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A stock image of the Union Flag at half mast at the Palace of Westminster, London

Royal protocols following the death of a British monarch

Image: | Above: A stock image of the Union Flag at half mast at the Palace of Westminster, London

On 8th September 2022, the UK’s longest-serving monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, passed away at Balmoral aged 96. Ascending to the throne in 1952 at just 25 years old, she reigned for 70 years and was the first British monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee.

For most people, Queen Elizabeth II was the only ruling monarch they had ever known. The protocols and events that follow her passing are uncharted territory for most of the population, so we take a look at what exactly the next few weeks and months will entail.

Announcing a royal death

Well before a head of state passes away, formal plans are drawn up for the funeral, announcement and period of official mourning. For Queen Elizabeth II, the plans were codenamed ‘Operation London Bridge’.

Under that plan, her private secretary, Sir Edward Young, was the first official to convey the news of her death to the Prime Minister, declaring ‘London Bridge is down’. Following that, certain civil servants were notified, who in turn contacted their ministers. Then the 15 Commonwealth realms still headed by the monarchy were informed, along with the other Commonwealth nations.

A public announcement was then made via the Press Association to alert the world’s media, whilst a footman pinned a notice to the gates of Buckingham Palace.

The Royal Family’s website changed to a black holding page with a short statement announcing the Queen’s death, whilst the government website and social media channels displayed a black banner.

Formal ceremonies

Within two days of the death of a monarch, an Accession Council is convened, customarily held at St James's Palace, in order to make a formal proclamation of the death of the monarch and the accession of the successor to the throne.

The gathering comprises: the Privy Council - which is a group of senior MPs, peers, senior civil servants, Commonwealth High Commissioners and the Lord Mayor of London.

Lying in state

Members of the public are given a chance to pay their respects to the deceased monarch with the coffin lying in state at various locations for several days. For Queen Elizabeth II, her coffin was first held at Edinburgh's St Giles' Cathedral and then at Westminster Hall for four days.

State funeral

After lying in state, the royal coffin is moved via procession to Westminster Abbey for the state funeral, after which it is transported to Windsor. The state hearse takes the coffin along the Long Walk to St George's Chapel in Windsor Chapel, where a committal service takes place. The coffin is then lowered into the Royal Vault.

Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral will take place on Monday, 19th September and will be attended by members of her family, senior UK politicians and heads of state from across the world, as well as representatives from the numerous charities she supported.

Bank holiday

To accompany the funeral, a special one-off bank holiday has been approved by King Charles III for Monday 19th September, to give people the opportunity to mark Her Majesty’s passing and commemorate her reign. The bank holiday will apply in all parts of the UK and schools will be closed.

This act is not technically royal protocol as the state funeral of the Queen’s father, King George VI, was not declared a national holiday.

Period of mourning

From the moment a head of state passes, the country enters a period of mourning that lasts until the end of the day of the state funeral. Although there is no expectation for the public or organisations to observe specific behaviours during this time, there are several practices conducted by businesses and institutions.

These include flying flags at half-mast, royal gun salutes, the cancellation or postponement of sporting events, the closure of royal residences, floral tributes, books of condolence and messages of respect.

Coronation of the new monarch

After a monarch has passed away, their heir immediately ascends to the throne. A coronation ceremony follows, during which the new monarch is formally crowned and officially accepted as King or Queen.

There is no set time-frame in which the coronation should take place. A great deal of preparation is required and therefore there could be a gap of over a year between the funeral of a monarch and the coronation of their heir.

For example, Queen Elizabeth II succeeded the throne in February 1952 but was not crowned until June 1953. What is more certain is the location of the coronation: for the past 900 years it has been held in Westminster Abbey.

Lines of succession

As soon as a monarch passes away, the line of succession immediately changes. The heir inherits the throne, whilst those beneath them move upwards. With those changes come amendments to royal titles as well as duties and commitments.

For example, as soon as Queen Elizabeth II passed away, Charles became King and his wife, Camilla, the Queen Consort. Charles’ eldest child, William, became the first in line to the throne. William inherited his father's Duchy of Cornwall and is now the Prince of Wales, with his wife Catherine becoming the Princess of Wales. His main responsibilities are now to support the King in his royal duties.

Currency, stamps and passports

From banknotes to coins and passports to stamps, the image and name of the deceased monarch will be in circulation across the country in a variety of formats. These all need to be updated in due course to reflect the change of sovereign. Depending on the medium, this may take several years.

For example, the Royal Mint has yet to say when it will start issuing coins featuring King Charles III, meaning the Queen's coins will likely remain in circulation for several years to come. The process of replacing them will be a slow and gradual one.

Some changes, however, are more immediate. Barristers and solicitors appointed by the monarch to be Queen's Counsel automatically become known as King's Counsel.

National anthem

The words and music to the United Kingdom's anthem were first published in the Gentleman's Magazine in 1745 but its author remains unknown. Depending on the change of monarch, the words of the national anthem can be amended to either say ‘God Save the Queen’ or ‘God Save the King’.

As well as being the anthem for the United Kingdom, 'God Save the King' is one of New Zealand’s two anthems, along with ‘God Defend New Zealand’. It is also used as the royal anthem in other Commonwealth countries, to be played in the presence of the monarch.