Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral: U.K.’s biggest security detail post-WWII

Police officers enter the grounds of the Palace of Westminster in London on Sept. 15.
Police officers enter the grounds of the Palace of Westminster in London on Sept. 15. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

LONDON — Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on Monday will be attended by more than 70 heads of government from around the world and poses the city’s biggest security challenge for Britain since World War II.

With as many as 2 million people expected to line the streets, and the royal family planning to walk in the open behind the Queen’s coffin, police are trying to strike a balance between safety and pageantry.

Presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens arriving from overseas add to the risk. Officials from the British domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6, are reviewing terrorist threats as part of the massive security team working on the funeral.

On Monday, snipers will be stationed on rooftops, surveillance drones will fly overhead and 10,000 uniformed police officers will be on duty, with thousands of plainclothes officers among the crowd. For days, police with bomb-sniffing dogs have been patrolling key areas. Private security guards will assist with crowd control.

Police from every corner of the country have arrived to help. From the Welsh Cavalry to the Royal Air Force, more than 2,500 uniformed military personnel will be on hand.

With hotels booked to capacity, a couple hundred young soldiers were sleeping on office floors and showering in portable stalls set up in a parking lot near Buckingham Palace.

“This is actually better than what I’m used to,” said one soldier from Norfolk, about 100 miles north of London, as he walked to the outdoor showers, a towel over his shoulder.

A special unit called the Fixated Threat Assessment Center is monitoring “fixated” people — those identified as having potentially dangerous obsessions with the royal family.

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Officers will go knock on their door and ask them, ‘Are you taking your meds? Are you going to London this weekend?’” said Simon Morgan, a retired London police officer who served from 2007 to 2013 as personal protection officer for the queen and other members of her family, including her son, now-King Charles III.

“The events of the last week will undoubtedly have triggered someone to want to do something,” said Morgan, who now runs a private security firm.

London’s Metropolitan Police arrested a man who rushed toward the queen’s coffin in Westminster Hall on Friday night.

A big concern is the potential for injuries caused by crushes of people. Some stations on London’s Tube system will be designated as “entrance only” or “exit only” to help control the flow, and Transport for London is prepared to shut down stations if there are too many people.

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden will be among nearly 500 foreign dignitaries, including at least 70 heads of government confirmed as of Friday, arriving in London to pay respects to the nation’s longest-serving monarch.

Japanese Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako plan to be there, along with about two dozen kings, queens, princes and princess — from places including Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. French President Emmanuel Macron, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier are coming. So are New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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British officials sent invitations to the about 200 nations with which the United Kingdom has full diplomatic relations. Delegations from Commonwealth countries can include up to 16 people, but almost everyone else is limited to the head of state and one guest. Some heads of state who are not able to travel have designated another high-level official, according to a British government official closely involved in the planning.

Some notable people not invited were Russian President Vladimir Putin and the president of Belarus because of their continued aggression in Ukraine. The leaders of some countries, including North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, were not invited, but their ambassadors were.

Almost all heads of government attending will be transported in buses to the funeral at Westminster Abbey and to a reception at Buckingham Palace Sunday night. Several officials said it was easier to provide security for a handful of buses than scores of cars. But it is not what the leaders are accustomed to.

“They have chosen to come. It’s a once in a lifetime event, and protocol is not going to be perfect,” said Kim Darroch, a former British ambassador to the United States. “Most of them will just suck it up and get on with it. This is not about them; this is about the queen. I think people will be reasonable about it.”

The Bidens are among the few leaders getting a special exemption to the rules. They will ride in the heavily armored U.S. presidential limousine, known as “the Beast.” British officials said the decision was made based on security assessments, not politics.

Hundreds of thousands of people have waited 7 hours or longer to get the chance to walk past the queen’s coffin lying-in-state at Westminster Hall — a glimpse that lasts about 30 seconds.

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On Monday, as many as 2 million people are expected to converge on the city center to see her coffin pass by and the royal family walking behind it.

