In the plans that exist for the death of the Queen – and there are many versions, held by Buckingham Palace, the government and the BBC – most envisage that she will die after a short illness. Her family and doctors will be there. When the Queen Mother passed away on the afternoon of Easter Saturday, in 2002, at the Royal Lodge in Windsor, she had time to telephone friends to say goodbye, and to give away some of her horses. In these last hours, the Queen’s senior doctor, a gastroenterologist named Professor Huw Thomas, will be in charge. He will look after his patient, control access to her room and consider what information should be made public. The bond between sovereign and subjects is a strange and mostly unknowable thing. A nation’s life becomes a person’s, and then the string must break.
There will be bulletins from the palace – not many, but enough. “The Queen is suffering from great physical prostration, accompanied by symptoms which cause much anxiety,” announced Sir James Reid, Queen Victoria’s physician, two days before her death in 1901. “The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close,” was the final notice issued by George V’s doctor, Lord Dawson, at 9.30pm on the night of 20 January 1936. Not long afterwards, Dawson injected the king with 750mg of morphine and a gram of cocaine – enough to kill him twice over – in order to ease the monarch’s suffering, and to have him expire in time for the printing presses of the Times, which rolled at midnight.
Her eyes will be closed and Charles will be king. His siblings will kiss his hands. The first official to deal with the news will be Sir Christopher Geidt, the Queen’s private secretary, a former diplomat who was given a second knighthood in 2014, in part for planning her succession.
Geidt will contact the prime minister. The last time a British monarch died, 65 years ago, the demise of George VI was conveyed in a code word, “Hyde Park Corner”, to Buckingham Palace, to prevent switchboard operators from finding out. For Elizabeth II, the plan for what happens next is known as “London Bridge.” The prime minister will be woken, if she is not already awake, and civil servants will say “London Bridge is down” on secure lines. From the Foreign Office’s Global Response Centre, at an undisclosed location in the capital, the news will go out to the 15 governments outside the UK where the Queen is also the head of state, and the 36 other nations of the Commonwealth for whom she has served as a symbolic figurehead – a face familiar in dreams and the untidy drawings of a billion schoolchildren – since the dawn of the atomic age.
For a time, she will be gone without our knowing it. The information will travel like the compressional wave ahead of an earthquake, detectable only by special equipment. Governors general, ambassadors and prime ministers will learn first. Cupboards will be opened in search of black armbands, three-and-a-quarter inches wide, to be worn on the left arm.
The rest of us will find out more quickly than before. On 6 February 1952, George VI was found by his valet at Sandringham at 7.30am. The BBC did not broadcast the news until 11.15am, almost four hours later. When Princess Diana died at 4am local time at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris on 31 August 1997, journalists accompanying the former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, on a visit to the Philippines knew within 15 minutes. For many years the BBC was told about royal deaths first, but its monopoly on broadcasting to the empire has gone now. When the Queen dies, the announcement will go out as a newsflash to the Press Association and the rest of the world’s media simultaneously. At the same instant, a footman in mourning clothes will emerge from a door at Buckingham Palace, cross the dull pink gravel and pin a black-edged notice to the gates. While he does this, the palace website will be transformed into a sombre, single page, showing the same text on a dark background.
Screens will glow. There will be tweets. At the BBC, the “radio alert transmission system” (Rats), will be activated – a cold war-era alarm designed to withstand an attack on the nation’s infrastructure. Rats, which is also sometimes referred to as “royal about to snuff it”, is a near mythical part of the intricate architecture of ritual and rehearsals for the death of major royal personalities that the BBC has maintained since the 1930s. Most staff have only ever seen it work in tests; many have never seen it work at all. “Whenever there is a strange noise in the newsroom, someone always asks, ‘Is that the Rats?’ Because we don’t know what it sounds like,” one regional reporter told me.
All news organisations will scramble to get films on air and obituaries online. At the Guardian, the deputy editor has a list of prepared stories pinned to his wall. The Times is said to have 11 days of coverage ready to go. At Sky News and ITN, which for years rehearsed the death of the Queen substituting the name “Mrs Robinson”, calls will go out to royal experts who have already signed contracts to speak exclusively on those channels. “I am going to be sitting outside the doors of the Abbey on a hugely enlarged trestle table commentating to 300 million Americans about this,” one told me.
For people stuck in traffic, or with Heart FM on in the background, there will only be the subtlest of indications, at first, that something is going on. Britain’s commercial radio stations have a network of blue “obit lights”, which is tested once a week and supposed to light up in the event of a national catastrophe. When the news breaks, these lights will start flashing, to alert DJs to switch to the news in the next few minutes and to play inoffensive music in the meantime. Every station, down to hospital radio, has prepared music lists made up of “Mood 2” (sad) or “Mood 1” (saddest) songs to reach for in times of sudden mourning. “If you ever hear Haunted Dancehall (Nursery Remix) by Sabres of Paradise on daytime Radio 1, turn the TV on,” wrote Chris Price, a BBC radio producer, for the Huffington Post in 2011. “Something terrible has just happened.”
