Being the Queen might just be the loneliest job in the world.
Sure, you have tiaras, thrones and palaces at your disposal, your face on every bank note and you don't have to carry a passport, but it's not all priceless jewels and curtsies.
At some point, you have to hand over the crown to the next in line.
We know from history—and, more recently, Game of Thrones—that wars have been fought over those privileged few sovereign titles. It's a path that has traditionally been stained with blood, both red and blue. And while the current House of Windsor is not plagued by the horrors of yesteryear or fantastical stories (or dragons), they may well be ensconced in a modern-day battle of their own.
At 91 years old, we have to face facts, the beloved Queen is not going to be around forever. "Operation London Bridge," the code name given for what will happen in the days following Queen Elizabeth II's death, has been in place for more than 50 years. Tradition dictates her son, Prince Charles, will eventually take over the top job. Then it will be Prince William, Prince George and Princess Charlotte. But as anyone who has watched The Crown knows, things don't always go according to plan. Elizabeth was never really meant to be Queen. It was only after her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated so he could marry a divorcée (something that was considered unacceptable in 1936), that her father, George VI, was forced to take the lead.
There is no question that Charles will become the next King. But like all families, chatter within the halls of Buckingham Palace isn't always amicable and right now, the gossip is less about who will be coronated and more about who will actually hold the power.
Charles and wife Camilla Parker Bowles live a short walk away from Buckingham Palace, at Clarence House, while William, Kate Middleton and Prince Harry reside at Kensington Palace (where, incidentally, Harry and Will's mother, Princess Diana, lived before she died). The three homes are within spitting distance of one other and yet as each new milestone for the Queen passes, whether it's a birthday or a jubilee celebration, the distance between the palaces seems to be getting further apart.
Three different households mean three different entourages and perspectives on what it really means to be a member of the most famous family in the world. Charles, like his mother, believes tradition and protocol are essential elements for any majesty. For William and Harry, however, transparency rather than mystery has become the secret ingredient in their formula to secure the royal family for future generations to come.
That approach definitely seems to be working. According to recent polls in the U.K., William and Kate are more popular than ever—way more beloved than Charles and his second wife, Camilla. There is an overwhelming amount of adoration for the young couple, not just in their homeland but around the world. They are the first royals to take advantage of the image-crafting tools, such as social media, that are instrumental in creating a global brand. Accessibility has made them relatable; whether it's in the way they've chosen to bring up their kids, or their candor about mental health (specifically the depression both William and Harry endured after losing their mom). Will, Kate and Harry, and maybe even soon, Meghan Markle, have become the undisputable faces of the modern British royal family.
Charles, on the other hand, is often viewed as being out of touch. Only a quarter of Britons say they would like to see him as King; 50 per cent wish William was next in line. Tampon-gate, his affair with Camilla and lack of tact have made the 68-year-old unpopular in certain circles. No matter how much time passes, he's often still cast as the villain in the breakdown of his first marriage, to Princess Diana. Ryan Murphy's next season of Feud, set to premiere in 2018, will focus on the dark days of Charles and Diana's marriage. (I'm sure the crown prince is really looking forward to watching that!)
Luckily for Charles, celebrity and popularity do not dictate who gets to be King, but it's definitely a factor that will impact his inevitable promotion. The interim between the death of one sovereign and the coronation of another is considered to be a vulnerable time that can often lead to many asking questions about why we need a monarchy in the first place. Remember, this is a family who were never voted in but are in their entitled position because of the will of the people. As Charles himself once explained, "Something as curious as the monarchy won't survive unless you take account of people's attitudes. After all, if people don't want it, they won't have it."
At almost 70 years old, Charles is at a time in his life when most would hope to be able to put their feet up, and yet his hardest working days are still ahead of him. He once described the awareness of his ultimate fate as being a "ghastly" and "inexporable" slow realization. "Slow" being the operative word here since he is now the longest-serving heir apparent in British history. By the time he is declared King Charles III (or George VII—his final title is yet to be decided), he will be the oldest man ever to be crowned in the U.K.
His incredibly long wait is a very different scenario from what his mom had to endure. Elizabeth was just 25 when her father suddenly died and she was thrust into the most famous job in the world. Not only was she a young queen but also a young mom; Charles was 3 at the time, Princess Anne just 1. While she did the best she could under the circumstances to lead the commonwealth (its current population is more than 2 billion people), she sometimes wasn't around to bring up her kids and instead nannies helped filled in the gaps as she carried out her obligatory overseas tours and copious new duties. As a result, Charles' preparation for the role of king consisted of a boarding school education, serving in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force and then being encouraged to pair up with a suitably pure and virginal wife. We all know how well that turned out!
Now, for the first time, it seems he is finally getting ready to step into the No. 1 spot.
This summer, after 10 years in the job, the Queen's private secretary (her right hand, to you and me) stepped down. The resignation of Sir Christopher Geidt is believed to have been influenced more by Charles than the Queen, allegedly over differences in how Charles' role as King-in-waiting should be executed. Add to that rampant rumors that the staff from all three palaces may soon be partially merged, to help streamline the changeover and put all the heirs on the same page for the first time.
Then there are reports about a secret document entitled "Project 70." Like "Operation London Bridge," this is described as an intricate blueprint for Charles' accelerated plan to take on more responsibility as his mom edges closer to her mid-90s. With Charles' father, the Duke of Edinburgh, now retired from public service, it gives Charles an opportunity to step into a more prominent role, thus allowing the public to get used to his future place at the head of the banquet table.
The buzz about a possible power struggle between the three generations has reached such a fever pitch that all three palaces have been forced to release a rare joint statement claiming, "…recent years have seen an ever-closer working relationship between all the different royal households and their respective teams. The Prince of Wales and the entire royal family are committed to supporting the Queen in whatever way they can at Her Majesty's request. Beyond that, we are not going to engage with a story based on rumors from unnamed sources."
Whether there really is a rift remains to be seen but here's what we know for sure; no amount of planning can possibly prepare a nation for the emotion which will accompany the death of a woman who has led through 13 different prime ministers and 14 U.S presidents. She is not just a monarch, but a grandmother to a league of nations. She is the figurehead of a once thriving, but now arguably dwindling empire. Her death will be accompanied by widespread mourning (much of it by billions who have never even met her), a public funeral like nothing the world has ever witnessed before and a stream of adoration in the form of love letters and eulogies as many try to come to terms with her painful passing.
So, who will the nation turn to for comfort in that moment of terrible grief? Who is best equipped to wipe away the tears of all those mourners? Will it be the older and more experienced heir apparent, Charles? Or will it be the empathetic and sensitive, albeit younger, William? That's the real question being asked around the halls of Buckingham Palace today.