As day turned to evening on the day Elizabeth II died, King Charles was calmly fielding and making calls while responding to a growing list of requests for a decision. One of the most urgent was a simple one: when to press the start button for London Bridge? In the finest military traditions, thousands of pages of careful planning still needed an official start time, to be known as D or D-Day.
When the King decided that “D” would wait until morning, the postponement came as a blessed relief for those preparing one of the most complex ceremonial exercises.
The man responsible was Edward Fitzalan-Howard, 18th Duke of Norfolk. He had been preparing for this moment for 20 years, since becoming hereditary Earl Marshal on the death of his father in 2002. “It was like constantly revising for a Physics A-level, but never knowing when the exam was going to be,” he reflects.
One of the great officers of state, the Earl Marshal is responsible for organising state funerals, state openings of Parliament and coronations. Eddie Norfolk, as he is known to all at Westminster and the Palace, had received a call the day before from the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Edward Young.
“He had always promised not to call unless it was serious,” recalls the Duke, adding that Sir Edward would say whether it would be a case of days or months. On this occasion, it was the former. “He said it was definitely not a month. But we didn’t know it would be the next day.”
His next thought was to call his right-hand man on all things ceremonial, Assistant Comptroller Major Andrew Chatburn. “And I got my white shirts ready.”
Eddie Norfolk had been more attentive to the task in hand than his predecessor, his father, Miles Norfolk, a career soldier and veteran of Dunkirk who was much prouder of his Military Cross for gallantry in Italy than of his rank as England’s premier duke. Miles Norfolk’s strategy for regal funeral-planning was to organise it through the heralds at the College of Arms. “After several years, the best they could come up with for my father was five sides of foolscap, which didn’t say much,” says Eddie.
“I used to say to my father that we needed better plans. He’d just say: ‘Look, I organised the Guards’ crossing of the Rhine in 24 hours in wartime. I can organise a funeral.’”
Miles Norfolk’s one lasting contribution to the plans for the death of the sovereign was a name. “There was a debate over what to call it,” says Eddie Norfolk. “My father happened to see a picture of London Bridge hanging on the wall. So he said: ‘Let’s call it London Bridge.’”
After succeeding to the dukedom, Eddie Norfolk had sought the advice of Lt Col Anthony Mather, ex-Guards, ex-Palace, and something of a ceremonial guru. As a young officer, he had commanded the bearer party at Churchill’s funeral in 1965. Andrew Parker Bowles remembers his talents ahead of the funeral of Earl Mountbatten in 1979, when Mather helped him knock the Royal Navy bearer party into shape. “He really knew what he was doing,” says Parker Bowles.
Together the pair worked out a plan. “[It] was for two services and lots of processions,” says Norfolk, adding that he cleared the proposals with the Queen and the late Duke of Edinburgh.
Finally, in 2015, they took their blueprint to the then Prince of Wales. “Anthony and I flew up to Birkhall and the Prince kindly gave us two and a half hours in the drawing room,” says Norfolk. “I said: ‘Can we sign off now, Sir?’ and he said ‘Yes’. Now we had a plan. It would have been awful if all this had happened and he had said, ‘I don’t want to do that.’”
Operation London Bridge would draw heavily on the expertise of the Household Division. Running the whole show would be Maj Gen Chris Ghika, its commanding officer and GOC (General Officer Commanding) London District. Alongside him would be the man sometimes described as the most powerful (or most terrifying) figure in the British Army, the Garrison Sergeant Major London District. At ceremonial events, even royalty and the most senior generals defer to the man known universally as “Garrison”, GSM “Vern” Stokes.
By the time that the Palace had formally announced the death of the Queen, Ghika’s team was already poring over planning notes. An early priority was tracking down certain key players, not least the bearer party. This is, by long tradition, drawn from Queen’s Company, Grenadier Guards, which always maintains a designated team allotted for the task at any given time. But where were they? On patrol with Kurdish trainees in Iraq, it transpired.
