Queen Elizabeth II is the only monarch most Britons have ever known, said journalist Sam Knight. The plans for her elaborate 10-day funeral showcase all the pomp and grandeur of a long-gone empire.
The grandest farewell
IN THE PLANS for the death of Queen Elizabeth II, most versions envisage that she will die after a short illness. Her family and doctors will be there. When the queen mother passed away on Easter Saturday, in 2002, 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 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 King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close,” was the final notice issued by George V’s doctor, Lord Dawson, at 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 20, 1936. Not long afterward, Dawson injected the king with 750 mg 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, who will contact the prime minister. The last time a British monarch died, 65 years ago, the demise of George VI was conveyed in a coded phrase, “Hyde Park Corner,” 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 London, the news will go out to the 15 governments outside the U.K. 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, 3¼ inches wide, to be worn on the left arm.
All news organizations 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 has 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.
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.
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 fournation tour by the new king, bowdlerized 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 the U.K.’s former greatness—the nation’s id, its problematic self-regard— which is still defined by its 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 the 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.”
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 to St. Giles’ Cathedral before being put on board the Royal Train for a sad progress down the east coast mainline. Crowds are expected the length of the country to throw flowers on the passing train.
In every scenario, the queen’s body returns to the throne room in Buckingham Palace. 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.
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 king’s death was announced. The bells at Westminster Abbey sounded, and at Windsor 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—once for each year of George VI’s life.
On D+1, the day after the queen’s death, the flags will go back up, and at 11 a.m., Charles will be proclaimed king. 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 and 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.
From St. James’, 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.
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.
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 and cleaned, and its stone floor covered with 1,640 yards of carpet. Candles, their wicks already burnt in, will be brought over from Westminster Abbey. The streets around will be converted into ceremonial spaces. The traffic posts on the Mall will be removed, and rails put up to protect the hedges. The queen’s 10 pallbearers will be chosen, and practice 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 the TV program 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.
ON D+4, THE coffin will move to Westminster Hall, to lie in state for four days. The procession from Buckingham Palace will be the first great military parade of “London Bridge.” The route is thought to hold around a million people.
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 lead the mourners. The orb, the scepter, and the imperial crown will be fixed in place, soldiers will stand guard, and then the doors will be 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 4 miles long. The palace is expecting half a million for the queen.
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. 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. In 1936, the four sons of George V revived the Princes’ 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, the jewels will be taken off the coffin and cleaned. In 1952, it took three jewelers almost two hours to remove all the dust. (The Star of Africa, on the royal scepter, is the second-largest cut diamond in the world.) Most of the country will be waking to a day off. Shops will close. The stock market will not open. The night before, there will have been church services in towns across the U.K. There are plans to open soccer stadiums for memorial services.
At 9 a.m., 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 yards. 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, hidden in blinds made of painted bricks, will search for the images that we will remember. In 1965, the dockworkers 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. 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.
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 procession will swing on to the Mall. 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.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Guardian (U.K.). Reprinted with permission. ■