Who will be the public face of the monarchy as King Charles is treated for cancer?

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When Queen Camilla was at a musical concert celebrating local charities in southwestern England on Thursday evening, it was inevitable she would be asked about King Charles.

It was her first public outing since Buckingham Palace announced on Monday that the 75-year-old monarch had been diagnosed with an undisclosed form of cancer, and was beginning outpatient treatment for it.

Camilla said Charles is “doing extremely well under the circumstances,” according to several media reports, and is “very touched by all the letters and messages the public have been sending him from everywhere.”

Appearances such as Camilla’s at Salisbury Cathedral and other events Prince William and Princess Anne attended this past week are likely to be the public face of the monarchy as Charles steps back from public duties during treatment. And in some instances, other senior members of the family may stand in for the King, too.

“You might think of it as a sort of job share,” said Craig Prescott, a constitutional expert and lecturer in law at Royal Holloway, University of London, in an interview.

A person wearing a military uniform shakes hands with a person wearing a white coat.
Queen Camilla, right, shakes hands with Capt. Robert Smith, director of music for the Grenadier Guards Band, as she attends a musical evening at Salisbury Cathedral to celebrate the work of local charities on Thursday in Salisbury, England. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Getty Images)

“The formal constitutional stuff — it’s still going to be the King doing it, but his engagements, I presume some of those will be cancelled, rearranged and (for) some, William and other members of the Royal Family will fill in.”

Charles’s sister, Anne, had a particularly busy day on Wednesday, with four engagements that took her from Windsor to Nottingham and back south to London in the evening for an event at the Science Museum.

As much as there is the sense that other members of the family could step in for Charles, any reduction in royal public appearances — for the simple reason there are fewer available people to do them — could reinforce how he has been envisioning the future of the monarchy.

A person looks at soldiers demonstrating a training exercise.
Princess Anne, right, views a demonstration during her visit to the Defence Explosive Ordnance Disposal Training Regiment at St. George’s Barracks on Wednesday in Bicester, England. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

“The King has been planning to slim down the Royal Family, the working Royal Family. For the last 20-odd years, he’s been talking about it, and very vocally in the last 10,” said Judith Rowbotham, a social and cultural scholar and visiting research professor at the University of Plymouth in southwestern England, in an interview.

“This may be speeding up a certain amount of reduction, in particularly the local commitments that the senior Royals will do.”

Charles’s cancer treatment comes at the same time his daughter-in-law, Catherine, Princess of Wales, recovers from abdominal surgery. She is not expected to resume public duties until after Easter. Prince William stepped back from public duties temporarily to support her and their three young children, but did carry out two engagements this week. 

People wearing paramedic uniforms speak with a person.
Prince William, back right, speaks with air ambulance pilots, doctors and paramedics as he attends the London Air Ambulance Charity gala dinner in central London on Wednesday. (Daniel Leal/The Associated Press)

“It seems that the King and Queen have absolutely endorsed William’s decision to prioritize spending time with his wife,” said Rowbotham.

“His engagements (Wednesday) have been local, Windsor Castle and London, so he can get back soon. I think more than anything else, what this means is that for the rest of this month and next month, he won’t be undertaking any planned extensive trips where he can’t go somewhere for a day and then come back.”

Among the senior royals, both before and since Charles’s diagnosis became public knowledge, there were some who were already seen as carrying a noticeable load.

“It’s clear the public face of the monarchy at this time is very dependent on three very hard-working royal women: Queen Camilla, Princess Anne and Sophie, the Duchess of Edinburgh,” Toronto-based royal author and historian Carolyn Harris said in an interview.

“We have seen both Princess Anne and Sophie, the Duchess of Edinburgh, take on an enormous amount of international travel since King Charles III’s accession to the throne, and … we have been seeing Queen Camilla undertake numerous engagements recently.”

There’s every likelihood that will continue, particularly as regular royal events come up on the calendar.

“There are certain engagements which are fixtures in the royal year that you would expect someone to fill in” for King Charles, said Prescott, noting for example the Maundy Thursday church service held just before Easter.

“We might just end up with Camilla doing quite a lot of those engagements on her own. Instead of it being the King and Queen, it would just be the Queen.”

While Charles has stepped back from public duties, Rowbotham noted he has not been “invisible.”