Having plans in place for the death of leading royals is a practice that makes some journalists uncomfortable. “There is one story which is deemed to be so much more important than others,” one former Today programme producer complained to me. For 30 years, BBC news teams were hauled to work on quiet Sunday mornings to perform mock storylines about the Queen Mother choking on a fishbone. There was once a scenario about Princess Diana dying in a car crash on the M4.
These well-laid plans have not always helped. In 2002, when the Queen Mother died, the obit lights didn’t come on because someone failed to push the button down properly. On the BBC, Peter Sissons, the veteran anchor, was criticised for wearing a maroon tie. Sissons was the victim of a BBC policy change, issued after the September 11 attacks, to moderate its coverage and reduce the number of “category one” royals eligible for the full obituary procedure. The last words in Sissons’s ear before going on air were: “Don’t go overboard. She’s a very old woman who had to go some time.”
But there will be no extemporising with the Queen. The newsreaders will wear black suits and black ties. Category one was made for her. Programmes will stop. Networks will merge. BBC 1, 2 and 4 will be interrupted and revert silently to their respective idents – an exercise class in a village hall, a swan waiting on a pond – before coming together for the news. Listeners to Radio 4 and Radio 5 live will hear a specific formulation of words, “This is the BBC from London,” which, intentionally or not, will summon a spirit of national emergency.
The main reason for rehearsals is to have words that are roughly approximate to the moment. “It is with the greatest sorrow that we make the following announcement,” said John Snagge, the BBC presenter who informed the world of the death of George VI. (The news was repeated seven times, every 15 minutes, and then the BBC went silent for five hours). According to one former head of BBC news, a very similar set of words will be used for the Queen. The rehearsals for her are different to the other members of the family, he explained. People become upset, and contemplate the unthinkable oddness of her absence. “She is the only monarch that most of us have ever known,” he said. The royal standard will appear on the screen. The national anthem will play. You will remember where you were.
* * *
When people think of a contemporary royal death in Britain, they think, inescapably, of Diana. The passing of the Queen will be monumental by comparison. It may not be as nakedly emotional, but its reach will be wider, and its implications more dramatic. “It will be quite fundamental,” as one former courtier told me.
Part of the effect will come from the overwhelming weight of things happening. The routine for modern royal funerals is more or less familiar (Diana’s was based on “Tay Bridge”, the plan for the Queen Mother’s). But the death of a British monarch, and the accession of a new head of state, is a ritual that is passing out of living memory: three of the Queen’s last four prime ministers were born after she came to the throne. When she dies, both houses of parliament will be recalled, people will go home from work early, and aircraft pilots will announce the news to their passengers. In the nine days that follow (in London Bridge planning documents, these are known as “D-day”, “D+1” and so on) there will be ritual proclamations, a four-nation tour by the new king, bowdlerised television programming, and a diplomatic assembling in London not seen since the death of Winston Churchill in 1965.
More overwhelming than any of this, though, there will be an almighty psychological reckoning for the kingdom that she leaves behind. The Queen is Britain’s last living link with our former greatness – the nation’s id, its problematic self-regard – which is still defined by our victory in the second world war. One leading historian, who like most people I interviewed for this article declined to be named, stressed that the farewell for this country’s longest-serving monarch will be magnificent. “Oh, she will get everything,” he said. “We were all told that the funeral of Churchill was the requiem for Britain as a great power. But actually it will really be over when she goes.”
Unlike the US presidency, say, monarchies allow huge passages of time – a century, in some cases – to become entwined with an individual. The second Elizabethan age is likely to be remembered as a reign of uninterrupted national decline, and even, if she lives long enough and Scotland departs the union, as one of disintegration. Life and politics at the end of her rule will be unrecognisable from their grandeur and innocence at its beginning. “We don’t blame her for it,” Philip Ziegler, the historian and royal biographer, told me. “We have declined with her, so to speak.”
The obituary films will remind us what a different country she inherited. One piece of footage will be played again and again: from her 21st birthday, in 1947, when Princess Elizabeth was on holiday with her parents in Cape Town. She was 6,000 miles from home and comfortably within the pale of the British Empire. The princess sits at a table with a microphone. The shadow of a tree plays on her shoulder. The camera adjusts three or four times as she talks, and on each occasion, she twitches momentarily, betraying tiny flashes of aristocratic irritation. “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service, and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” she says, enunciating vowels and a conception of the world that have both vanished.
