This weekend’s coronation ceremony formally invests the monarch with their government powers – but King Charles III has been doing the job since he was proclaimed king in September 2022. What does a monarch actually do?
Historically, the monarch’s role was to maintain peace in the empire, oversee the administration of justice, and strengthen the rule of law in the country. While the king still symbolically represented the nation, it was a much more hands-on, hands-on role than today’s monarchs.
Roles and responsibilities
The monarch’s job description encompasses the roles of head of state, head of nation, head of the Church of England, head of the armed forces, and head of the Commonwealth, so to speak. These are largely ceremonial and symbolic roles – the king does not interfere in the day-to-day affairs of these institutions.
As head of state, the king fulfills certain constitutional duties. These include appointing a prime minister and inviting them to form a government, forming and dissolving parliament, opening and closing parliament each year, and signing legislation into law.
At the election, the prime minister meets the king, who formally invites them to form a government. Although monarchs are expected to remain impartial and apolitical, they are updated daily on state affairs and meet with the Prime Minister on a weekly basis. These meetings are private and no record is kept of what was discussed – so yes, those scenes in The Crown are complete fiction. The king can consult and advise, but the prime minister is not obliged to follow the advice he gives.
The king’s parliamentary roles are largely ceremonial, with one exception. The king can dissolve parliament. The last king to do this was William IV in 1831 during the reform crisis.
Throughout the Commonwealth, such as Australia, the King is represented by Governors General. They fulfill for these nations the same constitutional duties that the king fulfills for the UK. Governor-General Sir John Kerr famously sacked Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and dissolved the Australian Parliament in 1975. After decades of speculation over the Queen’s role in the dismissal, the so-called Palace papers revealed that while the Palace was interested in the case, Kerr had acted independently.
Read more: Australian politics explanation: Gough Whitlam’s resignation as Prime Minister
In international affairs, the King can act as a representative of the United Kingdom, such as meeting political leaders and hosting state functions, but he cannot act politically on behalf of the United Kingdom.
As head of state, the king is oneattention to national identity”, which symbolizes the unity and continuity. In this role, the king recognizes citizens’ achievements, attends events, and broadcasts special messages to the nation. These could be annual messages, such as the Christmas message, or special broadcasts, such as the Queen’s speech at the height of the pandemic.
The King is also the head of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith. Before taking the throne, however, Charles expressed a more inclusive desire to be the defender of religions, reflecting the multicultural and multifaith realities of the UK and the Commonwealth.
While the King served in all three arms of the British Armed Forces and still holds various ceremonial ranks, the role of Chief of the Armed Forces is also symbolic. Should the UK go to war, the King will not dictate his defense strategy, but he will officially declare when the country is at war and when it is over.
During World War II, the royal family played an important role in promoting national and military morale. Than-Princess Elizabeth famously joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service when she turned 18 and trained as a mechanic.
In addition to these roles, the king also holds several royal patronages. This means supporting his chosen organizations by attending events and publicizing the charities.
As Prince of Wales, Charles had over 420 patronages. He inherited another 600 after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Some patronages were associated with the rank of Prince of Wales, so have passed to Prince William. Others can be redistributed among the senior royals to ensure a manageable royal workload.
Read more: King Charles will redistribute hundreds of charity patrons – here’s why they’re such an important part of royal life
Senior royals and councilors of state
Although there is only one monarch (it’s in the name, after all), the king doesn’t work alone. He is often assisted in his representational duties by a group of family members referred to as the “senior” or “working royals”. These are members of the royal family who perform duties on behalf of the Crown. Traditionally, the senior royals include the monarch’s consort, the heir and the heir’s spouse and children, and other children and their spouses. However, the current list of senior royals includes the King’s brother, Prince Edward, and his wife, Countess Sophie, and the King’s sister, Princess Anne.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex (aka Harry and Meghan) announced their resignation from their role as senior royals in early 2020. Prince Andrew has been relieved of public duties over allegations of sexual abuse and his association with convicted sex trafficker, Jeffrey Epstein.
However, both Prince Harry and Prince Andrew remain under the Counselors of State. Counselors are defined by law – the regency law – and are authorized to carry out minor official constitutional duties of the King when he is abroad or unwell, such as attending meetings of the Privy Council and signing routine documents. But they cannot perform major tasks such as appointing prime ministers or dissolving parliament.
State advisers are appointed from the following four adults who have reached the age of 21. The monarch’s spouse is also eligible for nomination, even if they are not in line for the throne. This meant that after the ascension of King Charles, the Councilors of State were Queen Camilla, Prince William, Prince Harry, Prince Andrew and Princess Beatrice.
However, given that Prince Harry and Prince Andrew are not actively performing royal duties and Prince Harry no longer lives in the UK, there was some concern about the suitability and sheer logistics of the current list of advisers. To address this, the State Counselors Act 2022 expanded the Regency Act to specifically include Prince Edward and Princess Anne, giving the King two more local, active and experienced advisers to call upon.
Read more: Why Prince Andrew and Prince Harry could replace the King and how the law could change
Questioning the monarchy today
King Charles’s accession to the throne in September 2022 prompted several national conversations around the Commonwealth of Nations about the prospect of becoming republics.
The monarch’s various duties may be largely symbolic, but symbols are powerful articulations of certain values, relationships, and histories. It is important for the various Commonwealth nations to reflect on their symbols and institutions as they look to their future.