The words seemed to hover in a word balloon floating over the head of Britain’s Prince Charles: “If only.” Crown Prince Willem-Alexander Claus George Ferdinand of the Netherlands moved to the front of the line, becoming the first Dutch king since 1890, while Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, looked on. Charles might have been wondering if the moment will ever come for him.

The monarchy in the Netherlands is not nearly as formal or traditional as the British version, of course. To end her 33-year reign, Queen Beatrix, the country’s former monarch, had only to sign the act of abdication in a palace chamber — no religious blessing or coronation needed. But the largely ceremonial title still belongs to the new king.

Britain’s Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, walk to their seats in the Nieuwe Kerk. (Robin Utrecht for the Associated Press)

Prince Charles has both baggage and a mother who so far has shown no interest in following the lead of Beatrix, who at 75 became the third successive Dutch queen to abdicate. She seemed content and happy to make room for her 46-year-old son, who Tuesday became Europe’s youngest monarch.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is 87, yet seems in no hurry to do the same for her 64-year-old, gray-haired son. She was hale and hearty enough for a winking cameo in a James Bond stunt at the London Summer Olympics, and basked in the adulation of the crowds that marked her 60 years on the throne. She may be shrinking a bit in stature with each passing year, but she is in no danger of fading away. In “The Queen,” she was immortalized by sexy Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar to boot.

Then there is Camilla, blamed and vilified during the scandal-plagued breakup of Charles and Princess Diana, a royal dream couple turned nightmare. Though in life and in this case, there is a lot the public can’t know and usually enough misbehavior to go around, Charles and “the other woman” made easy villains. An already iconic “Princess Di” became a youthful image frozen in time following her 1997 death in a car crash.

An English public that had imagined her as future Queen could only ask, “What if?”

But through the years, Prince Charles did come back, praised as a warm and loving father to his two sons with Diana. His once-criticized views on architectural preservation and the environment entered the mainstream. And opinion on Camilla shifted as well with their 2005 marriage, with many admiring their devotion through so much disapproval.

Prince Charles’s rehabilitation didn’t happen in a vacuum, though. Another British royal couple managed to steal the spotlight and become the darlings of the media and the public. The moment now belongs to Prince William and his wife, Kate, about to make Charles a royal grandfather.

Another heir, another generation on the way.

Will the heir apparent be an heir in waiting forever? For Prince Charles, present 33 years ago when Queen Beatrix first wore the royal robe, Tuesday’s return to Amsterdam either seemed a long time ago or just like yesterday.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3