It is not unusual for a country to succumb to a state of denial as a long chapter in its history is about to end. When it became public that Queen Victoria was dying, at the age of 82, a widow for half her life, “astonished grief … swept the country”, wrote her biographer, Lytton Strachey. In the minds of her subjects, the queen’s mortality had become unimaginable; and with her demise, everything was suddenly at risk, placed in the hands of an elderly and untrusted heir, Edward VII. “The wild waters are upon us now,” wrote the American Henry James, who had moved to London 30 years before.
The parallels with the unease that we will feel at the death of Elizabeth II are obvious, but without the consolation of Britain’s status in 1901 as the world’s most successful country. “We have to have narratives for royal events,” the historian told me. “In the Victorian reign, everything got better and better, and bigger and bigger. We certainly can’t tell that story today.”
The result is an enormous objection to even thinking about – let alone talking or writing about – what will happen when the Queen dies. We avoid the subject as we avoid it in our own families. It seems like good manners, but it is also fear. The reporting for this article involved dozens of interviews with broadcasters, government officials, and departed palace staff, several of whom have worked on London Bridge directly. Almost all insisted on complete secrecy. “This meeting never happened,” I was told after one conversation in a gentleman’s club on Pall Mall. Buckingham Palace, meanwhile, has a policy of not commenting on funeral arrangements for members of the royal family.
And yet this taboo, like much to do with the monarchy, is not entirely rational, and masks a parallel reality. The next great rupture in Britain’s national life has, in fact, been planned to the minute. It involves matters of major public importance, will be paid for by us, and is definitely going to happen. According to the Office of National Statistics, a British woman who reaches the age of 91 – as the Queen will in April – has an average life expectancy of four years and three months. The Queen is approaching the end of her reign at a time of maximum disquiet about Britain’s place in the world, at a moment when internal political tensions are close to breaking her kingdom apart. Her death will also release its own destabilising forces: in the accession of Queen Camilla; in the optics of a new king who is already an old man; and in the future of the Commonwealth, an invention largely of her making. (The Queen’s title of “Head of the Commonwealth” is not hereditary.) Australia’s prime minister and leader of the opposition both want the country to become a republic.
Coping with the way these events fall is the next great challenge of the House of Windsor, the last European royal family to practise coronations and to persist – with the complicity of a willing public – in the magic of the whole enterprise. That is why the planning for the Queen’s death and its ceremonial aftermath is so extensive. Succession is part of the job. It is an opportunity for order to be affirmed. Queen Victoria had written down the contents of her coffin by 1875. The Queen Mother’s funeral was rehearsed for 22 years. Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, prepared a winter and a summer menu for his funeral lunch. London Bridge is the Queen’s exit plan. “It’s history,” as one of her courtiers said. It will be 10 days of sorrow and spectacle in which, rather like the dazzling mirror of the monarchy itself, we will revel in who we were and avoid the question of what we have become.
* * *
The idea is for nothing to be unforeseen. If the Queen dies abroad, a BAe 146 jet from the RAF’s No 32 squadron, known as the Royal Flight, will take off from Northolt, at the western edge of London, with a coffin on board. The royal undertakers, Leverton & Sons, keep what they call a “first call coffin” ready in case of royal emergencies. Both George V and George VI were buried in oak grown on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk. If the Queen dies there, her body will come to London by car after a day or two.
The most elaborate plans are for what happens if she passes away at Balmoral, where she spends three months of the year. This will trigger an initial wave of Scottish ritual. First, the Queen’s body will lie at rest in her smallest palace, at Holyroodhouse, in Edinburgh, where she is traditionally guarded by the Royal Company of Archers, who wear eagle feathers in their bonnets. Then the coffin will be carried up the Royal Mile to St Giles’s cathedral, for a service of reception, before being put on board the Royal Train at Waverley station for a sad progress down the east coast mainline. Crowds are expected at level crossings and on station platforms the length of the country – from Musselburgh and Thirsk in the north, to Peterborough and Hatfield in the south – to throw flowers on the passing train. (Another locomotive will follow behind, to clear debris from the tracks.) “It’s actually very complicated,” one transport official told me.
In every scenario, the Queen’s body returns to the throne room in Buckingham Palace, which overlooks the north-west corner of the Quadrangle, its interior courtyard. There will be an altar, the pall, the royal standard, and four Grenadier Guards, their bearskin hats inclined, their rifles pointing to the floor, standing watch. In the corridors, staff employed by the Queen for more than 50 years will pass, following procedures they know by heart. “Your professionalism takes over because there is a job to be done,” said one veteran of royal funerals. There will be no time for sadness, or to worry about what happens next. Charles will bring in many of his own staff when he accedes. “Bear in mind,” the courtier said, “everybody who works in the palace is actually on borrowed time.”
