In 2017, The Guardian posted a long article: ‘”London Bridge is down”: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death’.

Halfway through, it says (emphases mine):

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.

Royal funeral plans are top secret, which makes the article even more amazing. I don’t know how the journalist, Sam Knight, managed it.

Queen Victoria’s death

Until Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Victoria was the United Kingdom’s longest reigning monarch.

A monarch’s death is preceded by an announcement about illness, signifying that the end is near:

“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.

Her longevity produced a shockwave of reaction, particularly as she did not perceive her heir, Edward VII, to be worthy of succession. This suggests a parallel between the Queen and Charles III:

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.”

George V’s death

In a well run monarchical system, a symbiosis exists between monarchs and their subjects:

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 …

This is what happened when the Queen’s grandfather died. Note how George V’s physician thought it was important for the news to make the morning rather than the evening newspapers:

“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

“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.”

Other Royal deaths

Sometimes, Royal deaths are unexpected events, leading to differences in who finds out first:

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 …

“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).

Also:

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.

I do remember watching BBC1’s Peter Sissons on the Saturday evening when the Queen Mother died in 2002:

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.”

I thought his maroon tie was disrespectful, as was the way he read out that bit of news. It was as if he did not care. That started my dislike of the BBC’s treatment of current affairs, which only escalated afterwards.

The Duke of Norfolk

As the Royal Family has been Anglican for centuries, it is ironic that the person they entrust with their funerals and coronations is the highest ranking Catholic layman of the realm, the Duke of Norfolk.

Dukes of Norfolk have been organising these events since 1672:

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.

The current Duke is Edward William Fitzalan-Howard, 65. In April 2022, he ran a red light while talking on his mobile phone. He was found guilty of these traffic violations on September 26 and pleaded not to have his driving licence revoked for six months. His request was refused.

On his role as Earl Marshal, the Daily Mail reports:

Edward William Fitzalan-Howard, 65, became England’s most senior peer and the 18th duke following the death of his father Miles in 2002.

For more than 350 years, his ancestors have passed down the ancient office of Earl Marshal – meaning that they are responsible for overseeing funerals for members of the Royal Family, the coronations of Britain’s monarchs, and even state openings of parliament

And because the office is hereditary, it meant that the peer’s grandfather Bernard Fitzalan-Howard, the 16th Duke of Norfolk, was responsible for organising Elizabeth II’s Coronation in 1953, the state funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965 and the investiture of Charles as the Prince of Wales in 1969.

Eddie, as he is known to his friends, oversaw the planning and execution of the most majesty send-off of a Sovereign in living memory – as 2,000 VIPs including King Charles and the British royal family emperors, kings and queens, prime ministers, presidents, and members of the public including decorated war heroes, members of the Armed Forces and NHS staff who worked tirelessly during the pandemic attended Westminster Abbey for the state funeral …

an overwhelming majority of Britons (86%) believe that the Duke of Norfolk did a ‘good job’ of commemorating the late Monarch. 

The duke began planning the Queen’s funeral the week of his father’s death 20 years ago, though plans for the service – codenamed Operation London Bridge – have been in place since the 1960s. Eddie held annual meetings in the throne room of Buckingham Palace, working closely with Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Mather, a long-serving member of the royal household who commanded the bearer party at Churchill’s funeral, for the first 10 years. In the two decades which followed, the number of people involved swelled from just 20 to 280 in April this year.

Just days before the funeral, the peer explained that the funeral was being held in Westminster Abbey for the first time in more than 200 years – since George II in 1760 – so that 2,000 guests could attend. He also revealed that he extended the Queen’s lying in state at Westminster Hall for an extra day ‘to allow an additional 85,000 people to file past the coffin’

His niece Lady Kinvara Balfour told Tatler magazine: ‘In organising the Queen’s funeral (and the coronation to come), Uncle Eddie has done a truly outstanding job. What a show of elegance, efficiency and rare precision he has produced for our nation, and the world – just like the late Queen Elizabeth II herself did. He is an incredible father of five, a grandfather too’

As for the guilty verdict on his traffic violations:

His Grace The Duke of Norfolk, Edward William Fitzalan-Howard, 65, appeared at Lavender Hill Magistrates Court after being caught by the officers who told the court he appeared to run a red light while not paying attention.

