What Happens If King Charles Can’t Work?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

In a bid for transparency, Buckingham Palace announced on Monday that King Charles III had been diagnosed with “a form of cancer” and would temporarily be stepping back from his “public-facing duties.” Though officials declined to release details, they claimed the king “remains wholly positive about his treatment,” which is already underway.

And that’s pretty much it: Beyond scant details, the firm is staying predictably quiet. The king’s sister, Princess Anne, ignored a reporter’s questions about his health while visiting a community center on Tuesday. His oldest son, Prince William, thanked the public for their “kind messages” of support in remarks at a fundraiser on Wednesday evening. The king himself apologized to the nation of Grenada for having to miss its 50th independence anniversary, but otherwise, nothing. A statement from the palace says the king opted to disclose his diagnosis in part to “prevent speculation,” and yet the lack of specifics does leave some questions open — chiefly, what happens if Charles gets too sick to do his job?

Here is what has been reported about the situation, and what it might mean for the monarchy going forward.

What kind of cancer does Charles have?

Not prostate, according to Buckingham Palace; that’s the only concrete detail it has released on the king’s diagnosis. In its initial statement, the palace explained that when Charles went to the hospital with an enlarged prostate in January, testing on that ultimately benign condition turned up “a form of cancer” in an unspecified location.

How advanced is it?

That’s also unclear. Shortly after the news broke, Prince Harry, Charles’s youngest son, hopped on a plane to see his father, suggesting to some that the situation might be serious. (Though he returned to California within 24 hours.) At the same time, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claimed the cancer had “been caught early,” an inference he apparently made from the palace’s note praising the king’s “medical team for their swift intervention.” According to that statement, he’ll “continue to undertake State business and official paperwork as usual” during his treatment. Per the University College London, that means he’ll keep up with his constitutional duties as king — giving royal assent to laws, receiving senior officials, reviewing his red box — but will sit out public appearances for now. On Wednesday, for example, he kept his weekly meeting with Sunak but opted to phone in rather than do it in person. All of which indicates that, for now at least, the king will more or less carry on with his work as usual — just with fewer ribbon cuttings.

And just hypothetically, what happens if the king can’t king?

At the same time, cancer is a disease with highly variable outcomes, and there’s presently no knowing how the king’s case might develop. But should he become incapacitated, there are provisions in place to make sure the crown’s bases stay covered.

If treatment means he’s temporarily unable to work, preselected counselors of state would step in, as designated by the Regency Act 1937. The counselors of state are already in place: Queen Camilla, Prince William, Princess Anne, and Prince Edward. Typically, the responsibility falls to the royal spouse and the next four people in line for the throne, provided they’re older than 21. That would technically include the king’s younger son, Prince Harry, and brother, Prince Andrew, but neither of them are working royals anymore. (Harry, because he relinquished the role in favor of a move to America, and Andrew, because his mother stripped him of the title due to the allegations of rape and child sex abuse lodged against him.) In December 2022, Charles gave his assent to a bill adding his sister and youngest brother to the roster, heading off any potentially sticky situations. Should he opt to mobilize them — and at present, it doesn’t look like he has — the counselors would take over the bulk of the king’s daily duties: signing things, keeping appointments, and “receiving ambassador credentials,” per the UCL — basically, all the routine items. More significant tasks such as dissolving Parliament, appointing a prime minister, creating a peerage, and acting as head of the commonwealth are off the table.

That’s the protocol for a temporary absence; should the king become incapacitated — which is to say, so sick that he could not fulfill his duties as monarch — a more permanent solution would come into play: Acting as regent, William would assume his father’s functions. As for incapacity, that would be determined by Camilla, in conjunction with a handful of high-ranking lords and MPs, on the advice of the king’s doctors. But, just to emphasize, none of the available information indicates that’s an imminent possibility

What happens in the case of abdication?

Which makes the hypothetical question of eventual abdication even more speculative. Generally speaking, the option to step down would be open to the king: His great-uncle Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 in order to marry his divorcée girlfriend, the Nazi sympathizer Wallis Simpson. More recently, and more successfully in terms of public opinion, Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II abdicated in favor of her son, Crown Prince Frederik, purportedly because the time felt right but maybe also, if you believe certain Danish gossips, to paper over rumors of a royal affair.

While Margrethe’s abdication went over reasonably well, Edward’s did not and is actually the entire reason the Regency Act exists: When Charles’s grandfather abruptly became king, a 10-year-old Elizabeth suddenly found herself heir to the throne. Given the legacy of scandal and tumult abdication holds within the family, and given that (as Politico notes) Charles recently vowed to stay in the job he waited decades to assume “throughout the remaining time God grants” him, it does not seem like a likely outcome.

What do we know about “Big Willy”?

First of all, only his wife — Princess Catherine, the royal formerly known as Kate Middleton, who also happens to be recovering from surgery at the moment — calls him that, and then only in private. It’s Prince William to you, or His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales if you’re feeling formal, or the Duke of Rothesay if you’re in Scotland. Anyway: William is 41 years old, has three children — Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and Prince Louis — and one estranged brother, Prince Harry. He was named “World’s Sexiest Bald Man” in a 2021 survey that ran in The Sun. He enjoys sports, specifically tennis (he may have once dropped the f-bomb at Wimbledon) and football (he’s president of England’s football association). He might not know how to type, but he does know how to make spaghetti. According to the royal website, he is passionate about a few causes: The environment, ending homelessness, mental health, and the armed forces.

Real royal-heads will of course remember that those last two are also close to Harry’s heart, but for all their apparent differences, the brothers do seem to have a lot of interests in common. In his oversharing memoir, Spare, Harry recalled William once throwing a tantrum over which of them got to “have” Africa and all the continent’s rhinos and elephants. And, yes, William has displayed an aptitude for putting his foot in it on several occasions — insisting that the royals are absolutely “not a racist family” in the wake of his sister-in-law’s emotional Oprah Winfrey interview, for example, or making historically questionable statements on the war in Ukraine. But what plants are to Charles (everything), elephants are to William. His charity, United for Wildlife, has been working to end poaching and the illegal trafficking of animal-derived goods since 2014. That same year, he apparently told Jane Goodall that he would “like to see all the ivory owned by Buckingham Palace destroyed.” Maybe that was what he meant when he once said he plans to be a “modern king”?

What Happens If King Charles Can’t Work?