Will Kate and William's baby trigger a royal retirement? Queen Elizabeth faces age-old question

LONDON – Two European monarchs have abdicated this year in favor of their offspring: Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and, last week, King Albert II of Belgium, who explained his decision by saying, "I am old and sick."

Prince Charles and his mother Queen Elizabeth II on June 18. Mark Cuthbert / Getty Images Contributor

Those changes have thrown the spotlight onto Britain, and the perennial question there: Will Queen Elizabeth II break tradition and hand over to her son, Prince Charles?

Is there pressure on her to do so? Part of the answer is provided by a recent Royal Central poll, in which 83 percent out of 1,000 British people surveyed said the 87-year-old queen should not abdicate due to old age.

Queen Elizabeth sometimes appears frail, but is said by palace insiders to be in robust health, and shows every sign she'll follow her mother into centenarian territory.

So 64-year-old Charles, already the longest heir-apparent in British history, could be in his 80s before he becomes monarch.

Moreover, Charles, the Prince of Wales and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, have been dramatically sidelined in the public's consciousness by his offspring, representing a more exciting, younger generation. The same poll found that at 28 percent, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge – known to millions simply as Kate – is the most popular member of the royal family, beating out the queen, a close second, with 27 percent. Prince Harry is the third most popular with 16 percent.

And anticipation is building around the expected birth of Kate's baby, which, regardless of gender, will be become third in line to the throne after Charles and William.


Yet outside the Lindo wing of St. Mary's Hospital in London, where Kate is expected to give birth, respect and affection for the monarchy is taking second place, for the time being, to more common-place publicity stunts.

A Queen Elizabeth lookalike, posing for the bored photographers, was bundled away by policemen who, like Queen Victoria, were not amused.

A British magazine set up a tent with a design of the British flag and handed out free issues.

An artist posed one day with a painting of the Duchess of Cambridge, and the next of a naked President Obama.

All want free publicity from the waiting media who are solicited by some yet sometimes insulted by others. A photographer quoted as elderly lady who shouted at him, "Why don't you get a real ******* job?"

Dutch Queen Beatrix toasts with King Albert II of Belgium at Laeken Royal Castle during a gala dinner. The Belgian monarch announced on July 3 that he would abdicate on July 21, three months after the abdication of Queen Beatrix. Didier Lebrun / AFP - Getty Images, file

It's an old question in Britain: Is the royal family a revered icon of the land, or has it become a tiresome soap opera that exists only to promote British business interests overseas and sell curios at home? The queen's husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, has often referred to the family as "The Firm."

Meanwhile, even the smallest royal detail is the subject of rumor. The latest? The royal gynecologist is reportedly eschewing alcohol to make sure he has a steady hand when called upon.

Gifts for the family are bounteous too, and include a gift box from the government of Finland - the same gift box given to the parents of all newborns there - which includes everything from baby clothes to condoms. A palace spokesman said, “It was a very thoughtful gesture and we’re very grateful for it. I’m sure the duke and duchess will be very interested to see the contents.”

Martin Fletcher is a longtime NBC News correspondent and author.