Outside, news crews will assemble on pre-agreed sites next to Canada Gate, at the bottom of Green Park. (Special fibre-optic cable runs under the Mall, for broadcasting British state occasions.) “I have got in front of me an instruction book a couple of inches thick,” said one TV director, who will cover the ceremonies, when we spoke on the phone. “Everything in there is planned. Everyone knows what to do.” Across the country, flags will come down and bells will toll. In 1952, Great Tom was rung at St Paul’s every minute for two hours when the news was announced. The bells at Westminster Abbey sounded and the Sebastopol bell, taken from the Black Sea city during the Crimean war and rung only on the occasion of a sovereign’s death, was tolled 56 times at Windsor – once for each year of George VI’s life – from 1.27pm until 2.22pm.
The 18th Duke of Norfolk, the Earl Marshal, will be in charge. Norfolks have overseen royal funerals since 1672. During the 20th century, a set of offices in St James’s Palace was always earmarked for their use. On the morning of George VI’s death, in 1952, these were being renovated. By five o’clock in the afternoon, the scaffolding was down and the rooms were re-carpeted, furnished and equipped with phones, lights and heating. During London Bridge, the Lord Chamberlain’s office in the palace will be the centre of operations. The current version of the plan is largely the work of Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Mather, a former equerry who retired from the palace in 2014. As a 23-year-old guardsman in 1965, Mather led the pallbearers at Churchill’s funeral. (He declined to speak with me.) The government’s team – coordinating the police, security, transport and armed forces – will assemble at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Someone will have the job of printing around 10,000 tickets for invited guests, the first of which will be required for the proclamation of King Charles in about 24 hours time.
* * *
Everyone on the conference calls and around the table will know each other. For a narrow stratum of the British aristocracy and civil service, the art of planning major funerals – the solemnity, the excessive detail – is an expression of a certain national competence. Thirty-one people gathered for the first meeting to plan Churchill’s funeral, “Operation Hope Not”, in June 1959, six years before his death. Those working on London Bridge (and Tay Bridge and Forth Bridge, the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral) will have corresponded for years in a language of bureaucratic euphemism, about “a possible future ceremony”; “a future problem”; “some inevitable occasion, the timing of which, however, is quite uncertain”.
The first plans for London Bridge date back to the 1960s, before being refined in detail at the turn of the century. Since then, there have been meetings two or three times a year for the various actors involved (around a dozen government departments, the police, army, broadcasters and the Royal Parks) in Church House, Westminster, the Palace, or elsewhere in Whitehall. Participants described them to me as deeply civil and methodical. “Everyone around the world is looking to us to do this again perfectly,” said one, “and we will.” Plans are updated and old versions are destroyed. Arcane and highly specific knowledge is shared. It takes 28 minutes at a slow march from the doors of St James’s to the entrance of Westminster Hall. The coffin must have a false lid, to hold the crown jewels, with a rim at least three inches high.
In theory, everything is settled. But in the hours after the Queen has gone, there will be details that only Charles can decide. “Everything has to be signed off by the Duke of Norfolk and the King,” one official told me. The Prince of Wales has waited longer to assume the British throne than any heir, and the world will now swirl around him at a new and uncrossable distance. “For a little while,” wrote Edward VIII, of the days between his father’s death and funeral, “I had the uneasy sensation of being left alone on a vast stage.” In recent years, much of the work on London Bridge has focused on the precise choreography of Charles’s accession. “There are really two things happening,” as one of his advisers told me. “There is the demise of a sovereign and then there is the making of a king.” Charles is scheduled to make his first address as head of state on the evening of his mother’s death.
Switchboards – the Palace, Downing Street, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport – will be swamped with calls during the first 48 hours. It is such a long time since the death of a monarch that many national organisations won’t know what to do. The official advice, as it was last time, will be that business should continue as usual. This won’t necessarily happen. If the Queen dies during Royal Ascot, the meet will be scrapped. The Marylebone Cricket Club is said to hold insurance for a similar outcome if she passes away during a home test match at Lord’s. After the death of George VI in 1952, rugby and hockey fixtures were called off, while football matches went ahead. Fans sang Abide With Me and the national anthem before kick off. The National Theatre will close if the news breaks before 4pm, and stay open if not. All games, including golf, will be banned in the Royal Parks.
