The code name for Prince Philip’s funeral Saturday at St. George’s Chapel in London: “Operation Forth Bridge.”
These code names are not just metaphorical. They are procedural, setting forth plans that have been carefully calculated by palace staff in consultation with royal family members, including the royal for whom the plans are being made.
Prince Philip’s funeral, owing to coronavirus restrictions and his general everyman desire to create little fuss, looked notably different from previous royal funerals, which through the years have been decadent, noble, star-studded, moving and occasionally bizarre.
Here is a brief guide to the history of royals being mourned:
There are dress codes. Black, lots of black — including very long black veils. This tradition seems to have started with Queen Victoria, who wore black every day for more than four decades after her husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861. At King George VI’s funeral in 1952, the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret all wore black dresses and veils — the veils so dark that their faces were barely visible. At the funeral for Grace Kelly, the Princess of Monaco, Princess Diana wore a black dress that covered her arms down to the wrists and a black veil attached to a black straw hat.
Drama. There is usually lots of it. A late change to “Operation Forth Bridge,” due to a tiff between Prince Harry and his brother Prince William, will reportedly have a cousin walking between them during the funeral procession. Awkward! That separation has nothing on the one that almost occurred during Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901, when, according to The Telegraph, “Victoria herself was almost separated from the magnificent procession when horses pulling the gun carriage that bore her coffin broke their traces and could not be re-harnessed.”
Sometimes the drama reaches the level of chaos. Often, this involves seating arrangements. In 1830, at the funeral for King George IV, “official guests found themselves unable to sit down: their seats had been taken by ‘servants of the household, the friends of the carpenters and upholsterers, the petty tradesmen of the town,’ who forced their way uninvited,” according to The Telegraph. King George must have been pretty swell. But the Times of London was outraged, writing, “We never saw so motley, so rude, so ill-managed a body of persons.” At King Edward VII’s funeral in 1910, so many people showed up that “guests were seated, moved, reseated, moved and reseated again every time another guest arrived at the chapel door,” The Telegraph reported.
Brits will complain. In the days after Prince Philip’s death, the BBC reportedly received more than 100,000 complaints about the wall-to-wall coverage. Similar complaints were directed at the media following King George VI’s death in 1952, when radio stations reported little other news for days. But those complaints cannot compete with the Prince Philip ones. They are totally next level. “A figure of 100,000 would make the coverage of Prince Philip’s death the most complained-about piece of programming in BBC history,” according to the BBC. “Other programmes that attracted a high volume of correspondence included the broadcast of Jerry Springer: The Opera, which received 63,000 complaints in 2005; and Russell Brand’s prank call to actor Andrew Sachs, which drew 42,000 complaints in 2008.”
The grandeur, history and star power is often profound. Hugo Vickers, a royal biographer, recently recalled attending Princess Margaret’s funeral in 2002. “It was memorable as the last event attended by the Queen Mother who came in,” Vickers wrote, “in a wheelchair, unseen by the majority of the congregation. The organist said later that when he finished playing, there was an intense silence and he thought all the mourners had left. But when he looked down, they were still there. Complete silence had been created by the music and the emotion of the moment.” But that music had nothing on the tunes at Princess Diana’s funeral, where Elton John performed and sang a modified version of “Candle in the Wind,” replacing” the first line — “Goodbye Norma Jean” — with “Goodbye England’s Rose.”
And then there are the final resting places — or almost final. Prince Philip’s casket is headed for the royal vault at St. George’s Chapel, which in modern times has overtaken Westminster Abbey as the final royal resting place. The royal vault is not easy to get into. You generally have to be a royal or a dead royal. “Few outsiders have been allowed into the St George’s vault,” the Times of London recently wrote. “About 70ft long and 28ft wide, it is said to have room for 32 bodies on each side, with 12 low tombs in the middle for sovereigns. Others buried there include George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, and Queen Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent.” Prince Philip will begin his final rest there. After his wife dies, the couple will reportedly be buried side-by-side at the King George VI memorial, an annex to St. George’s, where several other royals were laid to rest — King George VI, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.
One more thing: The code name for the Queen’s eventual passing is “London Bridge.”
“The prime minister will be woken,” the Guardian reported in 2017, “and civil servants will say ‘London Bridge is down’ on secure lines.”
Plans will instantly be executed, as per her wishes.
“In every scenario, the Queen’s body returns to the throne room in Buckingham Palace, which overlooks the north-west corner of the Quadrangle, its interior courtyard,” the Guardian said. “There will be an altar, the pall, the royal standard, and four Grenadier Guards, their bearskin hats inclined, their rifles pointing to the floor, standing watch.”
An earlier version of this story misidentified King George VI by transposing the Roman numerals after his name. This version has been corrected.
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