8 Reasons Queen Elizabeth II Never Stepped Down from the Throne
Before her passing, there were questions as to whether Queen Elizabeth would ever step down from the throne. Here's why that never happened.
Editor’s note: Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, who sat on the throne for 70 years, has died at 96 years old. In a statement on Sept. 8, 2022, the Royal Family website writes, “The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon. The King and The Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow.” The Reader’s Digest team sends our condolences to the royal family and all of Britain at this time as we honor her life and legacy.
Why didn’t Queen Elizabeth ever step down from the throne?
It seems a fair question to ask. After all, Queen Elizabeth II served as monarch of the United Kingdom for more than 70 years, longer than any other monarch in the history of Britain. Plus, she lost the love of her life, Prince Philip, in 2021 and lived to her mid-90s, before passing away at 96. (Here are all the details about her funeral.) Wouldn’t it have made sense for her to step aside to make room for the next person on the royal family tree, her eldest child, now King Charles III? While retirement might seem like a logical next step for an average person, Queen Elizabeth was anything but average. Here are the reasons Queen Elizabeth never gave up the throne.
Queen Elizabeth was dedicated to the people of Great Britain
Even before she started her reign, young Queen Elizabeth made a promise on her 21st birthday in 1947 to the people of the United Kingdom. “I declare before you all, that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” she stated in a radio address from Cape Town, South Africa.
In the 75 ensuing years, Elizabeth never wavered in her devotion to the British people. In fact, she renewed her lifelong commitment on numerous occasions, most recently during her address on the 70th anniversary of her accession day, in February of this year. “My life will always be devoted to your service,” she said, recalling her 1947 pledge.
“Queen” is not a job title but a state of being
Being queen was not merely a job for Queen Elizabeth II, it was who she was. Like other monarchs, she wasn’t elected, hired or appointed ruler. Because the British monarchy is a “constitutional monarchy,” the order of succession to the throne is dictated by law; it is strictly hereditary and has long been associated with an “absolute right to rule” for the duration of the monarch’s life. The fact that the British monarch is also the highest-ranking member of the Church of England lends credence to the notion of the monarch’s “divine appointment,” which is another way of expressing the concept of the absolute right to rule.
Abdication is a drastic step
Abdication isn’t merely retiring or taking a step back from duties, it means renouncing the throne. When King Edward VIII, Queen Elizabeth’s uncle, abdicated in 1936, he set off a constitutional crisis that threatened the very existence of the monarchy. Perhaps no one understood that better than Elizabeth, who had a front-row seat to the drama; after Edward abdicated, Queen Elizabeth’s father, George VI, became king and Elizabeth his heir. It’s likely that this upheaval helped to inspire Elizabeth’s well-known loyalty and devotion to the United Kingdom.
No British monarch has ever abdicated due to advanced age
If Queen Elizabeth had abdicated, it could have been interpreted that being queen was a job to be done, as opposed to the state of her existence to be embraced. Point of fact: The queen’s former lady-in-waiting and longtime friend, Lady Pamela Hicks, shared in February of this year that the queen was “shocked” when Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands abdicated in favor of her daughter in 1948. As Hicks explained, Elizabeth knew even then that she could never abdicate, because doing so is inconsistent with the religious doctrine of the Church of England.
Prince Charles is not exactly young himself
Even if the queen had abdicated due to her advanced age, the fact is that her heir was of retirement age himself; born in 1948, the now King Charles III is already well into his 70s. In the opinion of some palace insiders, the public perceives Prince Charles as too old to be king. Whether that is true or fair to say, the bottom line is that had the queen stepped down in favor of her eldest son, it would have had the effect of merely replacing one elderly monarch with another.
The royal duties were delegated to the younger generation
Ever since the late Prince Philip retired from his duties in 2017, the queen was accompanied at many public events by Prince Charles. In 2020, the queen began delegating more and more of her duties to her children and grandchildren, and more public events were attended by Prince Charles, Prince William and Kate Middleton, or some combination of the three. The queen did not need to take the extreme action of abdicating, as she was able to take the smaller step of sharing her duties with the younger royals.
What if the queen had become unable to rule?
In the event that Queen Elizabeth could not have actually acted as queen, such as in the case of severe illness, a regency with Charles as Prince Regent would have been formed. In order for that to have happened, according to the Constitution Unit of the University College London’s (UCL) School of Public Policy, medical evidence would have been required and three out of the following people would have had to agree to declare her incapacitated: the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls.
What happened was less official as Charles assumed a greater number of her public engagements and increased decision-making power behind the scenes, says Carolyn Harris, PhD, historian and author of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting. The then-Prince of Wales, along with William and Kate, undertook overseas travel to the Commonwealth on the queen’s behalf, notes Harris.
The British people adore her
Though her popularity took a nosedive during the 1990s in the Princess Diana era—a fact that The Crown Season 5 trailer highlights—Queen Elizabeth’s popularity was at an all-time high—75%—before her passing, according to a YouGov poll of Britain. Indeed, some loyal subjects queued up in a reported five-mile-long line for up to 30 hours to pay their last respects at the queen’s coffin as she lay in state at Westminster Hall preceding her funeral.
- Legislation.gov.uk: “Regency Act 1937”
- Royal.uk: “21st Birthday Speech”
- YouGov: “Queen Elizabeth II”
- Carolyn Harris, PhD, historian, and author of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting