At 87, queen shifting duties to other royal family members

Alongside Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth delivers her speech during the State Opening of Parliament at the House of Lords on May 8. Prince Charles was set to attend the state opening of Britain's parliament alongside his mother, a sign of his increasing role as the 87-year-old monarch scales back some duties.

Historians may view this week as a turning point for the British royal family. On Tuesday, Queen Elizabeth II announced she would not travel to a major meeting of nations later this year. Prince Charles will take her place at the Commonwealth conference in November.

And on Wednesday, the Prince of Wales accompanied her to one of the most important events of the British political year. It was the first time in 17 years that Charles has attended the state opening of Parliament.

“The reality is, the queen is the oldest monarch in history,” NBC News royal expert Robert Jobson said. “So we’re in uncharted waters as to how to move forward.”

The plan is for the queen to relinquish some aspects of her role to her son and other members of her family. Prince William is soon expected to announce a scaling back of his Royal Air Force role, and an increase in royal duties.

Prince Harry will arrive in Washington on Thursday and is also expected to take a greater role as ambassador for Britain as the queen and Prince Phillip step back. The controversy surrounding him at times last year illustrates some of the risks the coming changes bring.

The royal family know that the future holds great challenges. It is inching toward a day when Prince Charles will be king. But will he be accepted, particularly be the people of Australia and Canada, where republicanism has been a strong force? Will the Commonwealth of Nations, the last remnants of the British Empire, accept Charles as its leader? It can decide not to, but such a move would be a blow for the royals.

But such worries cannot prevent Buckingham Palace from preparing for the future. It’s not just about the queen herself: Her consort, the Duke of Edinburgh, who is by her side at all times, is 91. He has been hospitalized with an infection during the last 12 months.

Jobson said there was “no question of abdication,” despite examples from elsewhere. Case in point: Last week Prince Charles attended the abdication of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. She handed the throne over to her son Willem, who is only 46. Charles must have wondered at the sight of a monarch more than 10 years younger than his mother handing over power.

But Queen Elizabeth II remembers the crisis caused by the abdication of her uncle King Edward VIII, caused by his marriage to the American socialite Wallis Simpson. She knows that change can threaten the very future of the royal family, and she will be determined to manage things carefully as the years go by.