Derby next summer.
Buckingham Palace, Charles’s household based at Clarence House and Kensington Palace, which serves as the court of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and until 2020 the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have been planning for this change at the top of the British state for several years. The younger members of the family have increasingly taken on royal duties. William and Kate have increased their profile, stepping into formal roles at the request of the Queen. For example the Duke of Cambridge last year took on the role of lord high commissioner and opened the general assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Charles will take over a role meant to represent stability in times of change, at a time of great political and social flux. But with decades of active duty as the Prince of Wales behind him he will hope to rise to that task. Not least, despite his age he will represent a different generation to the Queen, becoming the first British monarch to have gone to school.
The new king has met scores of foreign leaders, interacted with numerous British governments and established a network of charities and causes that have plugged him into at least some of the concerns of ordinary British people and led him into conflict with others. He turned his own court into a kind of grand salon for convening the powerful – gathering business leaders, faith leaders and politicians to tackle issues ranging from sustainability to urban renewal. His views on alternative medicines, architectural style and farming have sometimes led to clashes with other parts of civic society, but he has cast himself as a kind of tribune of the people reflecting, he believes, the views of the quiet majority.
In 2014, one courtier who has known Charles for many years asked by the Guardian to suggest what kind of king he will be, said: “He will be true to his beliefs in his contributions. Rather than a complete reinvention to become a monarch in the mould of his mother, the strategy will be to try and continue with his heartfelt interventions, albeit checking each for tone and content to ensure it does not damage the monarchy.”
As recently as June, amid reports Charles had expressed views opposing the UK government’s policy on deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, Clarence House issued a statement saying he would remain “politically neutral” as monarch.