TThe British are not used to having a sick monarch. The very purpose of the institution is to convey an image of resilience and invulnerability and to be seen in public. This is why King Charles’ announcement of a cancer diagnosis places the monarchy in uncharted waters. Early indications from Buckingham Palace, doctors and Downing Street are that there is nothing to worry about and, as Rishi Sunak let it go this morning, the disease, whatever it was, was detected early. After all, the king is 75 years old, active and fit with two meals a day, but he is at an age when many men receive such a diagnosis.
The speculation will begin now. It was 72 years to the day since a shocked and deferential British public learned that Charles’ grandfather, George VI, had died in his sleep. Even the king had apparently not been informed that he was suffering from lung cancer after a lifetime of heavy smoking – although perhaps the fact that his left lung had been removed in an operation at the palace of Buckingham four and a half months earlier might have given him some relief. a little clue. Those in the know, like then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill, knew better, but no one else did, despite his haggard appearance. He could barely wear makeup when he saw his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, go on an overseas tour from Heathrow a week before her death. whose official cause was coronary thrombosis.
Charles has robust genes (and doesn’t smoke). The Queen was still carrying out her royal duties 48 hours before her death at the age of 96, after 70 years on the throne, and her father, the Duke of Edinburgh, turned 99, but what to make of recent health problems of the king – first treatment for an enlarged prostate, and now this?
We should welcome Charles’s insistence on openness and reassurance, even if it is quite partial. We don’t know what type of cancer it is, or what the likely treatment will be; even less, and this is understandable, the prognosis. The palace statement was perhaps intended to allay public concerns about absences from public appearances, but of course that won’t be the case (and some at the palace would probably say there would have been no speculation if anything had not been said). In the age of social media, gossip and rumors will be virulent and obsessive, so it is likely that privacy will not last long.
It has always been known that his reign will be relatively short, as the oldest king to ascend the throne, but the news of his cancer is sure to raise concerns. Who will take his place if he is incapable or in decline? When the king spoke of a slimmed-down monarchy, did he really mean that there wouldn’t be enough royals to open doors, visit factories, and travel to kingdoms around the world? Is this the beginning of the end for a British head of state in Tuvalu, let alone Australia?
Some questions are easier to answer than others. Does Prince Harry arriving to see his father signal a rapprochement? Answer: probably not. Will Prince Andrew be allowed back into the public sphere to help? Definitely not.
What about its functions? Last year there were foreign tours and more than 500 public engagements, not counting the daily series of red boxes containing official government documents and private meetings, such as these weekly briefings with the Prime Minister . Charles has already said he will step away from public duties during his treatment, so who will return to work? It will be a politically charged year. For decades we never had to address these issues because Queen Elizabeth II was still here in full health, but now we must.
Every official photograph will now be scrutinized for signs of physical weakness or change in appearance. Is he losing weight, has he lost hair? Will he be able to be the kind of monarch Britain has been waiting for? Will the long-awaited short reign turn out to be much shorter than expected?
These questions may be cruel and intrusive – and they may become superfluous due to a rapid return to apparent health – but they will remain prominently in the background. Like all monarchs since William the Conqueror, kings have to be seen to be believed. Now that the monarch has opted for openness, can the flow of information be contained?
Stephen Bates, former Guardian correspondent, is the author of Royalty Inc: Britain’s Best-known Brand and The Shortest History of the Crown.