LONDON — Aging monarchs in the Netherlands and Belgium stepped down this year to make room for the next generation of Europe’s crowned heads. But in Britain, the birth in the coming days of a royal baby will have heirs stacking up like so many planes at London Heathrow International Airport.
So with Queen Elizabeth II, at 87 and with 61 years on the throne, perhaps it is no surprise that the “A-word” is floating around these isles.
There is no sign that One is heading for the gilded doors, and those close to her dismiss any suggestion of the queen as a quitter, saying she will never go the way of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Yet, as the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, 92, confront health problems and with a third direct heir on the way, chatter about a royal retirement has rarely been louder.
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“Will the Queen abdicate?” Britain’s Guardian newspaper asked with casual bluntness after Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands called it a day after 33 years on the throne.
The paper went on to wonder whether, after “years of smiling and waving and keeping shtoom (silent) while gaffes abound around her,” is it time for Queen Elizabeth II to finally “relax with the corgis?”
With the British monarch’s first great-grandchild due any day, London-based YouGov published a poll last month showing those who wanted the queen to serve for life stood at 60 percent.
Even Lord John Prescott, a former member of the Privy Council that advises the monarch, penned an opinion piece in the Sunday Mirror, supposedly about a “friend” who felt the queen was “overburdening herself” and deserved “to break convention and consider enjoying a long and fulfilling retirement.”
By at least one measure — international travel — the queen is unquestionably slowing down. Eyebrows arched across Britain in May when Buckingham Palace announced she would, for the first time in 40 years, skip her biennial trip abroad to address leaders of her far-flung realms, including Australia and Canada. It would please Her Royal Highness to instead send her son Prince Charles, the longest waiting monarch-to-be in British history.
The decision came as she and the nation await the arrival of her first great-grandchild, whose birth will mark the first time a reigning British monarch has had the security of three direct heirs on standby.
It is known that the baby will be known as the Prince (or Princess) of Cambridge, and that, because of recent changes in the law of royal succession, she (or he) will be the third in line to the throne, after Prince Charles, 64, and William, 31, thus booting Prince Harry down to fourth place. (It could take some time for this future monarch to become the current monarch).
Royal biographer Robert Lacey said he found it hard to believe the queen would retire, particularly while her husband, recovering from an abdominal operation, is still alive. And yet, Lacey noted, the royal lineup of the Queen, Charles, William and baby “isn’t just statistical.”
“It really increases the likelihood that the queen will do what was once thought unthinkable and abdicate and step down,” he said. “To be cynical about it, I can see demands growing for it, you know, ‘Give Charles a chance,’ that sort of thing.”
For all the talk of retirement, there is no doubting the queen’s popularity.
She is seen as a constant in a fast-changing world, a celebrity of rare decorum in an age of reality-show trash.
In her youth, she stood as symbol of the stalwart British spirit in the aftermath of World War II. And now, in her winter, many say, she is setting an example by balancing public duty and an aging body to surprisingly robust effect.
She still regularly delights in horseback riding on the grounds of Windsor Castle, and she let down her guard at the Ascot races this year in a burst of joy when her own horse won.
Although the queen is reducing her overseas schedule, in 2012 — the year she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee commemorating 60 years on the throne — she hit no fewer than 425 domestic engagements, compared to 325 the year before.
And yet there is also no denying, observers say, that a changing of the guard is taking place. Charles and Camilla accompanied the queen to the state opening of Parliament this year.
The expectant parents, William and Kate — formally the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — represented the queen on a tour of Asia and the South Pacific. And even Prince Harry stood in for the queen on a tour of Belize, the Bahamas, Jamaica and Brazil.
Washington Post staff writer Karla Adam contributed to this report.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.