The Duke pleaded guilty to one count of driving his six year-old blue three-litre diesel BMW while using a hand-held device in Battersea Park Road, south-west London on April 7.

The Oxford-educated father of five, who is a descendant of Elizabeth I, was also fined £800, with £350 costs and ordered to pay an £80 victim surcharge.

His Grace received six penalty points for using his mobile phone.

‘That means, as you know, you will be disqualified for six months because you have more than twelve points on your licence,’ magistrate Judith Way told him.

‘We have been advised of the test for exceptional hardship and it is the burden of the defendant to show exceptional hardship,’ announced magistrate Judith Way.

Before the ruling was handed down, his Grace had tried to argue it was necessary for him to keep his licence.

The highest-ranking duke in England argued he would suffer ‘exceptional hardship’ if he was disqualified, highlighting his official duties along with his conservation work to prevent ‘nature’s complete collapse’ and ‘the end of mankind’. 

In his hereditary role as Earl Marshal he told the court he is in charge of the coronation of King Charles III and asked for part of the hearing to be held in private in the interests of ‘national security’, while his legal team told the court he needed to be able to drive to ensure the organisation went smoothly.

His Grace, of Arundel Castle, Arundel, Sussex already has nine penalty points on his driving licence for two speeding offences and this latest conviction means he has been subjected to the minimum six-month ban under totting rules.

Dismissing The Duke’s application to keep his licence, Ms Way said: ‘We have heard sworn evidence from the defendant.

‘We accept this is a unique case because of the defendant’s role in society and his role in the King’s coronation and even though inconvenience may be caused we do not find exceptional hardship.

‘We know the need for security clearance for any driver and we do not think this is insurmountable for his high-profile role.

‘We believe the defendant has the means to employ a driver.’

Indeed he does.

Managing the Queen’s death rituals

Keeping in mind that The Guardian‘s article was written in 2017, this was true in the event:

During London Bridge, the Lord Chamberlain’s office in the palace will be the centre of operations … The government’s team – coordinating the police, security, transport and armed forces – will assemble at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Michelle Donelan, formerly of the Department for Education, is the new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Someone in that group of officials also had the job of printing tickets for various events:

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”.

Operation London Bridge had been in place for well over 50 years and was regularly updated from then until this month:

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 sharedThe coffin must have a false lid, to hold the crown jewels, with a rim at least three inches high.

Processions were also carefully timed.

After the Queen died, the military personnel involved rehearsed day and night to get everything exactly right.

King Charles III was also involved:

… 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 … 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.

In the event, he made it the following evening at 6 p.m.

The Throne Room at Buckingham Palace was the site for the Queen’s lying at rest before going to Westminster Hall:

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.

It is ironic that The Guardian published an article waxing incandescent over staff redundancies — lay-offs — because this piece makes it abundantly clear that they knew the King would bring in his own staff:

“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.”

Dying in Scotland

Although the article does not mention it, the Queen’s death in Scotland activated Operation Unicorn.

However, that operation dovetailed with London Bridge:

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

Thankfully, her coffin was flown back to London. According to this, a train journey would have been difficult to organise if she had travelled by rail:

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.

Coming by plane also enabled an extra day of viewing at Westminster Hall.

How the media probably found out

Informing the media is also a big part of Royal deaths, especially the Queen’s.

Radio and television channels had — and have — their response plans ready.

In the case of the Queen, the following more or less happened:

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 …

The BBC has a special, secret transmission system, RATS:

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.

Royal experts were at the ready because they were pre-booked a long time ago. Media outlets have had obituaries ready to go, with only minor updates for the death to be added:

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.

Radio stations were also prepared with suitable music:

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.”

Incredibly, all television presenters wore black immediately:

… 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

According to one former head of BBC news … 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 …

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.

And so it turned out to be.

Media broadcasts

I’m still wrapping my head around 12 days of continuous news coverage focusing on the Queen.

Somehow, it never got boring.

That is because there were seven decades of historic reign to cover, as well as the years between 1926 — the year of the Queen’s birth — and 1952, when she succeeded George VI:

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.”

… 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.

Conclusion

In summary:

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.

It was an incredible time which galvanised the United Kingdom:

“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.”

That is quite true. The conclusion that most of us drew from television coverage was that no one does monarchy and ritual quite like Britain. We are still the greatest in that regard.

On Monday, September 19, four million television viewers tuning in from around the world to pay their respects agreed.

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