What Exactly Happens When the Queen Dies?
Queen Elizabeth II has reigned over the UK and the Commonwealth for almost seven decades, but it turns out what happens when she sheds this mortal coil has been planned out in detail going all the way back to shortly after she ascended the throne in the 1950s, with the Queen herself planning some of the elements.
As you might imagine, the whole affair includes an amazing amount of pomp and circumstance, though this was not always the case, or at least not nearly to the extent we see today in various Royal ceremonies. For example, going back to the funeral of King George IV it is noted in the book Royalty Inc: Britain’s Best Known Brand,
Dozens of pickpockets arrived in Windsor and lifted watches and money from sightseers who had turned up to see if any celebrities were attending. The funeral itself, hurried through in St. George’s Chapel at nine o’clock in the evening, was largely undignified. The congregation crowded in, jostling for the best seats, and then chatted noisily among themselves. ‘We never saw so motley, so rude, so ill-managed a body of persons,’ The Time’s’ correspondent reported… At least the undertakers were not drunk, as they had been at the funeral of George’s daughter and heir, the Princess Charlotte who died in childbirth in 1817.
As for his successor, William IV’s, coronation,
William only reluctantly agreed to have a ceremonial coronation and the money spent on the occasion was less than a fifth of that expended on his brother’s behalf ten years earlier… Among the other changes to royal protocols, the new King opened the terraces at Windsor Castle and the nearby great park to the public access and reduced the fleet of royal yachts. All this, his lack of pomposity and his visceral dislike of foreigners, particularly the French, tended to endear him to the populace…. When William IV himself died in June 1837, there was also a private funeral at Windsor and, if not quite as undignified as George’s had been, it was a perfunctory affair.
The ultra elaborate more public ceremonies now associated with the monarchy wouldn’t begin in earnest until the late 19th century, in part because of public protest over not being included in many of these events. For example, there was significant backlash over the fact that the 1858 wedding of Princess Victoria and Prince Friedrich Wilhelm had not been more public. As noted in a contemporary report by the Daily Telegraph at the time, the people lamented the “growing system of reserving the exclusive enjoyment of State ceremonials and spectacles for particular classes.”
In 1867, British journalist Walter Bagehot would postulate of all of this, “The more democratic we get, the more we shall get to like state and show, which have ever pleased the vulgar.”
That said, initial efforts to improve things were apparently somewhat lackluster. For example, the eventual Marquess of Salisbury, Lord Robert Cecil, after watching Queen Victoria open parliament in 1860, stated:
Some nations have a gift for ceremonial. No poverty of means of absence of splendour inhibits them from making any pageant in which they take part both real and impressive… In England the case is exactly the reverse. We can afford to be more splendid than most nations; but some malignant spell broods over all our most solemn ceremonials, and inserts into them some feature which makes them all ridiculous.
Nevertheless, by the time of Queen Victoria’s death things had started to improve somewhat, though this particular funeral ceremony too was almost made “ridiculous”. You see, while pulling the cart containing the queen’s coffin up a steep hill, a harness on one of the horses snapped, with the result being two of the other horses rearing back and bucking. The result of all of that, in turn, was the Queen’s coffin coming extremely close to being ejected from the carriage. Had it done so, it would have gone careening down the steep hill, possibly ejecting the Queen’s body at some point…
As for her successor, Edward VII, he would double down on improving public ceremonies, essentially turning every opportunity for pageantry into an elaborate affair and including the public as much as possible. Notably, upon his death in 1910, he had his body placed in a coffin at Westminster Hall with over 400,000 people reportedly coming to see it, helping to popularly bolster the old practice of certain members of the monarchy lying-in-state in the UK.
This all now brings us to the exact plan for what happens when Queen Elizabeth II dies. Code-named Operation London Bridge, meetings have been held a few times per year in the over six decades since the plan was originally created in order to tweak it as needed with the times, with the overarching plan going over every possible contingency the architects can think of.
Beyond logistical plans by the government, in more recent times, British news outlets have also had in place pre-planned obituaries, with some TV outlets rumored to occasionally rehearse the broadcasts they will give to announce the Queen’s death, right down to what they’ll wear.
If you’re wondering- a whole lot of black, including black ties for the men, extras of which are actually kept on hand at the BBC just in case needed on short notice. This reportedly became a thing after Peter Sissons of the BBC inadvisably wore a red tie when announcing the Queen Mother’s death. Certain members of the general public did not react kindly to this. (And if you’re curious- see How Did the Practice of Do Wearing Black for Mourning Start?)
