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Operation London Bridge

Operation London Bridge

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II died on Thursday afternoon. For 70 years, she was a constant figurehead. So what happens now?

“The BBC is interrupting its normal programmes to bring you an important announcement.”

Huw Edwards, BBC News, 8 September 2022

You will have heard the news by now.

“Buckingham Palace has announced the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In a statement the Palace said the Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon.”

Huw Edwards, BBC News, 8 September 2022

For 70 years, Queen Elizabeth II was a constant figurehead. 

So what happens now?

This is the story of an operation – called London Bridge.

***

For centuries, the death of a royal has inspired public outpourings of grief. 

When George VI died, a queue more than four miles long of mourners stretched along the Thames to pay respects as his coffin lay in state at Westminster Hall.

More recently, back in 1997, more than a million people gathered following Princess Diana’s death; and the mall became flooded with flowers, notes and cards.

The whole of London has spent the night in a vigil, people ten deep now on the streets; people with candles; people with flowers. Waiting for this moment. And the mood in London seems to now be becoming more sober, more sombre…

When the Queen Mother died, 10 million people watched her funeral. 

When Prince Phillip – the Queen’s husband – died last year, the BBC devoted a full day of television coverage to his death.

But what is about to unfold in Britain will be on a scale not seen for generations. 

The Queen passed away in her Scottish home, Balmoral Castle; her family by her side.

King Charles said it was “a moment of the greatest sadness for me and all members of my family”.

She was Britain’s longest reigning monarch, on the throne for 70 years, who had attended more than 21,000 royal engagements.

Her death marks the end of a remarkable chapter in British life. 

When she first ascended the throne, after the sudden death of her father, Winston Churchill was in power. The Queen’s final engagement was just a few days ago, when she appointed her 15th prime minister, Liz Truss, born a century after Churchill. 

The length and breadth of the Queen’s reign means the next few days will look very different to whatever has come before.

This is what to expect.

***

It’s thought there will be ten days between the Queen’s death and her funeral, and a complex operation has already kicked into gear, involving No 10, the BBC, parliament, and the royal residences. 

The codename for this well-practised plan is London Bridge, although since the Queen passed away in Scotland, this runs in parallel with another plan labelled Operation Unicorn.

At Buckingham Palace in London, footmen pinned a notice to the gates, where onlookers had gathered on Thursday afternoon.

Television and radio channels have already started pre-arranged coverage looking back on the Queen’s life – and have days of programming lined up.

“In June, the nation celebrated Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee marking 70 years on the throne. It is a landmark that no other British monarch has ever reached.”

Clive Myrie, BBC News. 8 September 2022

The BBC’s lead channel, BBC One, had already switched to rolling news coverage in the hours before the Queen passed away, its presenters wearing sombre black suits and ties.

The plan suggests that later today – Friday – the Queen’s eldest son will be crowned in St James’s Palace as King Charles III. The new prime minister will be among those in attendance.

But this isn’t the full coronation – that’s not expected to happen until next year. 

Amid a flood of tributes from dignitaries around the world, MPs will speak in the House of Commons. Then, Parliament will stop sitting until the period of mourning is over, and after the Queen’s funeral is held.

The Queen’s body will be taken first to Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland. Then it will be carried to St Giles’ Cathedral.

After a service, the coffin will be transported from Edinburgh down to London by royal train – or plane, if this isn’t possible.

When the coffin arrives in London, it will take a ceremonial route to the Palace of Westminster, where it will lie in state for three days. Mourners will line the streets. 

The night before the funeral, church services will take place across the country, while the event itself will be designated as a day of national mourning. 

Many businesses will close; even beach flags will be flown at half mast.

Many people will have the day off of work; even the stock market won’t open.

There will be little escaping this moment in history. 

On day 10 of this period, at 9am, Big Ben will strike, and the Queen’s state funeral will take place at Westminster Abbey. There will be two minutes’ silence across the nation.

A service will be attended by around 2,000 invited guests: largely heads of states from around the world, as well as her family, and former prime ministers.

The Queen’s body will lie in rest at the chapel in Windsor Castle next to her beloved father, King George VI.

It is an unprecedented logistical operation, ten days in which the gears of the state turn to mark the closing of a chapter. 

It will be a chance to reflect on the Queen’s life and look to the future under King Charles. He will have embarked on a tour to Edinburgh, Belfast, and Cardiff – his new kingdom. 

But it will be introspective too. A time to consider what we were as a nation, what we are, and what we might become.

Today’s episode was written by Xavier Greenwood and mixed by Matt Russell.