King Charles is not expected to need to rely on his Counsellors of State as he undergoes a “corrective procedure” for an enlarged prostate this week, but the news on January 17 that the King would be hospitalized for the treatment actually uncovered something interesting that everybody heretofore had missed. Charles’ younger brother, Prince Andrew, and youngest son, Prince Harry, were quietly removed as Counsellors of State on November 21, 2022, when it was revealed in the House of Lords that the Royal Household confirmed that, in practice, only “working members of the royal family will be called on to act of Counsellors of State.” The specific bill (Counsellors of State Bill 2022-23) became law in December 2022 and added Charles’ other two siblings, Princess Anne and Prince Edward, as Counsellors of State instead—an appointment that is for life, even if Charles dies before them and the Crown passes to Prince William. “The ‘working members’ stipulation largely flew under the radar—until now,” People reports.
It was an unusual week when it comes to the health of senior royals—in addition to Charles’ health issue, the Princess of Wales has also been hospitalized since January 16 for a “planned abdominal surgery,” and will be off royal duties until at least April. William will also be taking time off to care for his wife, leaving Queen Camilla as the only one of the four most senior working royals that will still be undertaking public duties for the foreseeable future.
It made those interested in the royal family look closer at the Counsellors of State—a position normally afforded to the spouse of the monarch (Camilla) and the first four people in the line of succession over the age of 21; Counsellors of State can be called on to help manage the monarchy in a time of need, be it because of a temporary incapacity or the monarch’s absence from the U.K. Technically, Charles’ Counsellors of State are William, Harry, Andrew, and Beatrice, but Beatrice too was removed from consideration as she is also not a working royal. Because three of those four individuals are now nullified from serving in this capacity, Anne and Edward—both working royals—were added.
The BBC reported that the Counsellors of State bill was “fast-tracked” through Parliament to avoid a potential “awkward constitutional problem” for the King. The royal family’s website outlines that two or more Counsellors of State would be required to come together to act on the King’s behalf and could pursue duties like attending Privy Council meetings, signing documents, and receiving credentials of new ambassadors to the U.K. As it was, William was the only one that fit the requirements of Counsellor of State, but that problem was solved when Anne and Edward were added.
Harry stepped back voluntarily as a senior working royal in January 2020 and relocated to the U.S.; Andrew was forced to resign in January 2022 after Queen Elizabeth stripped him of his military titles and patronages because of his association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Beatrice was never a full-time working royal. The Times initially discovered, in the wake of this week’s events, that Harry and Andrew’s Counsellor of State eligibility was quietly nullified just two months after Charles took the throne.
“Two of those Counsellors of State are needed,” constitutional law expert Dr. Craig Prescott, whose particular field of expertise includes the British monarchy, told The Mirror. “Ordinarily, you might expect Prince William to be one of those people, with someone else. Now we know that Prince William isn’t around. We know that Prince Harry is in America. Prince Andrew doesn’t do public duties, neither does Princess Beatrice, which is why they added Princess Anne and Prince Edward last year. And so, if Counsellors of State were needed, Princess Anne and Prince Edward would be able to act.”
For example, when Queen Elizabeth underwent knee surgery in 2003, Counsellors of State stepped in, Prescott said. That said, the King is expected to be fully capable of fulfilling his constitutional requirements and duties even amidst his health issue, and the Counsellors of State are not expected to be called upon.
“[Charles] is healthy—he will be able to read the contents of the Red Boxes from his bed, talk to others, as well as the Prime Minister,” royal biographer Marlene Koenig told The Daily Express. “He can meet with the PM virtually—Zoom or a telephone call.”
It calls into question Charles’ desire for a slimmed-down monarchy, where there are fewer working royals than in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. “It shows you don’t want a ‘slimmed-down’ monarchy,” royal expert Richard Fitzwilliams told Us Weekly. “Only four [people] are under 70 as it is.”