The Constitution Unit


The British Monarchy: FAQs

A list of some of the frequently asked questions about the British monarchy.

FAQs on the Coronation

What is the monarch’s political and constitutional role?

Although the monarchy no longer has political power, the monarch is still centrally involved in the business of government as head of state. The King appoints the Prime Minister, and all the other ministers; summons and dissolves parliament; and gives royal assent to laws passed by parliament. Each year the King attends the state opening of parliament and delivers the King’s Speech (scripted by the government) announcing the government’s legislative programme for the coming year.

The day-to-day political functions of the monarch involve regular meetings with the Prime Minister, other ministers, and senior officers of state; presiding at meetings of the Privy Council; giving audiences to incoming and outgoing ambassadors; and appointing ministers, judges and other senior officials.

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What is the monarch’s ceremonial role?

The King also performs a number of ceremonial roles as head of the nation. These include events such as Trooping the Colour in June, and the annual Remembrance Day ceremony in November. The King makes royal visits all over the country, to open new buildings, to meet groups of volunteers and charity workers, to recognise and reward public service. The King is also Patron of hundreds of charities and voluntary organisations.

The monarch also speaks to and for the nation at times of celebration and crisis. So for example the late Queen welcomed everyone at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics; and the Queen gave a special broadcast to comfort and support people at the start of the Covid epidemic in 2020.

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How is the monarchy regulated by law?

The monarchy is tightly regulated by law and by convention. Laws passed by parliament regulate the rules of succession and the funding of the monarchy. They also prescribe religious tests, provide for deputies in the event of the monarch’s incapacity, and have first abolished and then restored the monarch’s prerogative power to dissolve parliament.

The conventions regulating the conduct of the monarchy are explained in the Cabinet Manual.  The most important are that the monarch appoints as Prime Minister that person most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons; and that in all political matters the monarch acts on the advice of the Prime Minister. The monarch has the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn: rights traditionally exercised in the monarch’s weekly audience with the Prime Minister.

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How much autonomy does that leave the monarch?

King Charles has very little autonomy in his constitutional role as head of state, but rather more in his ceremonial role as head of the nation. Charles introduced some important innovations upon accession: in his televised address to the nation, his tour of the home nations and early meeting with parliament. He can also develop his own style through his patronage of organisations and the institutions he chooses to visit. But in all his actions as head of state, he acts on the advice of the government.

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Will King Charles continue to champion environmental and other causes?

Now that he is King, Charles knows that he has to be politically completely neutral.  He recognised this in the Address he gave to the nation on 9 September, when he said:

My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities. 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.

So far Charles has been a model of political neutrality. In October 2022 he was obliged to accept the Prime Minister’s advice not to attend COP27 , even though he had made the opening address when the UK hosted COP26 in Glasgow. In February 2023, he agreed to meet the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, when she came to Windsor to announce the new post-Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland. He was criticised for doing so; but on both occasions was following ministerial advice.

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What are the monarch’s prerogative powers?

Most of the prerogative powers (the conduct of foreign affairs, making treaties, going to war, making public appointments) are now exercised by ministers. But there are three prerogative powers which remain in the hands of the monarch.  These are the power to appoint and dismiss ministers; to grant royal assent to bills passed by parliament; and to summon, dissolve and prorogue parliament.

The appointment and dismissal of ministers is all done on the advice of the Prime Minister. The grant of royal assent is automatic once a bill has been passed by both Houses of Parliament. The only prerogative power which remains discretionary is the dissolution or prorogation of parliament: the monarch retains discretion to refuse an opportunistic or untimely request.

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How is the monarchy financed?

In 2012, the arrangements for funding the monarchy were fundamentally changed by the Sovereign Grant Act 2011. Funding for the Sovereign Grant comes from a percentage of the profits of the Crown Estate, initially set at 15%. Since 2017-18, the percentage has been increased to 25% to pay for the ten-year refurbishment of Buckingham Palace, costing £370m.

