Published 9:26 PM EST Dec 6, 2019
Despite decades of assurances that Queen Elizabeth II intends to stay “on the job” until the end, suddenly the British media are hinting that Her Majesty is thinking of retiring in 18 months when she turns 95, leaving Prince Charles to carry on as prince regent.
Now comes word from the Prince of Wales’ office of what the queen might say about these reports: No way, no how.
A statement Thursday from Clarence House, Charles’s London palace and office, denied the queen has retirement in mind or even that there have been discussions about it.
“There are no plans for any change in arrangements at the age of 95 — or any other age,” said the statement, confirmed by USA TODAY.
It is significant that Clarence House thought this long-established assumption about the longest-reigning monarch in British history (67 years and counting) had to be reiterated.
Having sworn herself to royal duty since even before she became the sovereign in 1952, the queen has let it be known that she would never abdicate, never quit, never retire. And at 93, she has slowed down but she is still in good health.
So why the speculation and rumors about retirement now?
Because her second son, Prince Andrew the Duke of York, 59, has retired himself, announcing that he was “stepping back” from all royal duties for “the foreseeable future” in the wake of crisis-level embarrassment over his relationship with an American convicted sex offender and his failure to plausibly explain it in a widely condemned interview with the BBC last month.
Andrew said he asked the queen’s permission to quit the royal spotlight and she agreed. British tabloid headlines trumpeted that the queen “sacked” Andrew. Then the headlines shifted: She consulted with Charles, 71, and his son, Prince William, 37, second in line to the throne, who pushed to push out Andrew.
And then new headlines said Prince Philip, the queen’s 98-year-old husband who retired two years ago, made it clear that Andrew had to go for the sake of saving the monarchy.
The furor, routinely described as the worst royal crisis in decades, re-energized talk in the British media about the queen retiring, and even talk among die-hard republicans and in the pages of The Guardian about getting rid of the monarchy altogether.
“Let’s get off our knees and abolish the monarchy,” read the headline on columnist Suzanne Moore’s piece in The Guardian last month. “Andrew wasn’t just a bad apple: he comes from a royal orchard of them. It’s time Britain matured as a republic.”
A 2018 biography of Charles, “Charles at Seventy: Our Future King,” by veteran royal correspondent Robert Jobson, quoted unnamed senior royal officials in reporting that Charles is already a “shadow king” and the queen could stand aside at 95, allowing him to become prince regent with power to reign in her place.
But American royal biographer Sally Bedell Smith, author of books on the queen and on Charles, says she doesn’t give much credence to the stories about the queen bowing out early.
She said such talk has floated around for years; it’s come back to the fore, she told USA TODAY, thanks to the Andrew mess. But Smith says the queen’s pledge, first made at age 21 and reaffirmed several times since, has been to serve as monarch until her death.
“I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” she said in her 21st birthday speech broadcast to the world via radio from South Africa.
Smith quotes the late Margaret Rhodes, the queen’s first cousin, who reported what the queen said in 2003 when the Archbishop of Canterbury announced he would retire.
“The queen sighed and said, ‘Oh, that’s something I can’t do. I am going to carry on to the end,’ ” Smith said. The queen’s only caveat would be unless she had a stroke or Alzheimer’s. “But Margaret Rhodes added, ‘even then she wouldn’t retire.’ “
Besides, British law would not allow the queen to simply give Charles the power to reign on her behalf – it’s more complicated than that and involves agreement among more people under the Regency Act.
Three of five individuals, including the husband of the Sovereign, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Chief Justice of England and the Master of the Rolls, must declare in writing that the Sovereign is unable “by reason of infirmity of mind or body” to carry out royal duties, Smith explained.
“The evidence of physicians is required to make the judgment of incapacity,” Smith says. “In other words, there is a set procedure, and it is something that wouldn’t be invoked lightly. It’s a big deal.”