Queen Elizabeth II and Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip Trooping The Colour at Horse Guards Parade, Photo of Queen Elizabeth riding in a carriage on June 13, 2015 in London, England, UK

Queen Elizabeth II: the twilight years of a record-breaking reign

24 November 2021
British monarchy expert on what might happen next
At 95, Queen Elizabeth II is the longest reigning British monarch. But in recent weeks, she has been absent for medical reasons, says Dr Cindy McCreery. Could she step down or will she go on to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee in 2022?

Queen Elizabeth II did not attend the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow after she received medical advice to rest. The 95-year-old monarch was also briefly in hospital in October for medical tests. In November, she missed the Rembrance Sunday commemorations due to a sprained back.

Is this the beginning of the monarch stepping down from royal duties? Could she hand over to Prince Charles on a permanent basis and make her eldest son the next British monarch? Would she choose a temporary withdrawal from royal duties with Prince Charles serving as Regent?  

British Royal Family Expert

Dr Cindy McCreery, an expert on the British monarchy in the Department of History, said: “It is unusual for British monarchs to ‘retire’ - it is more common in other European monarchies. In the Netherlands Queen Wilhelmina retired after World War II and passed the throne on to her daughter who became Queen Juliana. More common in Britain is a gentle reduction in royal duties as a monarch ages – Queen Victoria is a good example of this – though she participated in important royal celebrations near the end of her life (for example, the 1897 Diamond Jubilee).

“Queen Elizabeth II could hand over to Prince Charles on a temporary basis, making him the acting monarch or  ‘Regent’ – but historically British monarchs have delayed giving full responsibilities to their heir until the last possible moment,” Dr McCreery said. “Moreover, it seems extremely unlikely that the Queen would wish to abdicate – i.e. permanently retire.”

In 1936 the Queen’s uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne so that he could marry Wallis Simpson. According to the mores of the time and the teachings of the Church of England, as a twice-divorced woman, Mrs Simpson could not become Queen. “Edward VIII chose love over duty – leaving his younger brother to become the next monarch,” said Dr McCreery.

George VI (Elizabeth’s father) served Britain for the rest of his life, but the stress of being King exacerbated his ill health, and he died suddenly at age 56, leaving his 25-year-old daughter Elizabeth as Queen. “The Queen – along with other members of the Royal Family – continue to see Edward VIII’s abdication as a dereliction of duty, and thus abdication is not a choice that the Queen would wish to make if at all possible,” Dr McCreery said.

Dr McCreery is a cultural historian, whose current research focuses on the links between the British Royal Family and the Royal Navy in the nineteenth and twentieth-century British Empire. She has a special interest in how the media critiques the British monarchy.

She is the founder and leader of the Modern Monarchy in Global Perspective Research Network that will host an international online conference examining Australian responses to the reign of Elizabeth II. The conference will run in June 2022. It is timed to coincide with Queen Elizabeth’s 70th anniversary or Platinum Jubilee celebrations. Her official anniversary date is 6 February, as she was proclaimed Queen on 6 February, 1952, the day her father King George VI died. She was formally coronated on 2 June 1953.

Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

Picture of a souvenir flag of the Royal visit to Australia, 1954. The flag shows the smiling faces of a young Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip with the words Welcome to Australia. It also shows the Australian flag and Union Jack flag crossing over together to link them in friendship.

Souvenir flag of the Royal visit to Australia, 1954.
Credit: National Museum of Australia

Since 1952 the Queen has reigned over Australia as well as numerous other realms beyond Britain, and to this day serves as Head of State of 16 Commonwealth countries, including Canada, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea as well as Australia. For most Australians, Elizabeth II is the only monarch they have ever known, with her profile, name or initials seen every day on coins, banknotes, stamps, postboxes, hospitals and government documents.

“Ever since her blockbuster first Australian tour in 1954, Australians have flocked to see the Queen and her family members on numerous royal visits; and many have eagerly followed her progress here and elsewhere in the press,” Dr McCreery said. “But these visits have also drawn protest and debate over Australia’s constitutional position. Republicans have argued that the monarchy is outdated, irrelevant and unrepresentative of our modern, multicultural nation, while some Indigenous Australians have appealed to the Queen to redress their legal, constitutional and social disadvantage.”

The Queen’s health and ageing

photo of an older Queen Elizabeth wearing a bright yellow dress and hat, smiling and waving at a crowd.

The Queen is now 95 and is expected to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee in 2022. Photo: Pixabay.

Dr McCreery said there is historical precedent for members of the Royal Family to take time off for periods of ill health. “In the 1930s George V went off duty to the seaside to recover from illness for a few weeks,” she said.

“Think of George III in the late 18th century. During his so-called ‘madness’ (actually caused by porphyria, an inherited condition) the ‘Regency Crisis’ occurred. This involved a power struggle between George’s wife Queen Charlotte and their eldest son the Prince of Wales (later George IV). George III eventually recovered and resumed royal duties.”

Is it the end for the monarchy?

“It will take more than the death or abdication of Queen Elizabeth for the British monarchy to end. A more likely result is a waning of interest and influence after the current monarch dies,” Dr McCreery said. “So it is not likely that the monarchy would be abolished but that it might come to appear irrelevant. However interest could increase again  in the future, possibly with the accession of Prince Charles’ eldest son Prince William to the throne.”

Dr Cindy McCreery is the founder and leader of the Modern Monarchy in Global Perspective Research Network that will host an international online conference in June 2022 examining Australian responses to the reign of Elizabeth II. 

Banner image: Lorna Roberts/Shutterstock

Dr Cindy McCreery

Dr Cindy McCreery smiling
Cultural historian, Department of History
Academic profile

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