There are various versions of the secret blueprint held by Buckingham Palace, the Government and the BBC detailing the protocol to follow when Britain will face that same sad moment of history once more. Most envisage it starting with a short illness.
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.
This time, 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. And then… the Sovereign’s eyes will be closed, and Charles will be King.
The first official to deal with the news will be Sir Christopher Geidt, the Queen’s private secretary and a former diplomat, who will contact the Prime Minister.
The last time a British monarch died, 65 years ago, news of the death of George VI was conveyed to Buckingham Palace with the coded phrase ‘Hyde Park Corner’ to prevent switchboard operators from finding out. For Elizabeth II, civil servants will say ‘London Bridge is down’ on secure lines.
From the Foreign Office’s Global Response Centre, the news will go out to the 15 governments outside the UK where the Queen is also Head of State, and the 36 other nations of the Commonwealth for whom she has served as a symbolic figurehead.
For a time, she will be gone without our knowing it. 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.
But the news will be made public far earlier than it was on February 6, 1952, when George VI was found by his valet at Sandringham at 7.30am. The BBC did not broadcast the news until 11.15am.
Today, with the BBC’s royal monopoly long gone, an announcement will go out as a newsflash to the Press Association – the national news agency – 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 and pin a black-edged notice to the gates. The Palace website will show the same text on a dark background.
At the BBC, the ‘radio alert transmission system’ (Rats), will be activated. It is a near mythical part of the intricate preparations for the death of major royals that the BBC has held since the 1930s.
DJs on Britain’s commercial radio stations will play inoffensive music before switching to news bulletins at the earliest opportunity. 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.
On television, newsreaders will wear black suits and black ties. Programmes will stop. Networks will merge. BBC 1, 2 and 4 will be interrupted and revert silently to their respective ‘idents’ 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’ – summoning a spirit of national emergency. The Royal Standard will appear on the screen. The national anthem will play. You will remember where you were.
When people think of Royal deaths, they think of Diana. The passing of the Queen will be monumental by comparison. It may not be as nakedly emotional, but its implications will be more dramatic. ‘It will be quite fundamental,’ as one former courtier told me.
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 proclamations, a four-nation tour by the new King and a diplomatic assembling in London not seen since the death of Winston Churchill in 1965.
More overwhelming than any of this, though, will be an almighty psychological reckoning for the kingdom she leaves behind. The Queen is Britain’s last living link with our former greatness. One leading historian told me: ‘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.’
That may help explain why it is a moment Britain cannot bear thinking about – let alone talking or writing about. The research 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. Yet the next great rupture in Britain’s national life has, in fact, been planned to the minute.
That planning has been so extensive because succession is part of the job. It will be ten days of sorrow and spectacle in which nothing is left to chance.
If the Queen dies abroad, a BAe 146 jet from the Royal Flight will take off from Northolt, West London, with a coffin on board. If the Queen dies at Sandringham, her body will come to London by car after a few days.
The most elaborate plans are for what happens if she passes away at Balmoral. This will trigger an initial wave of Scottish ritual. First, the Queen’s body will lie at rest at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, where she is traditionally guarded by the Royal Company of Archers wearing eagle feathers in their bonnets.
Then the coffin will be carried up the Royal Mile to St Giles’ 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 crossings and station platforms the length of the country to throw flowers on the passing train. Another locomotive will follow behind, to clear debris from the tracks.
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. Outside, news crews will assemble on pre-agreed sites in Green Park.
‘I have an instruction book a couple of inches thick,’ said one TV director.
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.
The bells at Westminster Abbey sounded and the Sebastopol bell, 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.
In charge will be the Earl Marshal, the 8th Duke of Norfolk. Norfolks have overseen royal funerals since 1672.
His centre of operations will be The Lord Chamberlain’s office in the Palace. The Government team co-ordinating the police, security, transport and Armed Forces will assemble at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Around 10,000 tickets will be printed for VIP places at the various events, the first of which will be required for the proclamation of King Charles in about 24 hours time.
The current version of London Bridge is largely the work of Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Mather, a former equerry who retired in 2014. As a 23-year-old guardsman in 1965, Mather led the pallbearers at Churchill’s funeral.
The first plan was drawn up in 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. Arcane and highly specific knowledge is shared.
In recent years, much of the work has focused on the precise choreography of Charles’s accession. He is scheduled to make his first address as Head of State on the evening of his mother’s death.
Across the country, the official advice 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 against her passing away during a test match at Lord’s. The National Theatre will close if the news breaks before 4pm, and stay open if not. All games will be banned in the Royal Parks.
Protocols for local authorities advise stockpiling books of condolence, to be placed in town halls, libraries and museums.
Mayors will mask their decorations (maces will be shrouded with black bags). Flags of all possible descriptions, including beach flags (but not red danger flags), will be flown at half mast.
Possibly the biggest headache is dealing with foreign dignitaries. The most recent set of instructions to embassies in London went out just before Christmas. European royals will be put up at the Palace; the rest will stay at Claridge’s. If possible, both Houses of Parliament will sit within hours of the Monarch’s death.
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 1,000 years ago. In theory, all 670 current members of the Privy Council are invited – from Jeremy Corbyn to Ezekiel Alebua, the former prime minister of the Solomon Islands – but there is space for only 150 or so.
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 duty of his reign, swearing to protect the Church in Scotland – a tradition for a new monarch – and speaking of the heavy burden that is now his.
Then trumpeters from the Life Guards will step outside on to a Palace balcony to give three blasts. The Garter King of Arms, a genealogist named Thomas Woodcock whose official salary of £49.07 has not been raised since the 1830s, will stand on the balcony and begin the ritual proclamations of King Charles III.
The Garter King of Arms and half a dozen other heralds will then go by carriage to the statue of Charles I in Trafalgar Square, 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, former detective chief superintendent Philip Jordan, will be waiting on a horse. The heralds will be formally admitted to the City for an announcement at the Royal Exchange, and declarations across the country will follow.
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. ‘From day one, it is about the people rather than just the leaders being part of this new monarchy,’ said one of Charles’s advisers, who described the plans for his progress as ‘lots of not being in a car, but actually walking around.
The wave of grief and patriotic 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. The fiction will end when Elizabeth II dies. Camilla will become Queen.
‘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.’
King Charles is currently expected to introduce Queen Camilla at his Accession Council on D+1. On that day, too, Westminster Hall will be locked, cleaned and its stone floor covered with 1,600 yards of carpet, ready for the lying-in-state. Candles, their wicks already burnt in, will be brought over from the Abbey.
The Queen’s ten pallbearers will be chosen, too, 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.
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. A similar slow march for the Queen Mother in 2002 involved 1,600 personnel and stretched for half a mile. 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, near Sandringham, by Jock, a white shooting pony. The procession will reach Westminster Hall on the hour, precisely – ‘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, back from his tour of the home nations, will lead the mourners. The orb, sceptre and Imperial Crown will be fixed in place, soldiers will stand guard. Everything will be inch-perfect before the doors open to the multitude.
For George VI, 305,000 subjects came. The Palace is expecting half a million for the Queen. Before dawn on D+9, the day of the funeral, the jewels will be taken off the coffin and cleaned.
Most of the country will be waking to a day off. The stock market will not open. 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.
As the 2,000 guests gather inside Westminster Abbey, television cameras, in hides made of bricks painted to match the Abbey stone, will search for the images that we will remember. In 1965, 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. Inside, 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, his father and his father’s father, and 138 junior sailors will drop their heads to their chests and pull – a tradition that began at Victoria’s funeral in 1901 when the horses 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. 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. 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. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.