Queen Elizabeth famously called 1992 her “annus horribilis,” but that was before she lived through 2002 which saw the passing of both her mother and her sister in short order. Fifteen years ago today the Palace announced the death of Queen Elizabeth (née Bowes-Lyon), wife of King George VI, known more commonly as the Queen Mother.
The official statement read:
“The Queen, with the greatest sadness, has asked for the following announcement to be made immediately: her beloved mother, Queen Elizabeth, died peacefully in her sleep this afternoon at Royal Lodge, Windsor. Members of the royal family have been informed.
“Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother had become increasingly frail in recent weeks following her bad cough and chest infection over Christmas.
“Her condition deteriorated this morning and her doctors were called. Queen Elizabeth died peacefully in her sleep at 3.15 this afternoon at Royal Lodge. The Queen was at her mother’s bedside.”
The news came less than two months after the death of Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, the Queen Mother’s younger daughter, and marked the end of a certain generation of the Royal Family. The Queen, of course, still remained, as did the Duke of Edinburgh, and some of her cousins, the Dukes of Kent and Gloucester to name two, but the senior royals that had seen the UK through World War II and the post-war years were fading away, replaced more fully by the Royal Family as we know it today – Charles and Camilla, William and Harry as adults, Edward and Sophie.
It’s a poignant anniversary, particularly in light of a recent article from The Guardian about the plans for the Queen’s death, from the funeral to how the announcement will be made. I was on the fence about referencing it, mainly because there being funeral arrangements in place for the Queen isn’t really news, but details as to how information will be transmitted to the public certainly is. The last notable deaths of senior royals were the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, and before that it was slightly grey area of the unexpected passing of the late Princess of Wales in 1997, who was divorced from Prince Charles.
Quite a bit of time has passed since then, and even more time has passed since the death of a monarch – a monumental event in any scenario, but when one has reigned as long as the Queen has, it’s a bit stomach-churning because there isn’t a precedent. Not in this environment, with this public, with this particular cast of characters – all of those are significant X-factors. To quote the article:
“For a time, she will be gone without our knowing it. The information will travel like the compressional wave ahead of an earthquake, detectable only by special equipment. 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.”
The Queen, who began her reign with Winston Churchill as a Prime Minister, has now had PMs born after she ascended the throne. Entire generations of politicians only know life in the UK under a sole female monarch, which is mind-boggling, somewhat wonderful, and again, a bit nerve-wracking when one considers the removal of what has become a pillar of the public consciousness worldwide.
But that is the monarchy: It’s not one person, but rather a literal succession of figures. The Queen will become the King, but the throne is never empty. The monarchy and what it stands for, if you are so inclined to agree with it, never ceases or pauses or hesitates, it’s designed to withstand the passage of both life and time.
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. While he does this, the palace website will be transformed into a sombre, single page, showing the same text on a dark background.
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.
And the world will go on, though the speculation and emotion will run rampant. This will be a huge, breathtaking press event, because most people alive have never seen anything like it. The last time a death of a monarch with this much political and historical significance occurred was Queen Victoria in 1901, but then the dawn of the 20th century was a very different environment than today. And Victoria, in her later years, garnered respect and affection, but arguably not anywhere near that which the Queen does. The current Queen, unlike her great-great-grandmother, has always understood that her power is in being seen. She is there, hat and handbag properly in place, to reflect and represent the Commonwealth, a certain British sensibility and something akin to mystique, of which there isn’t much left in the world.
Will that be lost in her passing? The slightly faded glamour and respectability that “royal” once conjured up? Maybe. But the newer generations are betting on that being okay, for what worked for the Queen’s generation isn’t marketable for William, Harry and Kate, or even for Charles. That will be the evolution and the growing pains, which seems difficult to wrap one’s head around, and yet will occur so gradually as to not be noticeable.
In 2002, when the Queen Mother died, the obit lights didn’t come on because someone failed to push the button down properly. 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.”
But 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.
What would the Queen Mother – a woman who lived through two World Wars and the Abdication Crisis – have made of all of this? She understood pomp and ceremony; she likely would have been highly bemused by much of the younger generation’s style – and by that I don’t mean raising an eyebrow at Kate’s black gowns (a once upon a time “no no” for royal women). She was an old school royal woman, trained in the model of the rather austere Queen Mary, in a time when the traditions of Queen Victoria hadn’t yet fully faded away.
But she believed in the monarchy, its power and its purpose. And if there’s one person she loved, beyond her husband and her daughters, it was her eldest grandson, the Prince of Wales. At the end of the day, I think she would have believed in him.