LONDON — For many, Queen Elizabeth II is synonymous with the British monarchy. But as the country celebrated its figurehead reaching 70 years on the throne, she set the stage for what will come next.
The highly popular head of state is the first to celebrate such an advanced anniversary, as well as the only monarch most in the United Kingdom have ever known. She has helped guide Britain through the end of its colonial empire, the Cold War, social upheaval, Brexit and now the Covid pandemic.
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In a statement marking her platinum jubilee last Saturday, the queen thanked the British public and reflected on reaching the milestone.
She also added a surprise message that looked ahead to life after she is gone, saying she wants her son Prince Charles' wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, to be known as the “queen consort” when he takes the throne.
While the timing of the announcement was somewhat unexpected, the content was less so, according to the royal historian Sarah Gristwood, author of "The Tudors in Love."
“We have to remember looking at events of the last few years, the queen’s wish above all will be to leave the monarchy in a good place for her successor,” she told NBC News. “Until really very recently, it must have looked like she’d have been able to do that.”
The platinum jubilee comes at a tumultuous time for the royal family. Prince Andrew, the queen’s second son, is facing a civil sexual abuse lawsuit in the United States over allegations he has repeatedly denied. Her grandson Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, stepped away from royal life accusing the family of racism and neglect, which the royals have denied.
In addition to the scandals, the queen gave Britain a stark reminder of her own advancing age last fall when she spent a night in the hospital and was forced to pull out of several high-profile events, on the advice of doctors. That came after Prince Philip, her husband of 73 years, died last April at age 99.
While these may be the latest challenges to hit the royals, the queen was in many ways drawing a line under the saga that consumed Britain for much of the 1990s.
Many still blame Camilla, 74, for the very messy and public divorce of Charles and his first wife, Diana. When Charles and Camilla married in 2005, they said that she would not use Diana’s title, Princess of Wales.
While royal watchers have long assumed that she would ultimately end up being referred to as queen when Charles assumes the throne, the long shadow of that scandal and the absence of any clear word from the palace meant it remained in doubt — until now.
Last weekend's announcement was likely carefully considered and calculated, according to royal historians and experts.
“The royal family was taking advantage of the goodwill felt toward Elizabeth II at this time marking accession,” said Ed Owens, a royal historian and the author of “The Family Firm.”
“Just as politicians bury bad news stories under good news stories, so the royal family used this happy moment in the life of the queen to push through this other decision.”
Camilla has taken on a greater role in the royal family in recent years, and has gradually rehabilitated her image.
While she often receives positive coverage in Britain's notoriously vicious tabloids, to many U.K. residents “Camilla will always be the other woman,” Gristwood said, referring to Diana's words in an infamous BBC interview about her unhappy marriage.
Regardless of the public’s feelings for Camilla, after the queen's death a good portion of royal responsibilities will rest on her shoulders, along with Charles, Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.
Despite her advanced age, the queen in her statement renewed her 1947 pledge to "always be devoted to your service" and plans to resume her normal duties over the coming weeks and months, according to a Buckingham Palace source.
But as she enters the final years of her reign, she likely sees it as her responsibility to prepare Britain for the next royal era.
“She’s deeply realistic about the fact she’s not going to be around forever,” Gristwood said. “Thinking about ensuring the succession is what the monarchy does."