It’s not every day a serving British monarch dies. There has to be a plan. And so, with the death of Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 96 on Thursday, the long-awaited “Operation London Bridge” swung into action.
The not-so-secret plan has never officially been released, though versions of it have been leaked several times over the years. It is designed to ensure not only that the news of the queen’s death was broken in a dignified manner and her memory commemorated, but also to ensure the continuation of the royal throne as Britain’s head of state.
According to one account of the procedure published by the Guardian after a 2017 investigation, the news of the queen’s passing would be privately announced by the queen’s private secretary with a coded phrase:
“London Bridge is down.”
According to accounts of the plan, the day of the death is known as “D-Day.”
Under the expected procedure, after the British monarch dies, his or her replacement takes over immediately. This means that after Queen Elizabeth II died on Thursday, her son Prince Charles automatically became monarch — and in his case, he became King Charles III.
For the BBC, a state-funded broadcaster, the procedure is complicated. The news is expected to be broken in a careful, somber manner, with hosts wearing black to dignify the importance of what has happened. An alarm for national emergencies, rarely used, will go off in the offices.
Veteran host Jeremy Paxman wrote that in the 1970s and ’80s, journalists were expected to come in on a weekend every six months to go through the procedure for Elizabeth’s death. “Long sets of guidelines were produced and laminated in plastic,” Paxman wrote in his book “On Royalty.”
But some things have changed. On Thursday, the news of the queen’s passing was first shared on a Twitter account belonging to the royal family. It was widely expected, however, and broadcasters from the BBC and other networks were already all in black.
Flags were lowered to half-staff across the country, with notice of the death posted to both Buckingham Palace and the royal website.
The next days are considered D-Day+1, D-Day+2, and so on, according to leaked documents published by Politico last year. Exactly how these days will play out is not yet clear, but we have a rough outline from centuries of monarchal practice.
An “Accession Council” is expected to convene Saturday, later than usual. The body typically meets within 24 hours of the monarch’s death, at St. James’s Palace, where many important events in royal history have taken place. It hosts officials and some royals for accession proceedings for King Charles.
The council formally declares the death of the monarch and the accession of the successor to the throne, according to the Privy Council, a formal advisory body to the monarch. The Accession Council is presided over by the lord president of the Privy Council — Penny Mordaunt, a Conservative member of Parliament and the leader of the House of Commons.
Later — though not always on the same day — the new sovereign, or head of state, will hold his or her first session with privy counselors. The monarch will take an oath swearing to protect the Church of Scotland, which has been taken by every monarch since George I in 1714. Signed copies of the oath are then sent to official record-keepers.
The proclamation marking the accession of the monarch is later read from the balcony above Friary Court at St. James’s Palace, accompanied by gun salutes. After the proclamation announcing Charles’s accession is read, for the first time since 1952, the national anthem will be played with the words “God Save the King.”
On Saturday, the queen’s body is expected to be transported to Buckingham Palace. As she died at Balmoral in Scotland, her family’s summer retreat, it is not yet clear if the coffin will be transported by royal train or by airplane.
When the queen’s body returns to Buckingham Palace, a small number of top government ministers, including the prime minister, will attend a reception. Her body is expected to stay at that palace until Tuesday, when it will be moved to the Palace of Westminster and another service will be held.
The queen will lie in state at the palace’s Westminster Hall. She will lie on a raised box known as a catafalque, and members of the public, as well as VIPs, will be allowed to visit to pay their respects.
Meanwhile, the king will receive the motion of condolence at Westminster Hall and later begin a tour of the United Kingdom. He is expected to visit Scotland first, probably on Sunday, before going on to Northern Ireland on Monday. His last trip, to Wales, is expected on D-Day+7, which is next Thursday.
The queen’s state funeral is expected to be held on D-Day+10, which is Sunday, Sept. 18, at London’s Westminster Abbey. Heads of state and other VIPs from abroad will be in attendance. Later, there will be a committal service at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, a royal home outside of London, and the queen will be buried inside the King George VI’s Memorial Chapel inside St. George’s Chapel.
Britons will probably have the day off if the state funeral is on a weekday. Politico reported last year that the British government was concerned about the huge influx of crowds to the funeral sites.
The funeral of Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, last year may provide something of a model, albeit it was clearly of a smaller scale. That funeral took place on April 17, 2021. Though Prince Philip wasn’t given a state funeral, which is reserved for monarchs, he was buried after a service at St. George’s Chapel. Philip was interred in the Royal Vault at St. George’s Chapel, but his remains will be moved to the King George VI’s Memorial Chapel so that he can be laid to rest next to the queen.