Skip to main content

Why Elizabeth won't give up her throne

By Arianne Chernock, Special to CNN
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1612 GMT (0012 HKT)
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II hands a police officer some flowers she received from children as she leaves Christmas services at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham, Norfolk, England.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II hands a police officer some flowers she received from children as she leaves Christmas services at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham, Norfolk, England.
HIDE CAPTION
Royal Highness here to stay
Royal Highness here to stay
Royal Highness here to stay
Royal Highness here to stay
Royal Highness here to stay
Royal Highness here to stay
Royal Highness here to stay
Royal Highness here to stay
Royal Highness here to stay
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • King Juan Carlos, 76, of Spain said he will abdicate the throne and pass the crown to his son
  • Queen Elizabeth shows no inclination to step down for Prince Charles or Prince William
  • Arianne Chernock: Historically, British monarchs stay on their thrones until they die
  • Chernock: Monarchy is about perseverance; princes might have a long wait

Editor's note: Arianne Chernock is an associate professor of modern British history at Boston University at work on a book titled "The Queen and I: The Right to Reign and the Rights of Women in Victorian Britain."

(CNN) -- On Monday, King Juan Carlos, 76, of Spain announced that he will soon abdicate the throne, passing the crown to his son Crown Prince Felipe, who is 46. Explaining his decision to his Spanish subjects, Juan Carlos noted that his son will help "open a new era of hope which combines the experience and momentum of a new generation."

Last year, Queen Beatrix, 75, of the Netherlands, abdicated the throne, also passing the crown to her eldest son.

Arianne Chernock
Arianne Chernock

Explaining her decision to her Dutch subjects, she said, "It was not because the office was too heavy for me, but because the responsibility for this country should lie in the hands of a new generation."

For those wondering why Queen Elizabeth II, an octogenarian, hasn't made a similar concession to youth, one has to realize that the modern British monarchy is founded on a different set of principles. As much as Britons might enjoy a change of pace at Windsor Castle, something faster and fresher, the monarchy in Britain is not about novelty. It's about staying the course, resolve, and perseverance.

Indeed in a culture similar to ours that places a premium on youth and beauty, the British monarchy stands out as one of those rare institutions where aging, with all of its complications and humiliations, is allowed to -- and expected to -- take place in full public view.

Consider King George III, who reigned from 1760 until his death in 1820 at the age of 81. Beginning in 1788, the king suffered periodic bouts from what was likely porphyria, a metabolic disorder affecting the nervous system.

 King Juan Carlos of Spain attends an event at The Royal College of Artillery on May 16 in Segovia, Spain.
King Juan Carlos of Spain attends an event at The Royal College of Artillery on May 16 in Segovia, Spain.
Prince Felipe of Spain, 46, is to succeed his father Juan Carlos, King of Spain.
Prince Felipe of Spain, 46, is to succeed his father Juan Carlos, King of Spain.

By 1810, he was permanently insane. Blind and infirm, George III spent the last 10 years of his reign doddering about in Windsor Castle. Admittedly, George's son, the future George IV, served as regent for most of this difficult period.

Queen Victoria, George III's granddaughter, similarly reigned from 1837 until her death, also at the age of 81, in 1901 -- despite suffering a host of ailments in later years, including failing eyesight, insomnia and rheumatism.

Yet both monarchs were perhaps more popular in their oldest age than ever before.

George III survived the loss of the American colonies and the scandals surrounding his alleged madness to win the intense loyalty of most of his subjects. Following his 1809 Golden Jubilee, a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of a monarch's rule, the London Times proudly proclaimed that the event had been "celebrated by all ranks of people in this great metropolis, in a manner worthy of an aged and venerable King, and a loyal and enlightened nation."

And Queen Victoria overcame early skepticism about her capabilities -- and a dramatic curtailment in support during the 1860s, when she retreated from public view to mourn the death of her husband, Prince Albert -- to become the "Great White Queen," and the "Grandmother of Europe."

Spain's King Juan Carlos: I quit

At her 60th anniversary Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Victoria was feted like no sovereign before her. She may have only been able to offer a feeble wave from her carriage as she passed by throngs of well-wishers on her way to St. Paul's Cathedral, but her symbolic weight could not be overestimated.

The current British monarch follows in her predecessors' footsteps. When the young Elizabeth received word in February 1952, while traveling abroad in Kenya, that her father George VI had passed away, she rushed home knowing that the title she had just inherited would be hers until death.

"By the sudden death of my dear father I am called to assume the duties and responsibilities of sovereignty," the 25-year old queen explained to her privy councilors back in London.

"My heart is too full for me to say more to you today than I shall always work, as my father did throughout his reign, to advance the happiness and prosperity of my peoples, spread as they are all the world over."

When Elizabeth said "I shall always work," she meant it. More than 60 years later, at the age of 88, the Queen maintains an active schedule and is the patron of more than 600 charities and organizations.

Add to this the fact that Elizabeth's reign, like those of her predecessors, has only seemed to improve with age, at least if measured by public approval ratings -- shortly before the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012, the market research company Ipsos MORI determined that support for the monarchy among adults in Britain is at an all-time high -- and there's little reason to think that Elizabeth will leave her post anytime soon.

Much as Prince Charles and Prince William may grow tired of waiting in the wings, a Platinum Jubilee could well take place in 2022.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Arianne Chernock.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT