LONDON — Prince Charles, Britain’s longest-waiting king-in-waiting, got a moment in the spotlight Tuesday, filling in for his mother at the ceremonial State Opening of Parliament.
But as Charles, 73, read out the Queen’s Speech on his mother’s behalf, it was also clear that day is not yet here.
Bedecked with medals and gold-braided royal regalia, Charles arrived by Rolls-Royce and passed through the Sovereign’s Entrance. But he did not sit on the elaborately carved and gilded Sovereign’s Throne. Instead, he used the Consort’s Throne, which is similar but an inch shorter.
With Charles delivering the speech — actually written by the government, outlining its priorities for the year — the phrase “my government” had to be changed to “Her Majesty’s government,” to be repeated over and over again.
Green Party lawmaker Caroline Lucas noted that the speech gave short shrift to the prince’s top issue.
“Wonder how Prince Charles felt about reading out a #QueensSpeech with big fat zero in it on environment,” she tweeted. “Hugely disappointing to see Nature Bill has been scrapped. Has the Government forgotten there’s a biodiversity emergency? Pity he couldn’t have improvised a bit.”
The presence of Charles and his elder son, Prince William, in the House of Lords was a striking visual moment in an ongoing transition of power. Queen Elizabeth II, 96, has scaled back her activities and gradually delegated more duties to Charles and other senior royals.
But the queen doesn’t appear to have any intention of voluntarily stepping aside. The special powers she put in place to allow Charles to open Parliament were a one-off, not a permanent arrangement.
The queen, Charles and William work very closely together, said royal biographer Robert Lacey. “They are a triple act,” he said, with the queen deputizing when needed.
“There is no reluctance on the part of the queen to look to the future,” Lacey added, pointing out that on the queen’s Accession Day, she issued a statement saying she hoped that one day Charles’s wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, would be titled queen.
But Lacey stressed that Elizabeth is still in charge and that this isn’t a regency — almost a dirty word in Britain, as it conjures up images of the incapacitated King George III.
In fact, the rise of video conferencing has allowed the queen to stay engaged even as the pandemic and personal health issues have gotten in the way of in-person engagements.
“Pandemic or no pandemic, it’s how the queen as monarch is going to operate for the years to come,” said Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty Magazine.
Buckingham Palace cited “mobility problems” as the reason Elizabeth had to miss the State Opening of Parliament for the first time in nearly six decades.
The queen has already missed several big events in the royal diary, including services for Commonwealth Day and Remembrance Day. Last week, the palace announced she would also skip the garden party season. And there are questions about how much of her own Platinum Jubilee celebrations she’ll be able to attend next month.
But remote work seems to suit the queen well.
Like many other Londoners, Elizabeth escaped to the countryside during the pandemic, shifting her home base from Buckingham Palace in London to Windsor Castle, 22 miles west. And she doesn’t appear inclined to return to city life.
From Windsor, she continues to meet virtually with ambassadors, admirals and various other dignitaries.
On Monday, she had a video call with the governor general of Australia. On Wednesday, she’s scheduled to speak, via video again, with her Privy Council advisory group. She’ll also have her weekly chat with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that one on the phone.
“Compromises will be made and these Zoom calls are a part of them,” Little said. “The queen will not want to disappear from view the way Queen Victoria did in her later years, and this is the queen’s way of remaining visible.”
A video clip from the summer of 2020 shows the queen’s daughter, Princess Anne, talking her mother through an early Zoom call.
“Can you see everybody? You should have six people on your screen,” Anne said.
“Well, I can see four, anyway,” Elizabeth replied.
NEW: A first look behind the scenes of those royal video calls 💻— Chris Ship (@chrisshipitv) July 28, 2020
Watch how Princess Anne tried to teach her elderly mother about @zoom_us.
But her elderly mother is, err, the Queen.
🎥 A great clip from tomorrow’s documentary ‘Anne: The Princess Royal at 70’ on @itv 9pm 👇 pic.twitter.com/duHzozH2x5
Even while Elizabeth attends fewer in-person events, the unscripted Zoom clips released by the palace give a sense that Britons are still seeing quite a bit of her.
Speaking to a former covid-19 patient during a virtual hospital visit, the famously stoic queen acknowledged, “It does leave one very tired and exhausted, doesn’t it?”
While the video chats may not offer new insight into the queen’s personality, they may confirm people’s suspicions about her: that she’s direct, courteous and has a wicked sense of humor.
In a virtual event to mark British Science Week in 2021, Elizabeth was asked by experts to talk about meeting Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into space, in 1961. Asked what he was like, the queen said: “Russian,” prompting giggles from the others.
“He didn’t speak English,” she continued. “He was fascinating, and I suppose being the first one, it was particularly fascinating.” She quipped that one of the most important things about space travel was “coming back” again.
When presenting the poet David Constantine with a gold medal for poetry, she asked him about the medal: “Do you put it in a cupboard?”
Little, of Majesty Magazine, noted that the queen has always had these sorts of exchanges. It’s just that if you weren’t also in a long line waiting to pick up your own medal, you wouldn’t have heard them.
Given all the technological advancements, some wondered why the queen didn’t just record Tuesday’s speech from the comfort of her home in Windsor, avoiding all the pomp that comes with the State Opening of Parliament.
But royal experts said that on this occasion, the spectacle mattered hugely.
“That’s part of the mystique of the monarchy,” noted Victoria Howard, a royal expert and founder of the Crown Chronicles site. She told the BBC: “Not having that would be a detraction of the ceremony, and we’re very big on pomp in the U.K.”