Unlike most American presidents, British monarchs die in office, meaning there is plenty of time to plan a suitably grand funeral far in advance of the mournful day.
And in the case of the late Queen Elizabeth II, who died Thursday at age 96 after 70 years on the throne, those plans have in fact been in place since the 1960s.
The funeral plan for the late sovereign is a characteristically Windsor blend of ancient tradition and modern practicalities, featuring tolling bells and half-mast flags with a ban on retweets and social media accounts gone dark.
Operation London Bridge, as the queen’s funeral plan is known, gets a military-style name in part because the military is heavily involved in organizing and carrying out many of the processions and ceremonies.
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But another set of plans kicks into gear because the Queen died at her beloved estate in Balmoral, Scotland. Dubbed Operation Unicorn, those plans, reports say, include having the Queen’s body remaining in Scotland for a number of days before eventually being transported likely by plane to London.
The death of the monarch is simultaneously the birth of a new reign; As one set of Britain’s ceremonial maestros prepare for the funeral of the queen, another set is working on Operation Spring Tide, the separate plan for the rituals accompanying the accession of her son, now known as King Charles III.
When the queen’s husband, Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh, died in April 2021, his funeral plan was called Operation Forth Bridge after a bridge in Edinburgh, Scotland, and he was deeply involved in laying out details of what he did and didn’t want. for his send off.
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The monarch’s funeral plans are supposed to be top secret, but inevitably details get leaked because multiple palace officials and government departments are responsible for drafting sections or circulating it in advance.
It’s been so long since the death of the last monarch (the queen’s father, King George VI, died in 1952), relatively few people alive today have experienced a sovereign’s funeral. That makes the elaborate ritual big news for a ceremony-obsessed nation, not to mention the rest of the world.
Details of Operation London Bridge first leaked in The Guardian in May 2017, describing what would happen during the 10-day period from the day after the death and the funeral at Westminster Abbey followed by interment in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
In September 2021, another leak splashed into headlines, apparently after the plan was updated to account for the coronavirus pandemic, social media and other changes, this time it was in Politico.
“The documents show the extraordinary level of action required by all arms of the British state, including a vast security operation to manage unprecedented crowds and travel chaos that could see, in the words of one official memo, London become ‘full’ for the first time. time ever,” Politico reported.
Buckingham Palace declined to comment or confirm any reports on the queen’s funeral plan. Based on the Guardian and Politico reports, here are some of the things to expect:
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‘London Bridge is down’: What happens when the queen dies
The moment Queen Elizabeth II passed, her eldest son and heir, the Prince of Wales, instantly became Britain’s 41st monarch, a tradition dating back to William the Conqueror in 1066. If he and his three siblings were all in fact at the bedside of their mother when she died, they would have acknowledged his new position by kissing his hand.
The late monarch’s private secretary would then have called the prime minister on a secure line to say the code phrase, “London Bridge is down,” followed by a number of similar calls to cabinet officials and other high-ranking officials in the United Kingdom and in the 15 Commonwealth countries where the British sovereign is head of state.
Emails will follow to lower-ranking civil servants, urging “discretion” until the PM officially announces the death.
The royal household notifies the Press Association, which flashes the news to the world’s media (if they don’t already know it from leaks). At the same time, a footman in mourning dress emerges from Buckingham Palace and posts a black-edged death notice near the gates.
Within 10 minutes of the death, all the flags across Whitehall are supposed to be lowered to half-mast. The bells at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey toll for hours. The military will arrange gun salutes across London, including a 41-gun fusillade from Hyde Park.
Royal websites and social media will change to a black page with a short statement confirming the queen’s death. All government websites and social media pages will show a black banner. Non-urgent content will not be published and retweets by government officials will be banned without prior approval by the government communications chief.
At some point after the death, the prime minister will meet with Charles, who is expected to deliver a broadcast to the nation, his first as king.
Proclamation confirms Charles as king on Day 1
The Accession Council will meet at St. James’s Palace to proclaim the new sovereign, attended by scores of high-ranking officials and privy councilors, “lords spiritual and temporal,” including the prime minister, many in morning dress.
Although Charles is already king at that point, the proclamation read (by an official in an antique costume) from the Friary Court balcony at St. James’s Palace and at the Royal Exchange in the City of London confirm him as the new monarch.
It also signals the religious significance of the British monarch: Charles’ first official duty of his reign will be to swear three oaths: to protect the Church of Scotland; the Accession Oath, to be a true and faithful Protestant; and the coronation oath, promising to uphold the rights and privileges of the Church of England as its symbolic head.
Trumpeters from the Life Guards, wearing red plumes on their helmets, will step onto the balcony to give three blasts, followed by the Garter King of Arms who will begin the ritual proclamations of King Charles III. Costumed heralds will then fan out around the city and the nation, blasting their trumpets and declaiming proclamations.
Subsequent days: Queen’s coffin transfer
After the queen rests in state among family and friends in Scotland, the queen’s coffin will be transferred from the place of death to the throne room at Buckingham Palace overlooking the northwest corner of the Quadrangle interior courtyard. The plan calls for an altar, the pall (a large cloth draping the coffin), the royal standard and four Grenadier Guards, their bearskin hats inclined, their rifles pointing to the floor, standing watch.
Charles’ tour of the kingdom, procession
The new king will receive Parliament’s motion of condolence at Westminster Hall, then depart on a tour of the kingdom to meet his people.
He is expected to visit Edinburgh in Scotland, Belfast in Northern Ireland and Cardiff in Wales, to attend services of remembrance for the queen and to meet the leaders of the kingdom’s devolved governments.
Meanwhile, rehearsals will take place for the procession of the coffin from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster, the sprawling complex also known as the Houses of Parliament.
The actual procession will take place along a ceremonial route in the first major military parade of the funeral: Down the Mall, through Horse Guards and past the Cenotaph, at a slow march, expected to take just under 30 minutes. The route is thought to hold around a million people, based on what was learned during the London 2012 Olympics.
The procession will be followed by a service in Westminster Hall, the magnificent building that is the oldest part of the Parliamentary complex (more than 900 years old) and is today used for state occasions.
Queen lies in state in London for a number of days
The queen will lie in state on a purple-draped catafalque in Westminster Hall. The coffin will have a false lid with a high rim to hold the Crown Jewels, the orb, the scepter and the Imperial Crown, in place. Soldiers will stand guard while the public shuffles past, 23 hours a day; up to a half-million people are expected. (VIPs may go to the head of the line.)
In 1936, the four sons of George V (the queen’s grandfather) revived what’s known as 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, are expected to do the same.
Meanwhile, rehearsals will take place for the state funeral procession, while government departments work to deal with potential problems of security threats, overcrowding in the transportation network and crowd control.
The queen’s funeral at Westminster Abbey
The state funeral will be at Westminster Abbey, where British kings and queens traditionally were married, mourned and buried. The queen will be the first British monarch to have her funeral in the abbey since George II in 1760 (he was also buried there).
Inside the abbey, 2,000 guests will be assembled when the coffin arrives. Outside, Big Ben’s muffled bell will toll. The day will be declared a Day of National Mourning and two minutes of silence will be marked across the nation.
When the coffin emerges from the Abbey, the pallbearers will place it on the green gun carriage that was used for the funerals of the queen’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather, all kings. From Hyde Park Corner, the hearse will go about 25 miles to Windsor Castle.
There will be a committal service in St. George’s Chapel, followed by burial in the royal vault’s King George VI Memorial Chapel, where the queen will join her parents and sister, and be reunited with her beloved late husband.