WATCH | Charles waves to well-wishers:

King Charles seen for first time since cancer diagnosis

King Charles was seen waving to well wishers at Buckingham Palace for the first time since his cancer diagnosis before flying to his Sandringham Estate in a helicopter. The King’s eldest son William, the Prince of Wales, will take on more royal duties while the King receives treatment.

“He’s not hiding away. We saw him being driven from Clarence House to Buckingham Palace to take off in the helicopter” for a flight to his Sandringham estate, in Norfolk, she said.

And in that, Rowbotham suggested, there is a change for the Royal Family.

“This is not the Royal Family doing the old ‘Let’s be private and hide our health issues’ as of a previous generation,” she said.

“It’s ‘let’s be sensible’ and let’s let people see that we’re being sensible because he’s carrying on with his official duties.”

That might occur in some limited instances in person — there are varying reports on whether he will physically meet British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for their regular audiences or communicate with him in other ways, such as over the phone. 

Charles could also conduct some official business virtually, something for which there is recent royal precedent.

A person looks at a computer screen that shows another person.
Queen Elizabeth appears on a screen via video link from Windsor Castle, during a virtual audience to receive the ambassador from the Republic of Korea, Gunn Kim, at Buckingham Palace on Oct. 26, 2021. (Victoria Jones/Reuters)

“It was very interesting to see how enthusiastic (Queen Elizabeth) became about … video conferencing technologies,” said Harris.  

“During this period where Charles is not expected to take on public-facing duties, like the Queen during the COVID-19 pandemic, he may find creative ways of being able to connect with the public through video conferencing.”

What happens when a monarch falls ill?

Two people talk with one another, with other people in the background.
Princess Anne, right, and Prince Edward speak during a reception at Buckingham Palace in London on Feb. 1. Both Anne and Edward can serve as counsellors of state. (Chris Jackson/The Associated Press)

There are formal provisions for how a monarch’s official duties can be handled if they can’t carry them out on a temporary basis because of illness or being overseas, but there is no indication such measures will be adopted for King Charles at this time.

Counsellors of state can be appointed to perform some duties. As set out in law, the counsellors are the monarch’s spouse — in this case, Queen Camilla — and the next four people in the line of succession who are older than 21 (except the heir, who has to be 18).

Counsellors of state can, according to the Royal Family’s website, carry out duties such as attending Privy Council meetings, signing routine documents and receiving the credentials of new ambassadors to the United Kingdom.

As it stands now, the next four people in the line of succession older than 21 are Prince William, Prince Harry, Prince Andrew and Princess Beatrice.

But Harry stepped back from official duties and is living in California. Andrew also stepped back from public duties after his disastrous television interview over his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Last fall, at the request of Charles, the pool of counsellors of state was expanded to include his sister, Princess Anne, and his brother, Prince Edward, both of whom held the role years ago, before they were bumped down in the line of succession.

WATCH | Helping shoulder the responsbilities: 

A ‘crazy time’ for the Royal Family, says magazine editor

Stephanie Petit, People magazine’s royals editor, says with recent medical concerns for both King Charles and Catherine, Princess of Wales, the rest of the Royal Family will have to help shoulder the responsibilities. However, Petit says there is no expectation anyone will officially step in for King Charles during this time.

“It no longer goes strictly down the line of succession as it did in the past because of the various scandals associated with Prince Harry and Prince Andrew and Prince Harry not (currently living) in the United Kingdom,” said Harris.

In practice, it becomes a decision of the monarch whether counsellors of state are appointed.

“It’s relatively loose. All the legislation says is just that the King has decided, or the monarch has decided, to delegate their functions,” said Prescott.

Counsellors of state have been appointed in previous reigns in connection with a monarch’s health.

Charles’s grandfather, George VI, appointed counsellors of state on the grounds of illness in 1951, Prescott said. George VI, who reportedly was never told he had cancer, died on Feb. 6, 1952.

A person shakes hands with an athlete in a uniform standing with teammates.
KIng George VI meets members of the Newcastle United team on April 28, 1951. That year, George appointed counsellors of state to stand in for him because of illness. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A decade and a half prior, an ailing monarch also appointed counsellors of state.

“One of the last acts of George V was to appoint counsellors of state on Jan. 20, 1936, and he died later that evening,” Prescott said.

Counsellors of state were routinely appointed when Queen Elizabeth was out of the country on overseas visits. 

“Sometimes they acted, sometimes they didn’t. It sort of just depended on what happened, what needed their attention,” Prescott said.

