Stepping back but not down: How the Queen is gradually shifting duties to the next generation

The signs have been there for a while, but this year's Remembrance Sunday ceremony in the British capital offered one of the most obvious and high-profile signals yet of the gradual changes unfolding in the upper echelons of the House of Windsor.

Decision not to lay wreath for Remembrance Sunday seen as latest move in gradual transition

Queen Elizabeth watched the Remembrance Sunday ceremony from a nearby balcony as her eldest son and heir, Prince Charles, laid a wreath that she usually lays herself. It is a departure from tradition that signals a transition unfolding in the House of Windsor, but royal watchers say the Queen is still very much in control. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

For a Queen deeply devoted to duty who served in the Second World War, laying a wreath of remembrance has always been a significant and solemn occasion.

But this year is different.

Instead of Elizabeth carefully stepping up the steps of the cenotaph in central London on Sunday during the annual remembrance ceremony, her eldest son and heir, Prince Charles, took on her wreath-laying responsibility. The 91-year-old monarch watched from a nearby balcony.

That simple shift represents one of the most obvious and high-profile signals yet of the gradual transition unfolding in the upper echelons of the House of Windsor, now headed by the longest-reigning British monarch.

Elizabeth lays a wreath during the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the cenotaph in London on Nov. 13, 2016. The heavy wreath must be carried up several steps. (Will Oliver/EPA-EFE)

"While Remembrance Sunday may be the most dramatic evidence of the shifts in the Royal Family, it's very much on a continuum of small and steady changes, which is really what the Queen's reign has been about," says author Sally Bedell Smith, who has written biographies of Elizabeth and Charles.

Gradually over the past few years, some duties carried out by the Queen have been taken on by the younger generations of the Royal Family, including overseas travel and some investitures.

Earlier this year, her husband, Prince Philip, the 96-year-old Duke of Edinburgh, stepped back from official duties. But he sometimes appears in public, and he was on the balcony from which other family members traditionally watch the ceremony on Sunday.

Just like Philip

"He had already decided not to lay a wreath at the cenotaph, and her decision was in line with his," says Smith.

"The bottom line is that the presence of the Queen and Prince Philip as observers rather than participants on Remembrance Sunday will underline the transition that has been occurring in the Royal Family since before the Queen's 90th birthday."

Some who watch the Royal Family closely see practicality and careful consideration for the Queen's age as critical factors in the decision to watch rather than lay a wreath.

This year, Prince Charles laid the wreath on behalf of the Queen. Charles and other members of the younger generations of the Royal Family have gradually taken on some of the Queen's official duties, including overseas travel and some investitures. (Tim Ireland/Associated Press)

"I think the remarkable thing is that she kept going for so long," says Ingrid Seward, editor in chief of Majesty Magazine and whose book My Husband and I, on the Queen and Prince Philip's 70-year marriage, was published this month.

Now, there is "relief all round" with the decision to have Elizabeth and Philip watch the Remembrance Sunday ceremony from the balcony rather than walking up the cenotaph steps, "as they could have fallen or anything like that and then been in trouble," says Seward.

Other changes have been made as the Queen grows older.

"She now takes shorter routes and climbs fewer steps when she goes on walkabouts," says Smith.

No heavy robes or crown

She also did not wear ceremonial robes or the elaborate — but weighty — Imperial State Crown to the opening of Parliament earlier this year.

"Since the crown weighs three pounds [1.4 kilograms], and the robes are heavy, that could well be the routine for the Queen in years ahead," says Smith.

In as much as some of her duties have shifted and accommodations have been made, it seems Elizabeth's hand is still firmly on the royal tiller.

When Queen Elizabeth attended the state opening of Parliament in London on June 21, 2017, the 1.4-kilogram Imperial State Crown was carried in rather than being worn by the Queen. (Stefan Rousseau/Reuters)

"She's still holding investitures, just not as many, she's still taking part in receptions and hosting receptions, meeting people," says Penny Junor, whose book on Charles's second wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, was published a few months ago.

The Queen's activities, Junor suggests, are a tiring prospect for her, shaking hands, keeping a smile on her face and remembering who she's meeting and why at every reception or garden party.

"I'm not suggesting she's losing her mind by any stretch of the imagination," says Junor. "I'm just saying what she does is very tiring and it's very full on …. in her 90s it's pretty reasonable for her to be sharing the load."

Queen Elizabeth is still holding events and investitures, just not as many as she once did. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

That load has spread notably to Charles, with his sister Anne and elder son Prince William also taking on more investitures. Others such as Charles's brother Edward and his wife, Sophie, the Earl and Countess of Wessex, have also taken on more activities. William gave up his job as an air ambulance pilot earlier this year to focus full-time on royal duties.

As much as the Queen is sharing more of the load, there is no sense that she would consider abdication, as has happened in other royal houses in Europe in recent years.

'Lifelong commitment'

"The Queen appears to view her position as a lifelong commitment to her people," says Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal author and historian whose book Raising Royalty: 1,000 Years of Royal Parenting was released earlier this year.

"At the age of 21, she stated that she would devote her whole life whether it was long or short to the service of her people and she received a religious coronation ceremony in 1953 that emphasized this lifelong commitment."

Plus, abdication casts an unwelcome shadow for Elizabeth.

"For the Queen, abdication is associated with her uncle, Edward the Eighth, and the abdication crisis of 1936, which was very destabilizing for the monarchy because of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor," says Harris.

The Queen has given up long-haul overseas travel. Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, were in Canada to mark the 150th anniversary since Confederation and visited Parliament Hill in Ottawa for the celebrations on July 1, 2017. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Still, the passage of time is inevitable, and every reign is succeeded by another.

In considering the next reign, Elizabeth appears to be charting this gradual course quite deliberately. And it's in marked contrast to what happened with other long-serving monarchs such as George III or Victoria.

"In the past, we've seen either an abrupt end to being in the public eye in the case of George the Third or a determination not to have the heir to take on too many royal duties in the case of Queen Victoria," says Harris.

That abrupt end of public visibility for George III — the subject of the film The Madness of King George — came with the declaration of a regency in 1811.

Queen Elizabeth was out and about the week before the Remembrance Sunday ceremony, attending the reopening of the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia at the British Museum in London on Nov. 8, 2017. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/Reuters)

"All these arrangements are being made with the blessing of the Queen, who is above all pragmatic about the need to hand over duties to her eldest son as she steps back — but emphatically not down," says Smith.

Junor says she thinks Elizabeth is also very content with the succession.

"I think she's in a very good place. I don't think that's been true over the years because I think she's probably been anxious about what would happen if she was to die because Charles had been so unpopular and there was the Camilla question and William didn't look 100 per cent sold on being a royal prince, but all these anxieties have gone."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.