In 2014, the National Association of Civic Officers circulated protocols for local authorities to follow in case of “the death of a senior national figure”. It advised stockpiling books of condolence – loose leaf, so inappropriate messages can be removed – to be placed in town halls, libraries and museums the day after the Queen dies. Mayors will mask their decorations (maces will be shrouded with black bags). In provincial cities, big screens will be erected so crowds can follow events taking place in London, and flags of all possible descriptions, including beach flags (but not red danger flags), will be flown at half mast. The country must be seen to know what it is doing. The most recent set of instructions to embassies in London went out just before Christmas. One of the biggest headaches will be for the Foreign Office, dealing with all the dignitaries who descend from all corners of the earth. In Papua New Guinea, where the Queen is the head of state, she is known as “Mama belong big family”. European royal families will be put up at the palace; the rest will stay at Claridge’s hotel.
Parliament will gather. If possible, both houses will sit within hours of the monarch’s death. In 1952, the Commons convened for two minutes before noon. “We cannot at this moment do more than record a spontaneous expression of our grief,” said Churchill, who was prime minister. The house met again in the evening, when MPs began swearing the oath of allegiance to the new sovereign. Messages rained in from parliaments and presidents. The US House of Representatives adjourned. Ethiopia announced two weeks of mourning. In the House of Lords, the two thrones will be replaced by a single chair and a cushion bearing the golden outline of a crown.
On D+1, the day after the Queen’s death, the flags will go back up, and at 11am, Charles will be proclaimed king. The Accession Council, which convenes in the red-carpeted Entrée Room of St James’s Palace, long predates parliament. The meeting, of the “Lords Spiritual and Temporal of this Realm”, derives from the Witan, the Anglo-Saxon feudal assembly of more than a thousand years ago. In theory, all 670 current members of the Privy Council, from Jeremy Corbyn to Ezekiel Alebua, the former prime minister of the Solomon Islands, are invited – but there is space for only 150 or so. In 1952, the Queen was one of two women present at her proclamation.
The clerk, a senior civil servant named Richard Tilbrook, will read out the formal wording, “Whereas it has pleased Almighty God to call to His Mercy our late Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second of Blessed and Glorious memory…” and Charles will carry out the first official duties of his reign, swearing to protect the Church in Scotland, and speaking of the heavy burden that is now his.
At dawn, the central window overlooking Friary Court, on the palace’s eastern front, will have been removed and the roof outside covered in red felt. After Charles has spoken, trumpeters from the Life Guards, wearing red plumes on their helmets, will step outside, give three blasts and the Garter King of Arms, a genealogist named Thomas Woodcock, will stand on the balcony and begin the ritual proclamations of King Charles III. “I will make the first one,” said Woodcock, whose official salary of £49.07 has not been raised since the 1830s. In 1952, four newsreel cameras recorded the moment. This time there will be an audience of billions. People will look for auguries – in the weather, in birds flying overhead – for Charles’s reign. At Elizabeth’s accession, everyone was convinced that the new queen was too calm. The band of the Coldstream Guards will play the national anthem on drums that are wrapped in black cloth.
The proclamations will only just be getting started. From St James’s, the Garter King of Arms and half a dozen other heralds, looking like extras from an expensive Shakespeare production, will go by carriage to the statue of Charles I, at the base of Trafalgar Square, which marks London’s official midpoint, and read out the news again. A 41-gun salute – almost seven minutes of artillery – will be fired from Hyde Park. “There is no concession to modernity in this,” one former palace official told me. There will be cocked hats and horses everywhere. One of the concerns of the broadcasters is what the crowds will look like as they seek to record these moments of history. “The whole world is going to be bloody doing this,” said one news executive, holding up his phone in front of his face.
On the old boundary of the City of London, outside the Royal Courts of Justice, a red cord will hang across the road. The City Marshal, a former police detective chief superintendent named Philip Jordan, will be waiting on a horse. The heralds will be formally admitted to the City, and there will be more trumpets and more announcements: at the Royal Exchange, and then in a chain reaction across the country. Sixty-five years ago, there were crowds of 10,000 in Birmingham; 5,000 in Manchester; 15,000 in Edinburgh. High Sheriffs stood on the steps of town halls, and announced the new sovereign according to local custom. In York, the Mayor raised a toast to the Queen from a cup made of solid gold.
The same rituals will take place, but this time around the new king will also go out to meet his people. From his proclamation at St James’s, Charles will immediately tour the country, visiting Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff to attend services of remembrance for his mother and to meet the leaders of the devolved governments. There will also be civic receptions, for teachers, doctors and other ordinary folk, which are intended to reflect the altered spirit of his reign. “From day one, it is about the people rather than just the leaders being part of this new monarchy,” said one of his advisers, who described the plans for Charles’s progress as: “Lots of not being in a car, but actually walking around.” In the capital, the pageantry of royal death and accession will be archaic and bewildering. But from another city each day, there will be images of the new king mourning alongside his subjects, assuming his almighty, lonely role in the public imagination. “It is see and be seen,” the adviser said.