Moving back to the official side of things, to begin with, first, immediately upon her death the Queen’s private secretary, Edward Young, will send a coded message to the Prime Minister, with the message originally “London Bridge is down”. However, given the whole point here of using such a coded message is to help reduce the chance of premature leaks of the news of the Queen’s death, it’s possible the exact coded phrase has been changed since that one was discovered. (If you’re curious, when King George VI died, the code was “Hyde Park Corner” and for the death of the Queen Mother “Operation Tay Bridge” was used.)
From there various entities, such as the media, will be officially notified and the Radio Alert Transmission System (RATS) will be activated announcing the death to the public. That said, it’s likely given social media is a thing that the news will leak much quicker that way to the wider public.
This all essentially kicks off a 12 day sequence of events, outlined in the plan as D-day (the day of the Queen’s death), D+1, D+2, etc. (Interestingly this is also exactly the reason the famed military operation now commonly known as D-Day is called such- just standing for “Designated day”, allowing for ease of coordinating a sequence of events when the actual start date is unknown, or in some cases where there is a desire for it to be kept as secret as possible.)
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing of all that will occur on D-day, beside the Queen’s death, is Prince Charles will assume the position of King, even though actually being sworn in as King will not take place until the following morning.
As for the coronation ceremony, this can potentially take many months to finally take place. For example, Queen Elizabeth II’s own coronation after the death of King George VI on February 6, 1952, did not take place until almost a year and a half later, on June 2, 1953. In this case, the decision to wait this lengthy period was made by Winston Churchill.
That said, there is some speculation that Charles’ coronation will be relatively swift in comparison in order to forestall any momentum building in public sentiment that may push for an abolishment of the monarchy, especially given the relatively lesser popularity of Prince Charles compared to the almost universally loved Queen he is replacing. To help further forestall such from happening, steps have been actively taken in recent years to try to bolster Charles’ profile among his subjects.
It should also be noted here that Prince Charles may choose to not become known as “King Charles III”, as he is free to choose any of the names from his full name of Charles Philip Arthur George. From this, there is some speculation that he may wish to honor his grandfather King George by taking the name King George VII or he may go with King Philip after his own father.
In any event, after Charles takes the oath the day after the Queen’s death, Parliament will be called to session that same day (the evening following King Charles’ oath) to swear allegiance to him. Likewise, police and military forces under his rule will also be called wherever they are to swear their allegiance to their new King.
Also on that evening, the new King will address the nation for the first time in that role. In her own such broadcast, Queen Elizabeth, among other things, swore “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.”
This is a good thing as we’ve previously noted the monarch of the UK is for all intents and purposes above the law in virtually every nation in the world, not just their own, for reasons we describe in our article on whether the Queen could legally get away with murder. On top of that, from a legal standpoint, their power in their own little empire is almost absolute for a variety of reasons, though of course, Queen Elizabeth II at least has very rarely used any of this authority.
But given this, as you might expect it’s quite important that the person made monarch in Britain is mentally stable and trustworthy as it would take a literal revolution or rebellion to take such powers away from that person from a legal standpoint, assuming said British monarch did not wish to have those powers taken. This would also place the military, police, Parliament and others in the awkward position of having to very publicly break their sworn oaths to said monarch to take their powers away against their will.
Going back to the Queen, what exactly happens to her body directly after her death will depend on where she is at the time, with Operation London Bridge attempting to plan for any contingencies. For example, should she die in her frequent summer home at Balmoral Castle in Scotland a special Scottish ceremony is planned before her body will be sent back to London. In this case, along with appropriate preservation being done, her body will be placed in Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh for a short time, and then her coffin carried to St. Giles’s Cathedral where a service will be held.
After this, the coffin will be put aboard the Royal Train at Edinburgh Waverley railway station and then will make its way down to London where it will be ultimately placed in Buckingham Palace. Given mourners will likely throw flowers and other things at the train as it passes, plans are in place to have another train follow behind shortly thereafter to clear the tracks as needed before the tracks are put back in general use.
On the other hand, should she die abroad, a jet from the No. 32 Royal Squadron will be dispatched with the Queen’s coffin to collect her body. (And if you’re wondering, yes, such a coffin is already made and waiting in case of a Royal’s death- called the “first call coffin”, kept by the Leverton & Sons royal undertakers for when it’s needed.)
