If there was any consolation for the King last night, it was the news that the Princess of Wales was said to be ‘doing well’ as she recovers from abdominal surgery.
His relief at his daughter-in-law’s progress, however, is tempered by the knowledge that within a few days he, too, will be secluded in hospital as he undergoes a medical procedure for an enlarged prostate.
Ordinarily, at such a moment, his son would be able to take up some of the royal slack. But Prince William has, understandably, put the welfare of his wife and children first and postponed his official engagements.
That the three most important members of the Royal Family – Charles in his position as sovereign, William as heir to the throne and Kate as the monarchy’s most relatable figure — should all be absent from the public stage at the same time is alarming enough.
But what is far more striking — and should also be a cause for concern — is just what these medical emergencies mean for the ability of the House of Windsor to fully function when it is beset by unforeseen setbacks. For, if nothing else, these health alarms have exposed the consequences of a slimmed-down monarchy. Shorn of such dependable figures, even for a short time, they reveal just how empty the royal cupboard is.
Queen Camilla will keep calm and carry on, of course, even if her mind is quite reasonably elsewhere. And Princess Anne is as ever the safest of a safe pair of hands.
More telling perhaps is how quickly a problem can turn into a crisis.
For decades the royals glided serenely through many a difficulty because there were enough of them to deploy. If one family member was indisposed another would seamlessly step in.
But the turbulence of recent years, from Megxit to Prince Andrew’s Epstein crisis and the death of Queen Elizabeth, has put resources under the heaviest of strains.
In private moments, Charles must surely wish he still had the box office draw of Prince Harry to call on. The ‘old’ Harry that is, the fun-loving prince who threw himself into royal duty with a verve and a popularity unmatched by any other family members.
But that was before marriage, self-imposed exile to California and bitter estrangement from his own brother.
Together with the forced exclusion of Prince Andrew as a working royal over the Jeffrey Epstein affair, the absence of Harry and Meghan has done more to slim down the monarchy than any kind of tinkering that Charles himself might once have envisioned.
His dream dating back to the 1990s was founded on a belief that to survive long-term (and to remain relevant) the Royal Family needed to be scaled back to a core of the monarch and his (or her) immediate successors.
The peripheral figures, for so long part of the ritual at moments of national celebration adorning the Buckingham Palace balcony, would simply vanish.
And as the years passed that is exactly what happened.
When the late Queen marked her golden jubilee in 2002, the balcony heaved with royal hangers-on. Fast-forward ten years to her diamond jubilee in 2012 and that same balcony looked somewhat sparse. The handful that stood to acknowledge the cheers of the crowds were exactly as Charles had been advocating, a nucleus of royals representing the direct line of succession.
That same tableau was repeated in the summer of 2022 at Queen Elizabeth’s platinum jubilee, but while the numbers alongside her increased because of the presence of William and Kate’s children, the absence of Harry was notable.
Even Charles could never have dreamt that this slimmed-down vision would not include his younger son, daughter-in-law and their children Archie and Lilibet. Which is why today the sudden — if temporary — removal of three key figures exposes the limitations of this new look Royal Family.
How prophetic Princess Anne’s words now seem when she was asked ten months ago about the new King’s plans to reduce the royal workforce. ‘I think “slimmed down” was said in a day when there were a few more people around,’ she observed. ‘It doesn’t sound like a good idea.’
Charles’s rationale was not just based on the physical presence of a bloated family, but also on confronting the public perception that it is kept afloat by the taxpayer. He is keen for the monarchy to be seen as value for money.
Achieving all of this can only be done by reducing what the institution actually does.
Years ago, Charles concluded that it was unrealistic for a smaller family of working royals to represent as many charities and other voluntary organisations as it had become accustomed to. With fewer royals to go around, there would have to be drastic cuts in the number of official patronages that could be handled. But at the same time, he recognised that there should be no substantial changes until he became King.
His intention has not wavered. Take the elevation of his brother Edward to Duke of Edinburgh. It was always Prince Philip’s wish that his youngest son should one day succeed to his title, even if it was going to be in the gift of Charles to make it happen.
But there was a twist in the tale. The title would not pass automatically to Edward’s own son, James. So, in creating the dukedom for a single generation, the King was demonstrating how his vision of a slimmed-down royal family would work.
This week’s events are testing the strategy in a way courtier had perhaps not anticipated. It is fortunate therefore that these medical bombshells have come at a time when royal duties are traditionally lighter.
Imagine if the alarm had occurred midway through a state visit when both the King and William and Kate would have been playing central roles.
Despite these dramas, the public are entitled to ask how well Charles’s small-scale monarchy will cope. They may also question whether or not the royals’ extraordinary portfolio of houses may need to be slimmed as well.