Queen Elizabeth II delegated one of her most important public duties to Prince Charles on Tuesday, underscoring the increasingly central role the heir to the crown is taking as his mother prepares to celebrate 70 years on the throne.
Charles presided over the state opening of Parliament and delivered the Queen’s Speech laying out the government’s legislative program. The event is a symbol of the monarch’s constitutional role as head of state and is accompanied by centuries of tradition designed to demonstrate the strength of Britain’s political institutions.
The queen’s decision to delegate her role to Charles is likely to be seen by the public as evidence that a transition is underway, with the 96-year-old monarch remaining on the throne but turning over more responsibilities to her eldest son.
The choreography of the day emphasized a queen who was absent and yet still present. Her throne had been removed, but in its place the Imperial State Crown sat propped on a pillow. Charles, wearing the uniform of an admiral of the fleet, glittered in gold braid rather than sweeping ermine robes.
He was flanked by his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, and his son, Prince William. It was, in essence, all about the dynasty.
“I think the emphasis here was clearly on continuity, a symbolic presence of Elizabeth II, if not a physical presence, and also what the future will likely look like,” said Ed Owens, a royal historian and author of “The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public 1932-1953.″
WHAT IS THE QUEEN’S SPEECH?
The speech is delivered during the formal opening of each session of Parliament and lays out the government’s legislative program.
It is written by the elected government, currently led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and is read out to a joint meeting of the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
The monarch traditionally arrives for the event in a horse-drawn carriage, sits on the Sovereign’s Throne in the House of Lords and wears the Imperial State Crown.
But Charles, 73, arrived by car and sat not on the sovereign’s throne, which had been removed, but on the consort’s throne, which had been used by his late father, Prince Philip. In the place where the queen’s throne normally is placed, the Imperial State Crown was placed on a velvet cushion.
Buckingham Palace didn’t elaborate on what it called “episodic mobility problems,″ but the queen has had difficulty moving around in recent months. She has been seen using a cane on some occasions and Prince Andrew last month escorted her into Westminster Abbey for the memorial service for Prince Philip.
The event involves more than just reading the speech. There is a long walk to the House of Lords, stairs to the throne, and in past years the need to climb in and out of the carriage. All of these obstacles might offer challenges for the sovereign.
Elizabeth, who only recently recovered from a bout of COVID-19, is also preparing for four days of festivities celebrating her Platinum Jubilee that are scheduled for June 2-5.
In 1959, when she was in the late stages of pregnancy with Prince Andrew, and again in 1963 before the birth of Prince Edward she also missed parliament opening.
On both of those occasions, Parliament was opened by a royal commission, with the speech delivered by the presiding member.
SO WHAT’S DIFFERENT THIS TIME?
This year the queen formally asked Prince Charles to deliver the speech under rules that allow her to delegate some of her duties to senior members of the royal family who are considered “counselors of state.” Counselors of state are required to act in pairs, so Charles was accompanied by his eldest son, Prince William.
Because the duties had been delegated to Charles, there was less disruption of the ceremonial aspects of the day.
The public should be able to take comfort from the continuity that Charles’ appearance represents, said Robert Hazell, a professor of government and the constitution at University College London.
“Yes, we are, in effect, preparing for a transition,″ he told The Associated Press. “The queen is in her mid-90s. She won’t live forever. We are nearing the last years of her reign, and during those last years, if she is no longer capable of putting in public appearances, Prince Charles can deputize on her behalf.”