Knowing he has the support of his people will strengthen the King’s spirits

King Charles and Queen Camilla
The King and Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the Coronation last year - Julian Simmonds for The Telegraph

The news that His Majesty the King has been diagnosed with cancer, just 17 months into his reign, has come as a profound shock to his people.

However, it will also deepen their affection for him, not least because of the sad fact that hardly a family in this country or throughout the Commonwealth has been untouched by the scourge of this disease.

We must all hope that the prayers and wishes of millions that the King will recover speedily will be answered. But those millions will be acutely aware of the worry, concern and debilitation that accompany such a diagnosis, an awareness that can only deepen the bond of fellow feeling that they have developed with our sovereign.

It is typical of the King’s openness and straightforwardness that he should share the news of his diagnosis and not conceal it. The palace has said he has done so to avoid speculation, but it is also a recognition that the health of the head of state is a matter of great public interest and, in this case, deep concern.

Also, knowing that he has the sympathy and support of his people, the King will be helped to keep his spirits, and those of the Queen and the rest of his family, high at a time of physical and psychological challenge.

The seriously ill sometimes smile wryly when those who care about them tell them they are “not alone”, for it is only the patient who can fight the disease. But the tsunami of goodwill on which the King will be borne during his own battle will be enormous.

His Majesty appeared in public on Sunday, going to church at Sandringham, and looked tired but fit. We are, it seems, a long way from there being any constitutional issue stemming from his illness.

There is no suggestion of incapacity, now or in the immediate future, and so he should be able to carry out his constitutional duties as usual, even though he must postpone engagements because of his treatment.

There are many precedents for the business of state being carried on even when monarchs have been at death’s door, which His Majesty is manifestly not.

For the last five years of her reign, Queen Victoria could barely walk – her Diamond Jubilee service at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1897 was conducted on the steps at the front around her carriage, which she was incapable of leaving without being carried by footmen. Her physical incapability did not prevent her dealing with her state papers right up to the end of her life in January 1901.

King George V was a lifelong heavy smoker, and his health was further compromised after being thrown from his horse on a visit to the Western Front in 1915. The horse then rolled on top of him, breaking his pelvis.

In 1928, aged 63, he fell so ill with septicaemia and lung problems that it was widely feared he would die. The Prince of Wales, then on a tour of Africa, was advised by the government to come home, and did so at the greatest speed then possible. The King recovered, albeit slowly, and spent the winter and early spring of 1929 convalescing at Bognor.

Even in the most acute phase of his illness, once the Prince of Wales had returned to England, the King could continue his most important constitutional duties.

This was the case, too, in his last illness, which came on rapidly in January 1936. Even on the morning of the day he died, he convened a council of state in his bedroom at Sandringham and, despite being almost incapable of holding a pen, scrawled his mark on some urgent state documents.

It was shortly after this last act of state that his nurse, to cheer him up, told him he would soon be well enough to have another nice rest at Bognor, to which legend has it that he replied: “Bugger Bognor.”

King Charles’s grandfather, King George VI, required thoracic surgery in 1949 but, like his father, continued to manage all urgent matters of state
King Charles’s grandfather, King George VI, required thoracic surgery in 1949 but, like his father, continued to manage all urgent matters of state - Bettmann

King Charles’s grandfather, King George VI, was also a heavy smoker, and developed arteriosclerosis and lung cancer. In 1949 he required thoracic surgery but, like his father, continued to manage all urgent matters of state.

His elder daughter, the late Queen, took over many of his public duties, as did her mother, Queen Elizabeth. In September 1951, his left lung was removed, but this did not prevent Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh leaving the following month to tour Canada.

Despite his obviously grave illness, they then left for Kenya and Australia on Jan 31 1952. Less than a week later, on Feb 6, the King died in his sleep of a heart attack.

Even in her great old age, the late Queen did her duties scrupulously, meeting her last prime minister just two days before her death. The King knows that, in the unlikely event of his being incapacitated, counsellors of state – the Prince of Wales, the Queen, the Princess Royal and the Duke of Edinburgh – have the legal authority to carry out his state duties.

The last regency in this country was declared in 1811, when George III was insane. We are far from such contingencies being needed now.

The King is said to be “positive” about his recovery, and so should we all be. It will be business as usual for some time yet.

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