The bright smile on her face said it all.
As she spent a second day at the Royal Windsor Horse Show surrounded by family and friends, the Queen was in her element.
Though provisions had been made for the 96-year-old to duck out early if energy levels began to wane, the monarch laughed and clapped right up until the 10:30pm climax of the equine spectacular.
After health issues and the pandemic forced her to spend much of the past two years carrying out engagements and video calls behind closed doors at Windsor Castle, the past week has been one of the first opportunities in years for the Queen to sit at an event alongside the public she serves.
It will have no doubt been a poignant moment for the woman who has lived her reign by the mantra: “We have to be seen to be believed.”
Given that she hasn’t missed the annual horse show even once since its 1943 inception— and the fact it took place just a stone's throw from her home (325 metres, to be exact) — the Queen’s attendance at Windsor Home Park was always likely.
However, it was a different story just four days earlier when it was announced she would be unable to attend the 10 May state opening of the British parliament.
Hampered by “episodic mobility problems” often associated with old age, the one-hour drive and procession into the House of Commons (even without the cumbersome Robes of State, which she last wore in 2019) was too much for the sovereign.
Though there had initially been talk of Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab stepping in to read the Queen’s speech (a similar alternative to when she missed state openings in 1959 and 1963 due to pregnancies), this time there was no doubt in the monarch’s mind that only one man should take on her responsibility.
Prince Charles has stood in for his mother on smaller occasions, but this was his first time taking on a role strictly reserved for the head of “Her Majesty’s Government”.
Dressed in his Admiral of the Fleet uniform with Garter collar and Thistle sash, the regal image of the Prince of Wales sat in the House of Lord’s Chamber was our first real look at the future of the monarchy (though the Queen’s crown beside him served as a reminder that his mother is still the boss).
Palace aides were quick to clarify that, despite the Queen unprecedentedly issuing a Letters Patent for Charles to read her speech, this moment was not the first step towards a regency. After all, the monarch still remains Head of the Armed Forces, Church of England, Commonwealth and more.
But what was shared more quietly by royal sources, is that this moment most definitely served as part of a larger, strategic rollout of plans to normalise the image of the Prince of Wales as king ahead of the day he is coronated.
Prior to today, monarchical responsibilities taken on by Charles have been relatively light or ceremonial —mostly in the form of investitures, laying the Remembrance Sunday wreath and engagements such as the Royal Maundy service and Buckingham Palace garden parties.
Given he’s the longest-serving heir apparent in British history, one might be forgiven for reading this lighter lineup of his mother’s duties as a lack of faith within the institution for his ability to take on the job.
Public seals of approval from the Queen or the late Prince Philip for their son as king have famously been few and far between. In fact, last year’s Cop 26 in Glasgow was one of just a few times the monarch has publicly praised her son, telling world leaders that she “could not be more proud” of Charles’ conservation efforts.
With the Queen now comfortably in the final chapter of her reign, now is the time for Prince Charles to prove he is truly capable of continuing her 70-year legacy (and a final chance to capture the imagination of those still unconvinced).
For it to work, the transition needs to be smooth — and there will certainly be opportunities to achieve that. Though Her Majesty remains as engaged as ever in matters of the state, and her weekly meetings with the Prime Minister continue, the state openings of parliament are now likely to be Charles’ responsibility moving forward. The same, sources tell me, will apply to hosting state visits when they resume.
As the Commonwealth prepares for four days of Platinum Jubilee celebrations (there are already over 1,775 street parties and private events registered in the UK alone), the reality of June possibly being the last time we see the Queen in such a public setting is beginning to set in.
After 70 remarkable years on the throne, the Queen is preparing the final stretch of the path for her son to have a decent chance at continuing her success (a task larger than ever, given the declining popularity of 'the Firm' amongst younger generations and Saturday’s boos for Prince William at the FA Cup Final).
Whether Charles has exactly what it takes will only be seen once he ascends the throne, but one thing is for sure — The Queen has earned every right to conserve her energy for celebratory moments that the nation can enjoy alongside her.
And for the jobs that will help Charles prepare for reign change, the head of 'the Firm' can finally put her feet up. She most definitely deserves it.
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