* * *
For a long time, the art of royal spectacle was for other, weaker peoples: Italians, Russians, and Habsburgs. British ritual occasions were a mess. At the funeral of Princess Charlotte, in 1817, the undertakers were drunk. Ten years later, St George’s Chapel was so cold during the burial of the Duke of York that George Canning, the foreign secretary, contracted rheumatic fever and the bishop of London died. “We never saw so motley, so rude, so ill-managed a body of persons,” reported the Times on the funeral of George IV, in 1830. Victoria’s coronation a few years later was nothing to write home about. The clergy got lost in the words; the singing was awful; and the royal jewellers made the coronation ring for the wrong finger. “Some nations have a gift for ceremonial,” the Marquess of Salisbury wrote in 1860. “In England the case is exactly the reverse.”
What we think of as the ancient rituals of the monarchy were mainly crafted in the late 19th century, towards the end of Victoria’s reign. Courtiers, politicians and constitutional theorists such as Walter Bagehot worried about the dismal sight of the Empress of India trooping around Windsor in her donkey cart. If the crown was going to give up its executive authority, it would have to inspire loyalty and awe by other means – and theatre was part of the answer. “The more democratic we get,” wrote Bagehot in 1867, “the more we shall get to like state and show.”
Obsessed by death, Victoria planned her own funeral with some style. But it was her son, Edward VII, who is largely responsible for reviving royal display. One courtier praised his “curious power of visualising a pageant”. He turned the state opening of parliament and military drills, like the Trooping of the Colour, into full fancy-dress occasions, and at his own passing, resurrected the medieval ritual of lying in state. Hundreds of thousands of subjects filed past his coffin in Westminster Hall in 1910, granting a new sense of intimacy to the body of the sovereign. By 1932, George V was a national father figure, giving the first royal Christmas speech to the nation – a tradition that persists today – in a radio address written for him by Rudyard Kipling.
The shambles and the remoteness of the 19th-century monarchy were replaced by an idealised family and historic pageantry invented in the 20th. In 1909, Kaiser Wilhelm II boasted about the quality of German martial processions: “The English cannot come up to us in this sort of thing.” Now we all know that no one else quite does it like the British.
The Queen, by all accounts a practical and unsentimental person, understands the theatrical power of the crown. “I have to be seen to be believed,” is said to be one of her catchphrases. And there is no reason to doubt that her funeral rites will evoke a rush of collective feeling. “I think there will be a huge and very genuine outpouring of deep emotion,” said Andrew Roberts, the historian. It will be all about her, and it will really be about us. There will be an urge to stand in the street, to see it with your own eyes, to be part of a multitude. The cumulative effect will be conservative. “I suspect the Queen’s death will intensify patriotic feelings,” one constitutional thinker told me, “and therefore fit the Brexit mood, if you like, and intensify the feeling that there is nothing to learn from foreigners.”
The wave of feeling will help to swamp the awkward facts of the succession. The rehabilitation of Camilla as the Duchess of Cornwall has been a quiet success for the monarchy, but her accession as queen will test how far that has come. Since she married Charles in 2005, Camilla has been officially known as Princess Consort, a formulation that has no historical or legal meaning. (“It’s bullshit,” one former courtier told me, describing it as “a sop to Diana”.) The fiction will end when Elizabeth II dies. Under common law, Camilla will become queen — the title always given to the wives of kings. There is no alternative. “She is queen whatever she is called,” as one scholar put it. “If she is called Princess Consort there is an implication that she is not quite up to it. It’s a problem.” There are plans to clarify this situation before the Queen dies, but King Charles is currently expected to introduce Queen Camilla at his Accession Council on D+1. (Camilla was invited to join the Privy Council last June, so she will be present.) Confirmation of her title will form part of the first tumultuous 24 hours.
The Commonwealth is the other knot. In 1952, at the last accession, there were only eight members of the new entity taking shape in the outline of the British Empire. The Queen was the head of state in seven of them, and she was proclaimed Head of the Commonwealth to accommodate India’s lone status as a republic. Sixty-five years later, there are 36 republics in the organisation, which the Queen has attended assiduously throughout her reign, and now comprises a third of the world’s population. The problem is that the role is not hereditary, and there is no procedure for choosing the next one. “It’s a complete grey area,” said Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London.