Where were the state trumpeters? “There are always supposed to be four in the country at any one time,” says Stokes. “For some reason, it turned out that all eight of them were on a plane to Canada for a tour with the Household Cavalry Band. We told all of them, including the band, to turn straight round and come back.”
The plans allowed for just one rehearsal for the entire state funeral procession. It took place on Thursday September 15, in the very early hours. “It was a comedy of errors,” says the Garrison Sergeant Major. “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”
He had been annoyed that, at the initial recce, some officers had seemed more interested in catching up with long-lost chums. Now, at the very outset, the bagpipes pre-empted his first command, meaning that the whole parade was out of step. More worryingly, an entire band went missing because their marshalling officer had led them to the wrong start-point.
At Hyde Park Corner, one of the Gentlemen at Arms went the wrong way and was close to being crushed, possibly fatally, between the gun carriage and Wellington Arch. The buses that were supposed to take hundreds of troops to the committal at Windsor never appeared.
Most worrying was a basic question of maths. All the parade times had been calculated according to the span of a Guardsman’s pace – 30 inches – however, according to a tradition dating back to the funeral of Queen Victoria, the coffin would be carried on a gun carriage pulled by Royal Navy ratings. And the average pace of that turned out to be nearer 20 inches. The result was that the front of the parade ended up parting company with the coffin. It also meant that the coffin would be late reaching the end of the procession route at Hyde Park Corner, from where it would then be driven by road to Windsor.
The Earl Marshal, by his own admission, was now a worried man. “If this ended up going wrong, it would be my responsibility,” he acknowledges.
“It was too late to rewrite the plan,” says Stokes. However, he calculated that the hearse would be able to make up the lost time en route and the final procession at Windsor could still set off on time. It made for a tense few days, however, as the day approached.
At 5.30am, well before dawn, on Monday September 19 2022, Vern Stokes was already on his first walk-through of the entire processional route, dressed in full uniform. He was also checking crowd barriers and looking for superfluous street furniture. A couple of traffic lights were duly removed from their perches. He repeated the exercise all over again before having breakfast. “It’s like being a Formula One driver before the start,” he recalls. “You are just trying to visualise the whole race and think what could happen.”
By mid-morning, the world leaders were gathering in the Great Hall of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. This plan, however, would turn into a serious diplomatic glitch. Given the number of separate delegations, it was clear that they could not all arrive at and leave Westminster Abbey in their own cars. As a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office explained, “It would have taken hours each way.” So the leaders would all go by bus.
“Some of them, including the team around President Macron of France, did not like it at all,” says one senior Foreign Office official. “They were worried that people might mock them.” French officials were especially miffed that an exception was made for the US president, Joe Biden, whose security team would not countenance him travelling in anything other than his bomb-proof limousine.
The first of the day’s three processions began in Parliament with the Grenadier Guards bearer party lifting the coffin from the catafalque. It fell to the Garrison Sergeant Major to begin the final farewell to Elizabeth II. There was just one minor error, not that anyone had spotted it except him. As the procession marched off, the pipes and drums missed a beat, with the result that those behind the coffin were out of step.
Stokes shouted an instruction to the King, immediately behind him: “Your Majesty, we are out of step. Please do what I am going to do.” At which point, the King and everyone else simply changed step. Precisely eight minutes later, the procession came to a halt at Westminster Abbey.
Much comment would later be devoted to the seating plan. Why, for example, was a key ally like President Biden seated 14 rows to the rear of the Royal family, behind, say, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, while Canada’s Justin Trudeau was within touching distance of the royal pews? The arbiters of protocol had merely applied some long-established rules of precedence. The Queen’s 14 realms – from Canada to Australia to Tuvalu – came ahead of everyone else. Next came other heads of state in alphabetical order of country. Hence, Brazil was seated nearer the front than the USA.