Wherever it’s coming from, the Queen’s body will, as alluded to, make its way to the Throne Room of Buckingham Palace and be held there for at time. Four days after her death, her coffin will be placed in Westminster Hall, available for public viewing almost 24 hours a day for four days.
Given approximately 200,000 people went to view the Queen Mother’s coffin in 2002, it’s expected the number going to view Queen Elizabeth’s coffin will be vastly more than this.
Finally, the night before the funeral takes place, special church services will be held across the UK to commemorate the death of the head of the Church of England. The funeral will then take place the following day, with said day being deemed a national holiday.
On that day, the coffin will be carried from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey where approximately 2,000 guests will be invited into the Abbey to witness the funeral directly, with the service conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. After that ceremony is over, the the Queen will likely be laid to rest in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
Finally, at some yet undetermined point after the mourning period, the coronation of the new King will take place, which will also be a national holiday.
As for other logistics, with the change to the new King, various official things like certain physical money, stamps, etc. will switch from Queen Elizabeth’s visage to the King’s, and an awful lot of official documents and the like that formerly said “her” and “Queen” will be switched to “him” and “King”, such as the national anthem having the words slightly altered to “God Save the King”.
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Along with being the only person in the UK to not need a passport when traveling abroad, the Queen similarly doesn’t need a driver’s license to drive either. This is because, like passports, driver’s licenses are issued in her name. So she’s allowed to simply vouch for her own driving ability in person should she ever be pulled over.
Now, you’d think given her status and wealth, the Queen would never drive anyway, but you’d be wrong, though she did a few months back voluntarily cease driving on public roads at the urging of her security team who worried about the elderly Queen’s safety in driving on public roads at her age. But before that, it turns out the Queen loved driving and cars. In fact, during WW2 the Queen (then a princess) badgered her father to let her do her part for her country and subsequently ended up serving as a mechanic and driver with the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service at the tender age of 18. (She’d actually registered to serve at age 16 but King George wouldn’t allow it).
The Queen took her position incredibly seriously, becoming, by all accounts, a competent mechanic and driver, trained to fix and drive a host of military and suburban vehicles.
Fast-forwarding a bit through history, a humourous story about the Queen’s driving prowess comes from 1998 when she was visited at her estate in Balmoral, Scotland by the then Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The story was later revealed to the world by one-time Saudi ambassador Sherard Cowper-Cole.
Knowing Abdullah’s stance on the rights of women and the fact that women are essentially banned from driving in Saudi Arabia (there’s technically no law that says women can’t drive, but licenses are only issued to men), the Queen, demonstrating quintessential British passive aggressiveness, offered the Prince a tour of her palace grounds.
Dutifully, the Prince agreed and the pair headed outside where a large Land Rover bearing the Royal insignia was parked. After waiting for the Prince to climb into the passenger seat where he no doubt assumed a chauffeur would drive the pair around, the Queen then nonchalantly climbed into the driver’s seat and proceeded to drive the car, much to the Prince’s astonishment. According to ambassador Sherard, the Prince was extremely nervous about this arrangement from the start.
Things didn’t get better for him.
The then 72 year old Queen, knowing that Abdullah had never been driven by a woman before and no doubt observing his anxiety, decided to mess with him by purposely driving as fast as possible on “the narrow Scottish estate roads”.
As she sped along at break-neck speeds, the Crown Prince screamed at the Queen through his interpreter to slow down and pay closer attention to her driving. The Queen, ignoring his admonishments completely, continued pleasantly chatting away as if she wasn’t doing her best Fast and the Furious impression. We can only imagine Abdullah’s reaction if the Queen had mentioned to him that she never got her driver’s license…Expand for References
- What Happens When the Queen Dies?
- An Act Of National Communion
- London Bridge is Down
- What Happens When Queen Elizabeth Dies?
- What Happens If Every British Family Member Dies?
- Operation London Bridge
- Private Secretary to the Sovereign
- Monarchy of the United Kingdom
- Elizabeth II
- Could the Queen Legally Get Away with Murder?
- What Power Does the Queen of England Really Have
- Private Secretary to the Queen
- Royalty Inc
- The Invention of Tradition
- First Call Coffin
- State Funerals in the United Kingdom
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