“There is a very deliberate desire for people to feel like this occasion is for everyone,” said Will Tanner, who was deputy head of policy at No. 10 Downing Street under former Prime Minister Theresa May. “This isn’t just an official ceremony behind closed doors, it is for everyone to be part of and enjoy.”

The public will have several chances to see the royal family walking behind the queen’s coffin.

First will be with a short procession from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey for the funeral. Then, after the service, the coffin will be moved in a 45-minute procession from the church to Wellington Arch at the corner of Hyde Park, where it will be transferred into a hearse for the 25-mile drive to Windsor Castle, west of London.

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There will also be a third procession in Windsor — a half-hour walk from the car to St. George’s Chapel, where she will be interred.

Each time, King Charles III and Princes William and Harry, as well as other senior members of the British royal family, will be behind a 123-year-old horse-drawn gun carriage, dating to Queen Victoria’s reign, carrying the queen’s coffin.

“Security and ceremony are not happy bedfellows,” Bob Broadhurst — the top police commander during the wedding of Prince William and Catherine, and for the London 2012 Olympics — told reporters this week.

“You need to manage the security in a way that’s commensurate with the dignity of the occasion, but without leaving anybody at any greater risk than they need to be,” he said.

British officials said their approach to security was different from the U.S. approach.

“The American model is, you put them in a bubble, a secure bubble, that nobody can come near, you put them in armored vehicles,” Broadhurst said.

The royal family will be out in the open, he said. “And that crowd of however many millions that will be on the streets have not been searched and cannot be searched. It’s absolutely frightening. Everyone will be on tenterhooks.”

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Darroch, who is also a former U.K. national security adviser, said the British were able to be somewhat more open than the Americans in part because of the vastly different gun cultures in the U.K. and the United States.

“Your security approach starts with the fact that so many Americans seem to be carrying handguns,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to acquire a gun in this country. It makes a huge difference.”

He noted that there are still plenty of threats, and ways to cause havoc and violence. For example, Lord Mountbatten, King Charles III’s great uncle, was killed by a bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army in 1979.

Most British police do not carry guns, but there will be specialized armed units on duty Monday.

Several officials said the royal family feels it important that they stay physically close to the public, at a time when an increasing number of people, especially younger generations, see the monarchy as an irrelevant relic.

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“They’re paid for essentially by the taxpayer,” Darroch said. “If they were locked away behind bulletproof glass, people wouldn’t like it, and it would affect their popularity. They’ve got to be accessible.”

The costs of the security operation for the queen’s funeral are huge and involve so many different agencies that there is no reliable tally. But officials said the expense was far greater than anything else they have ever undertaken.

The security costs when Queen Elizabeth’s mother died in 2002 were more than $5 million. Security cost more $7 million for Prince William and Kate Middleton’s 2011 wedding. But those events were relatively tiny in scope and did not include scores of world leaders. The funeral of Prince Philip, the queen’s husband, took place within the constraints of a coronavirus lockdown last year.

Especially among those who are not fans of the monarchy, there has been some questioning about the bill for taxpayers, given that the royal family is wealthy and many Britons are suffering economically amid high inflation and soaring energy bills.

Some people have expressed irritation at traffic disruptions and school and store closings throughout the country. At least three Premier League soccer games have been postponed because there will not be enough officers available to provide security at those events.

But most people interviewed said the cost was worth it.

“The vast majority of the British people, I guarantee, will want this to be an impressive and flawless occasion with the eyes of the world on London,” Darroch said. “They will not be the least bit interested in what it costs — curious maybe, but not resentful.”

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Paul Daniels, 63, who drives an electric version of the iconic black taxis, said he does not care what the cost is — and that the country will get back billions more in future tourism.

“Everyone around the world will be watching, and many will want to take their holidays here after what they see,” he said. “But it’s not just the tourism money. She deserved a good send off and seeing it, we all feel good. There is nothing like a British royal funeral. The precision! The pageantry!”