President Biden and his wife had started making travel plans as soon as the Queen’s death had been announced. “She was such a big part of our lives – a really beautiful, spectacular, amazing woman,” says the first lady, Dr Jill Biden. “We went up to her apartment. And I loved her sense of independence. She had a big teapot. And Joe said to her: ‘Here, let me help you.’ The Queen had been quite insistent, however. ‘No, no, no. You sit, I will serve you.’”
The service managed to overrun by two minutes. The Earl Marshal could cope with that. What worried him was the subsequent marching speed of the Royal Navy versus that of the Army. Sure enough, a gap began to open up. There was nothing anyone could do. No one seemed to notice anyway.
As he had also feared, the coffin was 32 minutes late by the time it reached Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner for its rendezvous with the hearse. Then, when the hearse set off through Hyde Park, where there was no limit on numbers, the crowds were suddenly larger. Despite appeals from the police, people still wanted to throw flowers at the hearse. Some had weighed down their bouquets for added momentum. “It was a bit like sitting on a firing range as they hit. The protection officer sitting with me was twitching a bit,” says one of those in the cortege. “I said: ‘It’s all right. They’re flowers.’ It had to look correct, so the Queen’s chauffeur couldn’t stop or use the wipers.”
Later, down at Windsor, cross words broke out in the marquee where those in the final procession were assembling. The Earl Marshal and his fellow marchers eventually arrived with 11 minutes to go before it was time to begin the last long march. To Eddie Norfolk’s consternation, some officials were preparing to inform the King that the funeral would need to be delayed by half an hour because of the late departure from London.
“I was not going to have that. We could not have television satellite feeds to Japan and America running out because Britain could not keep to time. We had to stick to the programme,” says Norfolk.
“There were about 200 people in the marquee and, instead of having 50 minutes for lunch, they had zero minutes… I knew there was a need for me to take command and lead from the front. I felt my father willing me on. I went outside to check with [Major General] Chris Ghika and the Army were all ready. So I told everyone to get out of the tent immediately.
“The heralds were all exhausted and were trying to have lunch. I said, ‘Get out, we’re on parade.’ Someone said, ‘We need a pee.’ I said, ‘Pee on the lawn.’ Someone else was complaining about not eating. I said: ‘Too bad.’”
The marchers duly followed the Earl Marshal’s orders and lined up on the road – with not a minute to spare. At that moment, bang on time, the police outriders suddenly appeared from around the corner, escorting the coffin. “Just imagine what would have happened if the coffin had arrived and the television cameras showed half the procession in a tent eating lunch.”
Only half-joking, he adds: “I would have been roasted. I would have probably had to emigrate to Australia.”
The late monarch’s officials marched ahead of the coffin; the new King’s officials marched behind. The Royal family would only join in once the cavalcade had reached the castle. One of the entourage recalls the approach: “We turned the corner and there was the castle way off in the distance and I thought: ‘We’re never going to get there.’”
It was a tight squeeze getting the hearse and the procession through the castle’s George IV Gate. One of those alongside the hearse recalls the “tink-tink-tink” of an equerry’s sword hitting the vehicle’s paintwork.
Then they were there. Inside, the sense of finality was now inescapable. There was the breaking of the Lord Chamberlain’s wand; the removal of the Sceptre, Orb and Crown from the coffin; the Queen’s Piper and his fading lament trailing away down the cloister; Garter King of Arms proclaiming the styles and titles of the late Queen and those of her successor (though, to the poor man’s eternal regret, he somehow neglected to recite the crucial last line: “GOD SAVE THE KING”).
It was the sight of the Imperial State Crown being removed from the coffin which is engraved in the memory of the Princess Royal: ‘I rather weirdly felt a sense of relief – that somehow it’s finished.’
Finally, the coffin began its almost imperceptible descent to the Royal Vault.
Abridged extract from Charles III: New King. New Court. The Inside Story, by Robert Hardman (Pan MacMillan, £22); books.telegraph.co.uk