ffrom the gamekeepers who carried her coffin from Balmoral Castle until they sank slowly through the chapel floor of St. George’s chapel, nearly every step of Queen Elizabeth II’s final journey had been exquisitely choreographed and conveyed to the world.
For decades, senior palace officials fine-tuned the London Bridge, the funeral plan, Operation Unicorn, in case she died in Scotland, and Operation Springtide, the king’s program. The Queen was, those who knew her would agree, a “perfectionist”.
The Queen Mother’s funeral twenty years ago had, in a sense, been a rehearsal of the ceremony, though it would be on a grander scale. Also on this occasion there would be a parallel story. This was not only the funeral of a queen, but also the accession of a new king, plans again long in the making.
Still, feeding the media’s insatiable appetite for new content for 11 days is a daunting task. The palace has proven to be an expert in this. Any emptiness would be unwelcome and make room for naughty reporting. Day after day, new information and new photo opportunities were offered. It kept the momentum going until the ceremonial spectacle of the state funeral and funeral service.
“It was an extraordinary moment that history was waiting for. Everything was checked. And they made the most of every moment. They kept surprising people,” said Mark Borkowski, a leading public relations officer. “They set the news agenda during the mourning period. They determine the story. And they provided the media moments.”
There were set pieces and precedents. The very poignant vigil of the princes, when members of the royal family stood watch during the dedication, first took place around George V’s coffin in 1936. The Queen Mother was the first consort to bestow this honour, in 2002 .
Since Queen Elizabeth II died at Balmoral, there were three vigils: while her coffin rested in St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh; laid in state with her at Westminster Hall; and finally again at Westminster Hall, this time with her eight grandchildren. Each time, the image was guaranteed to be on the front pages of newspapers.
The Princess Royal’s emotional six-hour journey—one she later described as an “honor and privilege” and “humiliating and uplifting”—following the hearse as it made its way through the scenic highlands from Balmoral to Edinburgh was another. finely woven thread in the story. The rich images of the ceremonial procession in Scotland and the rest in Edinburgh were a bonus for the media and a welcome advertisement for Scottish tourism.
Tributes to the Royal Family were delivered in strict order of priority and seniority, and never on the same day. First the King, in his King’s Speech, then the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sussex, with the Duke of York’s at the end, 10 days after his mother’s death.
The arrival of the coffin in procession to Westminster Hall and five days later, the great ceremonies of the state funeral at Westminster Abbey and the service at St George’s Chapel drew heavily on previous royal funerals. Last-minute additions to the plans included the inclusion of NHS staff at the funeral, to reflect the trials and tribulations the country has been undergoing due to the Covid pandemic.
Just as much detail had gone into the king’s program. The accession council’s first broadcast, the colorful proclamations read across the country, his visits to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Hillsborough all confirmed his accession.
“They were setting up a story and a personality, subtly defining what the new government looks like. It was very different from the Queen’s in many ways,” Borkowski said. “It felt like spontaneity. They thought: how do we convey the character of Charles? We take him out, walking into the crowd when he first arrives at Buckingham Palace. All those sensitive, sensitive things the Queen certainly wouldn’t have done in a million years. So actually it shows very subtly that there is a difference.”
There was no escaping the fact that the funeral took place against a background of family controversy. The question of when and where Prince Andrew and Prince Harry should be allowed to wear uniforms was one. A surprise walkabout in Windsor by William and Kate and Harry and Meghan sparked an acre of coverage, trying to counter speculation about the brothers’ strained relationships.
But, so was the avalanche of other information, the palace made sure not to divert attention from the queen herself.
“There was nothing modern about the way they did it. It was a proven and well-oiled method of using the media. And the media was very grateful for it. These things don’t last long, though,” Borkowski said. “You can never sit back. A few years ago they would have had some time to think and get together. But we went further. “
With plans for the coronation of Charles III, said to be a much less grand and expensive affair than his mother’s, now well underway, the palace has no time to relax and congratulate itself on a massive operation carried out. with perfection.