Charles himself acted as a counsellor of state for the first time in June 1967 when the Queen was in Canada, according to a paper this week by the U.K. House of Commons library.

WATCH | Hoping for a full recovery: 

Londoners hope for King Charles’s full recovery

Reacting to the news of King Charles’s cancer diagnosis, people on the streets of London offered sentiments of sympathy and support for his health.

Counsellors of state were appointed last year when Charles visited Romania on holiday — but not when he was in Kenya on an official visit.

They were also appointed for the state opening of the British Parliament in the spring of 2022, when mobility and health concerns were limiting the public duties carried out by Elizabeth.

They were not, however, appointed earlier in Elizabeth’s reign when she faced various health concerns, such as knee surgery in 2003.

There were times more recently when it might have been possible to consider counsellors of state, given the Queen’s health, but that option was not pursued.

“She received Prime Minister Liz Truss just two days before her passing,” said Harris.

“She was undertaking her duties as head of state right to the very end. In the case of King Charles III, it’s clear that he’s optimistic this is a treatable cancer. If that was to change and it became impossible for him to undertake any of the duties of head of state, this is where in the short term the counsellors of state would be very significant.”

A person carrying a cane shakes hands with another person in a living room.
Queen Elizabeth, left, welcomes Liz Truss during an audience where she invited the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party to become British prime minister and form a new government at Balmoral Castle, Scotland, on Sept. 6, 2022. Elizabeth died two days later. (Jane Barlow/Reuters)

If a monarch were to be incapacitated in the long term, then the issue of a regency would arise, with the heir to the throne appointed to carry out that role (provided the person was over the age of 18).

“That evokes the atmosphere of the early 19th century, when the future George IV was the Prince Regent for George III, whose mental health had broken down,” said Harris.

A regency is a considerably more complex matter than appointing counsellors of state. 

A declaration of incapacity of the monarch — based on evidence, including the view of physicians — must be made by three out of five specific individuals: the wife or husband of the monarch; the Lord Chancellor; the Speaker of the House of Commons; the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales; and the Master of the Rolls (a senior judge).

Consideration of a regency would also have implications in Commonwealth realms. Canada, noted Harris, doesn’t have its own regency bill.

“There’d be the discussion, as there was with succession reform, about how would this work in the other Commonwealth realms. Any kind of change to the monarchy involves consulting the Commonwealth realms as well.”

Harry’s brief return

Prince Harry made a rare visit from California back to London after word emerged of his father’s cancer diagnosis.

Much attention prior to the visit focused on whether it might offer even a brief moment of rapprochement in relations between Harry and his father and elder brother, Prince William.

Family relations have been strained, particularly since Harry and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, stepped back from official royal duties four years ago.

WATCH | Prince Harry returns to London: 

Prince Harry arrives in U.K. following King’s cancer diagnosis

Prince Harry, who stepped down from royal duties almost four years ago, has arrived in Britain as messages of support for King Charles poured in from world leaders.

As much as a son might wish to see his ailing father — and a father might wish to see his son — it didn’t end up being a long visit (reports suggested 30 to 45 minutes), and there’s no indication of any time with William at all. Harry was back on a plane to California the next day.

“While in the United Kingdom, Harry does not appear to have taken the opportunity to visit other family members in either the royal or Spencer families or spend time with friends,” Harris said.

“Harry’s connections to friends and family in the United Kingdom appear to be becoming more distant as he focuses on his new life in California.”

Royally quotable

“It means a great deal to us all.”

— Prince William, during a speech Wednesday evening, when he offered thanks “for the kind messages of support for Catherine and for my father, especially in recent days.” 

A person speaks at a podium behind a microphone and in front of a wall with the word Charity on it.
Prince William speaks during the London Air Ambulance Charity gala dinner on Wednesday in London. (Daniel Leal/Getty Images)

Royal reads 

  1. Directors of a cancer research centre that King Charles was instrumental in establishing said he would benefit from treatment advances made in recent years. (BBC)

  2. A cancer charity has seen a “King Charles effect,” with a surge in visits to its website following the monarch’s diagnosis. (ITV)

  3. Prince Harry has settled the remaining parts of his phone hacking claim against Mirror Group Newspapers. His lawyer told the court that Harry had won further “substantial” damages after the company accepted an offer to settle the claim. (The Independent)

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