For several years, the palace has been discreetly trying to ensure Charles’s succession as head of the bloc, in the absence of any other obvious option. Last October, Julia Gillard, the former prime minister of Australia, revealed that Christopher Geidt, the Queen’s private secretary, had visited her in February 2013 to ask her to support the idea. Canada and New Zealand have since fallen into line, but the title is unlikely to be included in King Charles’s proclamation. Instead it will be part of the discreet international lobbying that takes place as London fills up with diplomats and presidents in the days after the Queen’s death. There will be serious, busy receptions at the palace. “We are not talking about entertaining. But you have to show some form of respect for the fact that they have come,” said one courtier. “Such feasting and commingling, with my father still unburied, seemed to me unfitting and heartless,” wrote Edward VIII in his memoirs. The show must go on. Business will mix with grief.
* * *
There will be a thousand final preparations in the nine days before the funeral. Soldiers will walk the processional routes. Prayers will be rehearsed. On D+1, Westminster Hall will be locked, cleaned and its stone floor covered with 1,500 metres of carpet. Candles, their wicks already burnt in, will be brought over from the Abbey. The streets around will be converted into ceremonial spaces. The bollards on the Mall will be removed, and rails put up to protect the hedges. There is space for 7,000 seats on Horse Guards Parade and 1,345 on Carlton House Terrace. In 1952, all the rhododendrons in Parliament Square were pulled up and women were barred from the roof of Admiralty Arch. “Nothing can be done to protect the bulbs,” noted the Ministry of Works. The Queen’s 10 pallbearers will be chosen, and practise carrying their burden out of sight in a barracks somewhere. British royals are buried in lead-lined coffins. Diana’s weighed a quarter of a ton.
The population will slide between sadness and irritability. In 2002, 130 people complained to the BBC about its insensitive coverage of the Queen Mother’s death; another 1,500 complained that Casualty was moved to BBC2. The TV schedules in the days after the Queen’s death will change again. Comedy won’t be taken off the BBC completely, but most satire will. There will be Dad’s Army reruns, but no Have I Got News For You.
People will be touchy either way. After the death of George VI, in a society much more Christian and deferential than this one, a Mass Observation survey showed that people objected to the endless maudlin music, the forelock-tugging coverage. “Don’t they think of old folk, sick people, invalids?” one 60-year old woman asked. “It’s been terrible for them, all this gloom.” In a bar in Notting Hill, one drinker said, “He’s only shit and soil now like anyone else,” which started a fight. Social media will be a tinderbox. In 1972, the writer Brian Masters estimated that around a third of us have dreamed about the Queen – she stands for authority and our mothers. People who are not expecting to cry will cry.
On D+4, the coffin will move to Westminster Hall, to lie in state for four full days. The procession from Buckingham Palace will be the first great military parade of London Bridge: down the Mall, through Horse Guards, and past the Cenotaph. More or less the same slow march, from St James’s Palace for the Queen Mother in 2002, involved 1,600 personnel and stretched for half a mile. The bands played Beethoven and a gun was fired every minute from Hyde Park. The route is thought to hold around a million people. The plan to get them there is based on the logistics for the London 2012 Olympics.
There may be corgis. In 1910, the mourners for Edward VII were led by his fox terrier, Caesar. His son’s coffin was followed to Wolferton station, at Sandringham, by Jock, a white shooting pony. The procession will reach Westminster Hall on the hour. The timing will be just so. “Big Ben beginning to chime as the wheels come to a stop,” as one broadcaster put it.
Inside the hall, there will be psalms as the coffin is placed on a catafalque draped in purple. King Charles will be back from his tour of the home nations, to lead the mourners. The orb, the sceptre and the Imperial Crown will be fixed in place, soldiers will stand guard and then the doors opened to the multitude that will have formed outside and will now stream past the Queen for 23 hours a day. For George VI, 305,000 subjects came. The line was four miles long. The palace is expecting half a million for the Queen. There will be a wondrous queue – the ultimate British ritual undertaking, with canteens, police, portable toilets and strangers talking cautiously to one another – stretching down to Vauxhall Bridge and then over the river and back along the Albert Embankment. MPs will skip to the front.
Under the chestnut roof of the hall, everything will feel fantastically well-ordered and consoling and designed to within a quarter of an inch, because it is. A 47-page internal report compiled after George VI’s funeral suggested attaching metal rollers to the catafalque, to smooth the landing of the coffin when it arrives. Four soldiers will stand silent vigil for 20 minutes at a time, with two ready in reserve. The RAF, the Army, the Royal Navy, the Beefeaters, the Gurkhas – everyone will take part. The most senior officer of the four will stand at the foot of the coffin, the most junior at the head. The wreaths on the coffin will be renewed every day. For Churchill’s lying in state in 1965, a replica of the hall was set up in the ballroom of the St Ermin’s hotel nearby, so soldiers could practise their movements before they went on duty. In 1936, the four sons of George V revived The Prince’s Vigil, in which members of the royal family arrive unannounced and stand watch. The Queen’s children and grandchildren – including women for the first time – will do the same.
