What happens now that the Queen has passed?

Complex ceremonies and rituals, ancient and modern, are put into play for the first time in 70 years.

By Erin Blakemore
Published 9 Sept 2022, 20:21 BST
London crowds line the route of the procession carrying the coffin of King George VI. The king reigned from 1936 until his death in February 1952. | Location: Edgeware Road, London, England, UK. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Photograph by Adam Woolfitt, Nat Geo Image Collection

The death of Queen Elizabeth II not only triggered a global outpouring of farewells but also set in motion a sequence of ritual and public mourning Great Britain hasn’t seen since the death of Elizabeth’s father, George VI, in February 1952.

Technically speaking, Elizabeth’s death constituted a Demise of the Crown, a legal term for the end of the British sovereign’s reign. Steps that follow have been carefully choreographed, reviewed, and rehearsed for decades. Edward Young, Elizabeth’s private secretary, conveyed the news to British Prime Minister Liz Truss using a coded phrase—allegedly “London Bridge is down.”

The Union Jack flies at half-mast as people gather outside London’s Buckingham Palace following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8, 2022. After a 70-year reign, the monarch will be buried at the King George VI Memorial Chapel at Windsor Castle.
Photograph by Samir Hussein, WireImage, Getty

What’s in a name?

Now that the news has gone public, Parliament will meet as soon as possible to swear allegiance to Elizabeth’s son Charles, who became King Charles III the instant his mother died. The new king chose his given name, Charles, as his regnal name, despite the chequered reputations of other monarchs with the moniker. Charles I was an authoritarian who helped stoke a civil war and was eventually executed; Charles II was a charming lothario known as the Merry Monarch. When asked what her regnal name would be when she came to the throne in 1953, the late queen reportedly said, “My own, of course—what else?”

The new queen consort, Camilla; King Charles III; Prince George of Cornwall and Cambridge; William, Prince of Wales, Catherine, Princess of Wales; and the late queen stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace during Trooping the Colour in June 2015.
Photograph by Max Mumby, Indigo, Getty

The King’s wife, Camilla, will technically be Queen Consort according to the British custom of giving a sovereign’s wife the equivalent title of her husband. Interestingly, however, Camilla indicated when she married Charles in 2005 that she would use the title HRH princess consort instead—a break with tradition in deference to Charles’s first wife, Diana, who died in 1997.

But in February this year on the eve of her Platinum Jubilee, the late Queen expressed in a statement her ‘sincere wish’ Camilla take the title of Queen Consort in recognition of her ‘loyal service.’

The British Constitution does not give succession rights to the spouses of monarchs, though they obtain symbolic titles when their spouse takes the throne. Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband of 73 years, was the longest-serving royal consort in British history. However, his death on April 9, 2021, at the age of 99 did not affect the line of succession since he was not up next for the throne. Now the new King’s son William is first in the line of succession.

New King, old rituals

Within 24 hours of the Queen’s death, an Accession Council of her closest advisers and other important state officials is summoned. The council confirms the heir’s name in an official proclamation.

Prince Charles kneels before the queen during his 1969 investiture as Prince of Wales in Gwynedd, Wales. Fifty-three years later, he has become king.
Photograph by Adam Woolfitt, Nat Geo Image Collection

The new monarch then meets with the new Privy Council and takes an oath to “maintain and preserve” the Church of Scotland, which, unlike the Church of England, is not headed by England’s monarch. (The monarch governs the Church of England, but the Church of Scotland recognises only God as its supreme governor and, despite its name, is not state controlled.) Then, the accession proclamation is read in various public places throughout the United Kingdom, sometimes accompanied by a gun salute.

A well-rehearsed media response

Meanwhile, U.K. media outlets are in the midst of the wall-to-wall Elizabeth coverage they’ve been planning for decades. British radio stations have careful “obit procedures” that dictate what type of music should be played at a moment of national tragedy, and BBC editors reportedly dread the inevitable complaints that their coverage is in some way inappropriate.

In 2002, BBC chief newscaster Peter Sissons was raked over the coals by the tabloid press for wearing a dark red tie while announcing the death of the Queen Mother. He later revealed that he and others had been required to rehearse for her death—and that of the even more important monarch—every six months.

What comes next? 

A state funeral at Westminster Abbey and burial at the King George VI Memorial Chapel at Windsor Castle will come next. But though the United Kingdom will have a new king, don’t expect a coronation anytime soon. The thousand-year-old ceremony is a joyful occasion that doesn’t mix with mourning, so it’s likely to take place months, if not more than a year, after the Queen’s death.

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