It was a changing of the guard unprecedented in British history. No monarch had sat on the throne longer than Queen Elizabeth II, and no heir had spent more time in waiting than King Charles III.
The death of Charles's "darling Mama," as he put it shortly after her passing in September, jolted a nation already consumed by crisis. That autumn, the economy was pounded by Brexit, the pandemic and Russia's war in Ukraine, not to mention a new prime minister whose government wouldn't last much longer than the official period of mourning.
Now, as Charles prepares to formally accept St. Edward's Crown during a service Saturday at Westminster Abbey, the feeling that the realm is in free fall has subsided. The memory of Liz Truss's political implosion is fading as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak oversees a restoration of relative calm. The disarray gripping the pro-independence Scottish National Party in Edinburgh has defused for the time being the threat that the kingdom will break up.
Still, a deeper malaise persists, focused on crumbling public services, a record slump in living standards and the loss of global clout. The Royal Family is feuding, if not in public, certainly on newspaper front pages. Such unease provides the backdrop to Charles's coronation, a ceremony little changed for 1,000 years. His reign could leave the Royal Family in a very different place in modern Britain.
The 74-year-old king is aware of the stakes, judging by the statements, appearances and decrees of his first seven months on the throne. In his maiden Christmas broadcast — an event Queen Elizabeth often used for studiously apolitical observations about the change of year — Charles recognized that his subjects were struggling to "pay their bills, and keep their families fed and warm."
The broadcast was complete with clips of Britons queuing at food banks, an issue at the center of the accusations and recriminations between Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer in Parliament. The intention was clear: to portray a monarch who understands the public's suffering, and gets that the country is changing.
Yet the outreach also betrayed the tension at the heart of his mission: how to seem in touch while maintaining the dignity of the institution. Appearing stiff in a navy blue suit in front of a giant Christmas tree, with an unmistakably upper-class accent, makes the common touch a tough sell. Charles's plan for a shorter coronation procession and scaled back guest list are a nod to the difficult optics.
It's not the first time that a monarchy that can trace its origins back to the ninth century has grappled with national crisis. Elizabeth's coronation in 1953 took place with Britain still rationing food after World War II and the Empire falling apart.
"I would just underline that the monarchy provides, with the constitution, a degree of long-term stability that is actually quite hard to come by in any other way," Princess Anne, Charles's sister, told Canada's CBC News, in the run-up to the coronation.
While the economic mood has lightened in recent months and the pace of inflation has slowed, UK growth remains sluggish and the country is reexamining its role in the world after cutting ties to the European Union. The question now is whether Charles can successfully lead the monarchy through the current transition.
Expectations for his reign have improved over the past year, with 59% of respondents to a YouGov poll released Wednesday saying he would be a good king, compared with 32% a year earlier. Still, Charles hasn't enjoyed the personal enthusiasm felt for either his late mother or 40-year-old son, Prince William, and support for the monarchy among younger people has softened.
Some 77% of people 65 or older back the institution, YouGov found, largely unchanged from a decade ago. But less than one-third of people aged 18 to 24 favor keeping the monarchy, about half as many in that age group as did 10 years ago.
"That does make for a wavering and dwindling support," said Anna Whitelock, professor of the history of monarchy at City University in London. "The question is whether he changes the monarchy in any meaningful way."
Graham Smith, the leader of monarchy-abolition group Republic, said support for his organization was rising, with donations expected to almost triple to £300,000 ($380,000) this year. He's planning a demonstration in London on the day of the coronation, with around 1,000 people expected to wear yellow t-shirts and chant "Not My King."
"Some of the lack of support for the monarchy is personal to him, Charles, some of it is personal to her, Elizabeth, because she was the monarchy," he said. "Some people see it as a bit odd carrying on without her."
Although Charles's popularity has largely recovered from its nadir in the 1990s, when accusations of infidelity and later divorce from Princess Diana damaged his reputation, he remains a divisive figure. His public campaigning on causes such as stopping climate change and defending traditional architectural aesthetics have earned him praise and while drawing criticism from people who believe the crown should stay far from away politics.
"There is quite a lot of baggage," Whitelock said. "Some people see him as something as a prophet on climate change, but now he is limited as a constitutional monarch in what he can say and do."
The Netflix series The Crown and the tabloid drama over Charles's second son, Prince Harry, and his American wife, Meghan Markle, have also made it harder for the king to frame the monarchy as an open-minded institution focused on public service. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have aired their grievances in recent months in their own Netflix series, and in Harry's autobiography, Spare.
Perhaps most damaging to the monarchy's future, Harry accused his older brother of shouting at him and even shoving him in one argument over Meghan in 2019. Harry, who has withdrawn from official duties and moved to California, is scheduled to attend the coronation. Meghan is not expected to come.
The fallout hasn't yet noticeably hurt the popularity of William or his wife, Princess Kate, with some 72% of respondents to the YouGov poll report a positive opinion of the Prince of Wales, compared with 29% for Harry. But the risk is that further revelations muddy the picture, or foster indifference.
"People who support the institution of the monarchy are very pro-William and want him to regenerate it, but you need Charles to get there and not mess it up," said Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank which compiled a report on the monarchy's role in society. "That's from people who care. Polling shows us that people don't really care one way or the other."
Fiona Doyle, 36, describes herself as "pretty much indifferent" and is not planning to celebrate the coronation, and nor are any of her friends. The insurance worker said her collection of commemorative coronation mugs as "ironic" and displays them as kitsch decoration.
"The only members of the Royal Family I quite like are William and Kate," said the insurance worker from Walthamstow in northwest London. "They gaze at each other, even though they've been married a long time."
Charles has sought to slim down the monarchy and portray it as aware of modern sensitivity. His decision to back research into the monarchy's links to the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries was seen as a signal a sensitivity to growing calls, especially among younger people, for a deeper examination of the role of race and racism in the origins of Western institutions.
For all the coronation skeptics, it is still statistically more likely to meet a monarchist on Britain's streets than a naysayer. About 58,000 people have signed up for digital packs for ideas for coronation street parties, with millions expected to join in events around the country, a charity run by the Eden project said. That doesn't include communities marking it independently.
One of them will be Marcus Walker, who despite a broken shoulder is pinning up bunting in the 900-year-old church where he is the Anglican vicar. An ardent monarchist, he's planning three events including a street party, where a vegetarian quiche Charles picked to mark the coronation will be served.
Walker, 42, is rector at St. Bartholomew the Great in central London, which featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The 1994 movie, starring Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell, represents a highly stylized view of a UK steeped in tradition — an image of Britain that in many ways the monarchy still relies on.
The question is how long can it continue to do so.
"The monarchy tells the history of the nation. It tells a story of its people and the glue that holds us together which is even more important the more diverse we get," Walker said. "I feel connected to the people who have gone before, and hopefully to those who will go after me."
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.