The Sovereign Grant for 2023-24 is £86.3 million – equivalent to £1.25 per head of population. It meets the central staff costs and running expenses of the royal household. It also covers maintenance of the Royal Palaces in England, and the cost of travel to carry out royal engagements. The cost per capita is similar to other European monarchies, where five years ago a majority lay in a band of between € 1.04 and € 2.14 per capita.

Separately, the King receives the profits (currently £20m a year) from the Duchy of Lancaster – a portfolio of land, property and assets. At accession, King Charles lost the equivalent income from the Duchy of Cornwall, which transferred to Prince William. The Duchy of Cornwall is a private landed estate created by Charter in 1337, when Edward III granted it to his son, and all subsequent heirs. The Duchy owns some 130,000 acres which generate an annual income for the Duke of £20m.

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Will King Charles slim down the monarchy?

Charles was reported as wanting to slim down the working members of the royal family long before he became King. A smaller royal family reduces the reputational risk when individuals like Prince Andrew get into trouble, and it could help to reduce costs. But a smaller royal team will mean that the public see less of the royal family, when demand for royal visits already exceeds supply; and any savings will be very small.

In 2018 there were 15 working royals; there are now 11. Seven are full-time working royals, with four older royals who contribute part time. Two are in their 80s, five in their 70s, with only four under the age of 60. So Charles’s wish for a slimmed down royal family is going to happen naturally: quite soon there will be only seven working royals. Countries like Norway (population 5 million) and Denmark (6 million) can manage with a small royal family, with much smaller populations to serve. The UK (population 69 million), is over 10 times the size – and there are the 14 realms, where the British monarch is also head of state (see FAQ 00). So there will need to be careful management of expectations if a smaller royal family means that their people see less of them, at home and overseas.

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How much public support is there for the monarchy?

The opinion polls show that support for the monarchy has remained consistently high.  For the last 40 years support for retaining the monarchy has ranged between 60 and 80%, while support for the UK becoming a republic has typically been around 15 to 20%.  These figures have diminished a little in the last ten years, but are still within this range. Support for the monarchy is much less among younger age groups; but this has always been so, so it appears that people become more supportive as they grow older. Support is equally strong in all the other monarchies of Europe, except for Spain.

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What will happen in the 14 other realms where Charles is due to become King?  Will any of them become Republics?

Australia, Jamaica and Antigua have all declared a wish to become republics. The new Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has created a new ministerial post, of assistant minister for the republic; but he has said a referendum on becoming a republic is not a priority for his first three-year term.

In Antigua and Barbuda the prime minister, Gaston Browne, has said that he will call for a referendum in the next three years. In Jamaica successive prime ministers have promised to lead their country to becoming a republic, but the process of constitutional amendment has prevented them from doing so: it requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of parliament, followed by a referendum.

Australia has a similarly high threshold, but its 1999 referendum disclosed a further layer of difficulty: how to select the new head of state. The proposition that a future president should be chosen by the parliament was defeated by 55:45, because most voters wanted the president to be directly elected by the people, not chosen by the parliament.

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How does the British monarchy compare with other monarchies in Europe?

The British monarchy is similar to the other European monarchies in terms of its constitutional role: all the remaining monarchies have survived by relinquishing any political power. It is larger in terms of the size of the royal family, and the grandeur of ceremonial occasions like the coronation, or the annual state opening of parliament. But that reflects the much larger size of the UK, with a population of almost 70 million; and the British monarch being head of state of 14 other countries around the world. That global reach gives the British monarchy a profile internationally which is not shared by any of the other monarchies.

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Why cannot we have Prince William as King?

Under common law, Prince Charles   automatically became King the moment the Queen died.  Prince William could only become King if Prince Charles chose to abdicate.  That would require legislation, as happened with the Declaration of Abdication Act 1936.  The line of succession is regulated by Parliament (as in the Act of Succession 1700, and the Succession to the Crown Act 2013); it can be changed only by Parliament and cannot be unilaterally altered by the monarch.

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Might King Charles abdicate in favour of William?

That would be a matter for King Charles, and for Parliament.  For the late Queen, abdication was said to be unthinkable, for two reasons.  The first was the bad example of Edward VIII: his abdication brought the Queen’s father onto the throne, unexpectedly and most reluctantly.  The second was her declaration on her twenty-first birthday that she would serve for her whole life whether it be long or short. She was also said to regard her oath at her coronation as imposing a sacred duty to reign as long as she should live. 

King Charles made a similar promise to reign for as long as he lives in his address to the nation after the Queen died.  In that speech he said: ‘As the Queen herself did with such unswerving devotion, I too now solemnly pledge myself, throughout the remaining time God grants me, to uphold the constitutional principles at the heart of our nation’.

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Don’t other European monarchs abdicate on a regular basis?

Some do, some don’t.  In the Netherlands the last three Queens have abdicated when they reached the age of around 70.  In Belgium, King Albert II abdicated in 2013, at the age of 79, handing on the throne to his son King Philippe (53).  In Spain, King Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014, at the age of 76, to be succeeded by his son Felipe (46).  Emperor Akihito of Japan (84) had to wait for a new law to be passed before he could abdicate in 2019.

But the Scandinavian monarchies do not practise abdication.  King Harald of Norway, who reached the age of 80 in 2017, said “I took an oath on the Norwegian constitution. For me, this oath applies to my entire life”.  Similarly, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark (aged 80 in 2020, and recently widowed) has said “I will remain on the throne until I fall off”.  King Karl XVI of Sweden was born in April 1946.

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Which other European monarchies have a coronation?

None of the other European monarchies have a coronation. Belgium and the Netherlands have never had one; Denmark, Norway and Sweden discontinued theirs from 1840, 1906 and 1873 respectively; and there have been no coronations in Spain since medieval times.

There are several reasons why the Scandinavian countries gave up having a coronation:

  • Denmark had had an absolute monarchy from 1660 whose latest King had been crowned in 1840. Following unrest in 1848, he agreed to changes in the constitution that produced Parliamentary democracy from 1849.  There seems never to have been a positive decision, for example by the Danish parliament, to abolish coronations as such. Rather, it appears to have been accepted tacitly and without formality that coronations were not compatible with the modernised constitution.
  • Sweden ceased to continue with coronations after 1873 on grounds of expense.
  • Norway’s last coronation was in 1906 after it had separated from Sweden. The requirement to have a coronation was then deleted from the Norwegian constitution. While a church service marks changes of monarch, there is no crowning.
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What happens if King Charles becomes so old and infirm that he cannot perform his royal duties?

That would lead to a regency, with Prince William (as the next in line of succession) becoming Regent. The Regency Acts 1937 and 1953 established a procedure for declaring that the King has become incapable by reason of infirmity of mind or body. The people who can make a declaration of incapacity are at least any three of the Queen Consort (Camilla), the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Chief Justice, and the Master of the Rolls.  Any declaration of incapacity needs to be supported by medical evidence.

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Why doesn’t the UK become a republic?

  • This would be for Parliament endorsed by a referendum to decide.
  • Some of the Commonwealth countries where the UK sovereign was also their monarch (the realms) have become republics (Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Ghana, South Africa, The Gambia, and Guyana) and others have held unsuccessful referendums to do so (Australia, Tuvalu, St Vincent and the Grenadines); but there are still 14 Commonwealth countries that remain realms. It is likely that a number of the realms may look at the possibility after the death of the present Queen, who has always made it clear that the decision is entirely for the countries themselves.
  • In Britain support for a republic has rarely exceeded 20 per cent, and support for the monarchy has rarely dropped below 80 per cent.
  • Apart from the current continuing popularity of the monarchy, it is thought the lack of support for a republic in the UK is associated with the fact that, for most intents and purposes, the UK already possesses all the attributes of a republic except for retaining an hereditary head of state. Bagehot thought that in 1867 ‘A Republic has insinuated itself beneath the folds of a Monarchy’ ; and Tennyson called the UK ‘a crowned republic’ in 1873.
  • None of this means that the UK will never become an explicit republic but it is difficult at present to foresee the circumstances in which it might happen. In modern times monarchies have been overthrown following revolution (France), catastrophic loss or devastation in war (Germany, Italy and Yugoslavia) or as the result of military coup (Greece).
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