Who in 'HMS bubble' will be there to comfort the Queen?

Harry Mount
·5-min read
The Queen had to sit alone during the funeral due to social distancing regulations - Jonathan Brady/Pool via REUTERS
The Queen had to sit alone during the funeral due to social distancing regulations - Jonathan Brady/Pool via REUTERS

In keeping with social distancing regulations, Her Majesty sat metres apart from the rest of the Royal family. 

As a consequence of Covid rules, the only people allowed to sit closer to her are her “bubble” of 22 Royal Household staff. These are the people who will be now on hand to provide the Queen with consoling company.

Last year, they were dubbed “HMS Bubble” by Tony Johnstone-Burt, Master of the Household and a former Royal Navy officer. The Queen and Prince Philip much enjoyed the HMS Bubble joke – not least because Prince Philip’s wartime nickname was “Big Bubble”.

In an email Mr Johnstone-Burt sent to all staff last year, he wrote: “There are 22 Royal Household staff inside the Bubble, and it struck me that our predicament is not dissimilar to my former life in the Royal Navy on a long overseas deployment.

“Indeed, the challenges that we are facing, whether self-isolating alone at home or with our close household and families, have parallels with being at sea, away from home for many months, and having to deal with a sense of dislocation, anxiety and uncertainty. Regardless of the roles we perform, we do them to an exceptional standard to allow the Queen and other members to do their duty to the best of their ability, too.”

Watch: Mourning Queen to mark birthday without Philip for first time during reign

When the first lockdown began, the Queen confined herself to her private apartments in the upper ward of Windsor Castle with those 22 staff. 

The closest of all is Angela Kelly, her senior dresser, who has been working for her since 1993. Throughout lockdown, she has been visiting the Queen at Windsor Castle, driving every day in a disinfected car from her grace-and-favour Windsor home.

The Queen trusts her so much that she has let her write two books – with a third in the pipeline – about royal life. Their backgrounds may be different – Angela, 62, divorced three times, was brought up in a council house, the daughter of a crane operator at Liverpool Docks. But they chat away happily and know each other inside out, quite literally: Angela Kelly breaks in the Queen’s new shoes before she wears them.

There is a long history of monarchs growing close to their aides, notably Queen Victoria with her Scottish attendant, John Brown, and her Indian attendant, the Munshi. There were suggestions that Victoria grew particularly close to Brown. 

Queen Elizabeth II takes her seat in St George's Chapel away from other family members
Queen Elizabeth II takes her seat in St George's Chapel away from other family members

In her widowhood, the staff in the Queen’s bubble, while remaining entirely professional, will be a comfort.

She has already been seen walking her dogs at Windsor this week. No doubt she will soon ride her favourite ponies, Carltonlima Emma and Balmoral Fern, in the company of head groom Terry Pendry. 

The Queen has resumed professional duties this week, conducting a telephone call with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Her governmental work will be carried out via another member of HMS Bubble, her Private Secretary, Sir Edward Young. 

This week, she has been in constant touch with the Lord Chamberlain of the Household, Lord Parker, former director general of MI5. On Tuesday, she held a farewell audience at Windsor with her previous Lord Chamberlain, Earl Peel, who held the post for 14 years. 

Ever-present in her household through lockdown has been the Queen’s Page of the Backstairs, Paul Whybrew. Known as “Tall Paul”, he is renowned for starring alongside her in the James Bond sketch with Daniel Craig at the 2012 Olympics. Said to be a calming presence, it has been reported that he is the aide who accompanies Her Majesty when she settles down to watch the television. 

Another member of HMS Bubble with a prominent role to play at the funeral is Brigadier Archie Miller-Bakewell, Prince Philip’s private secretary, who worked for him since 2010, arranging his diary and standing in for him at events. 

Since the latest relaxation in Covid rules, members of the Royal Family have been allowed to visit the Queen, albeit at distance. Prince Andrew lives only a few miles away at Royal Lodge. Prince Edward and Sophie Wessex (who is particularly close the Queen) are 11 miles away at Bagshot Park. Prince Charles and Princess Anne have also been in regular contact. 

The Queen’s closest friends will be on hand to support her, even if they aren’t actually in her bubble. Her ladies-in-waiting – known as Women of the Bedchamber – are devoted to her and have worked for her for decades.

They include: the Hon. Dame Mary Anne Morrison, 83, a Woman of the Bedchamber since 1960; Lady Elton, 83, a Woman of the Bedchamber since 1987; the Hon. Dame Annabel Whitehead, 78, a Woman of the Bedchamber since 2002; and the Countess of Airlie, 88, a Woman of the Bedchamber since 1973.

One lady-in-waiting accompanied her in the car on the day of her husband’s funeral; Lady Susan Hussey, 81, principal Woman of the Bedchamber and Prince William’s godmother.

In her grief, the Queen knows her family, friends and staff will do all they can to support her, whether they are in or out of HMS Bubble.

Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Penguin)

Watch: The wonderful life of Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh