Queen Elizabeth - What will happen when the monarch dies?

Her Majesty The Queen. Picture; PA
Her Majesty The Queen. Picture; PA
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While the monarchy may divide opinion, what happens when our monarch dies?

We need to talk about Elizabeth. There’s a conversation taking place in secret – in rooms just off the corridors of power – about what happens when Her Majesty The Queen dies, as all must sadly do. “I can’t talk about this publicly,” one of those involved told me a while ago.

“We’re not thinking about what happens next. It would be improper to do so while the Sovereign is alive. But if we were to do so, it might look something like this.”

The high-ranking figure looked down at notes they would have to deny ever making.

READ MORE: Queen pays tribute to Duke of Edinburgh in Christmas message

But lately there has been a shift in mood. Elizabeth Windsor is 91 years of age now, it will be 65 years since her coronation this June. Without really realising it, we are being prepared for regime change.

The celebrations of her Golden and Diamond jubilee have provided a chance for the nation to say a long, grateful goodbye.

Netflix series The Crown has given British viewers a chance to understand the pressures that were placed on her so young and to feel a new sympathy for a woman who has often otherwise seemed distant.

The real Elizabeth Both have helped alter perceptions but then suddenly at the weekend the real Queen intervened with an extremely rare interview. By looking back at her own Coronation, she inevitably raised the subject of the next one, the event that none of those who serve her will ever admit to talking about.

Elizabeth Windsor is an expert at symbolism, having skilfully positioned herself in recent years as the nation’s Granny. Having such photogenic grandsons helps, and it’s a big year for them. William and Kate will have another baby in April and the following month Prince Harry will marry Meghan Markle – the divorced, American mixed-race actor whose entry into the family will reboot the House of Windsor.

Meanwhile, the actual heir to the throne is keeping a low profile. Prince Charles fulfilled more than 500 engagements last year but made few (if any) startling interventions into politics, which is unusual for him.

There are increasing signs of other people getting ready for change, too.

“The chat has broken surface rather more,” says Dr Bob Morris of the Constitutional Unit at University College London.

He points for example at the website of the Privy Council, that grand gathering of advisors to the Queen, which has recently posted a remarkably detailed account of what it will do when she dies.

The next King

Within hours, the next king – presumably Charles, still grieving – will stand before an emergency gathering of peers, MPs, archbishops and other Privy Councillors to make the Oath of Accession, swearing to uphold the kingdom and “inviolably preserve and maintain the Settlement of the true Protestant religion”.

He won’t have a choice about that, it’s the law.

Separately, details have emerged of Operation London Bridge, a protocol beginning with news of the death being passed from palace to Downing Street with the words, “London Bridge is down.” A footman will pin up a notice edged in black on the gates of Buckingham Palace, even as the Press Association tells the world electronically.

The BBC will switch to the national anthem, sombre music and news programmes hosted by presenters in black.

But what happens afterwards largely remains secret, even though a group led by the Duke of Norfolk has been meeting to discuss this for over a decade, under the code name Operation Golden Orb. They won’t say anything publicly, of course, but the group is planning an event with the potential to redefine us as a nation. The last Coronation was an ostentatious declaration that post-war Britain still had power and glamour, with 8,000 guests – many in ermine – enduring a three-hour service.

The next will be half as long, with a much smaller but more inclusive guest list and far less bling. “The 1953 Coronation was the last imperial hurrah,” says Dr Morris. “I can’t see we would put the same sort of resources into the next one.”

The budget will depend on who is in power – Jeremy Corbyn might have strong ideas, for example – but for now the politicians are leaving others to think about it.

“My understanding is that the Queen herself, being a very pragmatic lady, realises there is going to be concern about this at some point,” says Dr Morris.

Prince Charles insists that he has no part in the planning; but given how forthright she was on Sunday’s programme, it would be extraordinary if the Queen had not at least sought to give her own personal advice.

The other people with a stake in this are the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of Westminster Abbey, who will write and host the service. The ancient Coronation liturgy expresses a long-held deal between the Church of England and the Crown.

“We’ll declare you to have been appointed by God, you swear to preserve our unique rights and privileges,” is what it says in so many words.

No other faiths were allowed near the service in 1953. That just won’t wash this time, which is why the senior leadership of the Church has privately accepted the need to “involve” other faiths in the Coronation, breaking with a millennium of tradition.

The other people with a stake in this are the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of Westminster Abbey, who will write and host the service. The ancient Coronation liturgy expresses a long-held deal between the Church of England and the Crown.

“We’ll declare you to have been appointed by God, you swear to preserve our unique rights and privileges,” is what it says in so many words.

No other faiths were allowed near the service in 1953. That just won’t wash this time, which is why the senior leadership of the Church has privately accepted the need to “involve” other faiths in the Coronation, breaking with a millennium of tradition.

For now, even republicans have to admire the dignity and sense of duty with which the Queen has done her job. Many others feel a genuine, gratitude and warmth towards her. Servants of the Crown will hope to move fast to install the new King while memory of that warmth remains strong. The Queen has been a constant presence in almost all our lives.

She’s seen off Stalin, Churchill, Thatcher, Reagan, Gorbachev and all the rest and allowed herself to become a symbol of values that now seem on the verge of being lost. Whatever you think of them or her, the death of Queen Elizabeth will leave a huge hole in national life and raise questions about who we are.

Those who want to keep the Crown in place are already talking about that, among themselves. Perhaps the rest of us should be too.