As one royal era ended and another began, it was a tale of two crowds: One, vast and unanimous, seeing off the old monarch. Another, smaller and more skeptical, greeting the new one with a mixture of curiosity and caution.
Down by the gates of Buckingham Palace on Friday, where thousands of people shuffled through a tight-packed yet warm-hearted mob to place a bouquet along the gold-leaf fence, the crowd was pretty much unanimous in its feeling: “It’s just absolute love and respect for a great woman, isn’t it?” asked Sally Allison-Grey, 60, who’d come in from Bristol. Many said they weren’t even particularly monarchists, but all shared a limitless admiration for the woman who’d held the job for 70 years.
A few hundred metres away, a different crowd was gathered along the road leading through Green Park into the palace, wondering what all the police were preparing for. Suddenly, a motorcade appeared, at its centre an ancient vehicle bearing the royal ensign, whose big rear windows framed two well-known silhouettes.
“Oh hey look, there’s Prince Ch… Oh Lord, it’s King Charles now, isn’t it?” said South Londoner Rolly Parkham, 48. “I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to calling him that – I just don’t think I can do it,” remarked his friend Chris Hatton, 51.
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Few spoke ill of King Charles, whose 73 years have been an exercise in waiting, or of his wife, Camilla, who is now Queen Consort. And some genuinely were fans, expressing admiration for his organic-food business and humanitarian causes.
But it was hard to find anyone who would express the sort of devotion and unquestioning admiration his mother received when she inherited the crown in 1952, to say nothing of the outpouring of love after her death. Charles is a celebrity in Britain, but often for reasons related to his personal life or his political and business views, not as a national figurehead. Charles does not generally attract big crowds of admirers – his past few tours of Canada, including one this summer, have attracted numbers ranging from a few hundred to a few dozen.
The irony could not have been lost on Charles that the heaps of flowers and stuffed animals being deposited at the gates of Buckingham Palace (and at the gates of Windsor Castle, St. James’s Palace and other royal houses) is a form of mourning that was originally a spontaneous invention by the British people to express their grief at the death of his first wife, Diana, in 1997.
Queen Elizabeth had initially found the displays distasteful, and had to be persuaded, belatedly, to visit the scene. Now, in an inevitable turn of events, she is the recipient of this ritual.
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The reaction to the concept of the new King, among those paying respects to his mother, ranged from exasperated resignation to begrudging respect, but often the subject of Diana came up. “We’re Diana-and-Elizabeth monarchists,” Esther Liu, 26, said of her circle of London friends. “It’s the people we love, not the title.”
That skeptical view of the new King was even more evident on Friday evening in the rainy grounds outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, where a moving memorial service took place inside and people outside waited to hear an address Charles had recorded earlier that day.
While the speech impressed the crowd – especially his acknowledgment of his estranged son and daughter-in-law, Harry and Meghan in California – many remarked on one specific line: “It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply.”
Those “charities and issues” have frequently put him in the public eye over the past decades; they range from his high-volume supermarket luxury-food business (officially a branch of his charity, the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Fund) to his infamous lobbying of MPs around his favourite issues to his attempts to have modern architecture outlawed in London.
This year, he was often in the headlines for his charities’ fundraising endeavours, which have often appeared to have political motives. In June, he announced that his charity would no longer accept large cash donations, after newspapers revealed – and he did not deny – that it had received €3-million in cash from a Qatari sheik “stuffed in a small suitcase.” In July, the prince’s office acknowledged that his charity had received a million-pound donation from the family of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in 2013.
Friday’s tasteful and popular-minded events were an evident effort to move beyond those scandals and project a more regal and impartial character, such as his mother’s – and many people here were open to the idea.
“I have great love for the Queen and I came here for her,” said Callum Taylor, 27, who took the train in from the northern city of Preston to lay a bouquet of yellow roses, “but I can’t really get all that excited about Charles. But I say, let’s give him a chance and let him get on with it.”