Before dawn on D+9, the day of the funeral, in the silent hall, the jewels will be taken off the coffin and cleaned. In 1952, it took three jewellers almost two hours to remove all the dust. (The Star of Africa, on the royal sceptre, is the second-largest cut diamond in the world.) Most of the country will be waking to a day off. Shops will close, or go to bank holiday hours. Some will display pictures of the Queen in their windows. The stock market will not open. The night before, there will have been church services in towns across the UK. There are plans to open football stadiums for memorial services if necessary.
At 9am, Big Ben will strike. The bell’s hammer will then be covered with a leather pad seven-sixteenths of an inch thick, and it will ring out in muffled tones. The distance from Westminster Hall to the Abbey is only a few hundred metres. The occasion will feel familiar, even though it is new: the Queen will be the first British monarch to have her funeral in the Abbey since 1760. The 2,000 guests will be sitting inside. Television cameras, in hides made of painted bricks, will search for the images that we will remember. In 1965, the dockers dipped their cranes for Churchill. In 1997, it was the word “Mummy” on the flowers for Diana from her sons.
When the coffin reaches the abbey doors, at 11 o’clock, the country will fall silent. The clatter will still. Train stations will cease announcements. Buses will stop and drivers will get out at the side of the road. In 1952, at the same moment, all of the passengers on a flight from London to New York rose from their seats and stood, 18,000 feet above Canada, and bowed their heads.
Back then, the stakes were clearer, or at least they seemed that way. A stammering king had been part of the embattled British way of life that had survived an existential war. The wreath that Churchill laid said: “For Gallantry.” The BBC commentator in 1952, the man who deciphered the rubies and the rituals for the nation, was Richard Dimbleby, the first British reporter to enter Bergen-Belsen and convey its horrors, seven years before. “How true tonight that statement spoken by an unknown man of his beloved father,” murmured Dimbleby, describing the lying in state to millions. “The sunset of his death tinged the whole world’s sky.”
The trumpets and the ancientness were proof of our survival; and the king’s young daughter would rule the peace. “These royal ceremonies represented decency, tradition, and public duty, in contradiction to the ghastliness of Nazism,” as one historian told me. The monarchy had traded power for theatre, and in the aftermath of war, the illusion became more powerful than anyone could have imagined. “It was restorative,” Jonathan Dimbleby, Richard’s son and biographer, told me.
His brother, David, is likely to be behind the BBC microphone this time. The question will be what the bells and the emblems and the heralds represent now. At what point does the pomp of an imperial monarchy become ridiculous amid the circumstances of a diminished nation? “The worry,” a historian said, “is that it is just circus animals.”
If the monarchy exists as theatre, then this doubt is the part of the drama. Can they still pull it off? Knowing everything that we know in 2017, how can it possibly hold that a single person might contain the soul of a nation? The point of the monarchy is not to answer such questions. It is to continue. “What a lot of our life we spend in acting,” the Queen Mother used to say.
Inside the Abbey, the archbishop will speak. During prayers, the broadcasters will refrain from showing royal faces. When the coffin emerges again, the pallbearers will place it on the green gun carriage that was used for the Queen’s father, and his father and his father’s father, and 138 junior sailors will drop their heads to their chests and pull. The tradition of being hauled by the Royal Navy began in 1901 when Victoria’s funeral horses, all white, threatened to bolt at Windsor Station and a waiting contingent of ratings stepped in to pull the coffin instead.
The procession will swing on to the Mall. In 1952, the RAF was grounded out of respect for King George VI. In 2002, at 12.45pm, a Lancaster bomber and two Spitfires flew over the cortege for his wife and dipped their wings. The crowds will be deep for the Queen. She will get everything. From Hyde Park Corner, the hearse will go 23 miles by road to Windsor Castle, which claims the bodies of British sovereigns. The royal household will be waiting for her, standing on the grass. Then the cloister gates will be closed and cameras will stop broadcasting. Inside the chapel, the lift to the royal vault will descend, and King Charles will drop a handful of red earth from a silver bowl.
• This article was amended on 16 March 2017 to correct some minor errors including the fact that three of the Queen’s last four prime ministers, not the last three, were born after her accession – Blair, Cameron and May; that the Star of Africa on the royal sceptre is not the largest diamond in the world, but the second-largest cut diamond; and that the word “son’s” was originally missing from the second sentence in this passage: “In 1910, the mourners for Edward VII were led by his fox terrier, Caesar. His son’s coffin was followed to Wolferton station, at Sandringham, by Jock, a white shooting pony.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010