On the cusp of turning 96, it is rumored that the queen is using a wheelchair, and also determined not to be seen using one in public. Why might this be? Some say it is the “haunting” memory of the portrayal of her sister, Princess Margaret, who was photographed looking exhausted and ill in a wheelchair just six months before her death.
Others say that it is a determination to protect the mystery of regal power. The queen knows how she is seen, and knows how she wants to be seen—and that precludes, right now at least, being seen in a wheelchair.
But what is clear is that the queen is going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that she will never be publicly seen in a wheelchair, despite the fact that it is alleged she has the use of one to navigate the substantial distances of her home in Windsor Castle.
“She is not wheelchair-bound but she has got a wheelchair,” a source with excellent connections to the royal household tells The Daily Beast. “She is 95, she walks with a stick, and by her own admission her feet don’t work very well. It’s not like the big oak doors close at the end of an audience and she then walks off hundreds of yards to the next room she wants to go into. There is a footman with a wheelchair.”
The palace has flatly refused to comment on reports circulating this week that the queen is using a wheelchair at home, an understandable position given that the only on-the-record source for much of these claims was a former British TV presenter called Christopher Biggins, who, although he has the distinction of winning jungle reality show I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, in 2007, is not understood to be a friend of the queen.
Privately, courtiers are scathing about the speculation and claims which they say are “distasteful.”
Her wheelchair use is understood to be witnessed only by an intensely loyal sub-group of the already small, hand-picked cadre of staff, nicknamed HMS Bubble, who now attend to and interact with the queen on a daily basis, the source said. If she wishes to hide it, it won’t be too hard.
Having ruled out abdication, or even some form of retirement earlier this year, the unwillingness of the queen to allow herself to be seen being moved around in a wheelchair means the nation faces being stuck in limbo with a remote WFH queen for the rest of her life.
It also leaves her closest aide, personal private secretary Edward Young, with something of a dilemma; either cancel every remaining public event or smuggle her into such events before unveiling her—ta-da!—already in situ.
The “cancel it” approach appears to be being seriously contemplated for the opening of parliament on May 10. It was revealed on Thursday that the queen has yet to confirm she will attend, having only missed this key constitutional ceremony twice before in her life (when she was pregnant).
This strategy, even in the era of Zoom, presents obvious problems for a woman who has always insisted, “I need to be seen to be believed.”
The alternative, if she insists on not being seen in a wheelchair but needs one to get around, is to wheel her in under LA-style privacy screens before the action starts. This is understood to be the working plan for the memorial for Prince Philip on Tuesday.
That five days out from the memorial, the palace are not in a position to confirm she will definitely be there, only instead able to say she “hopes” she will be, is telling.
We won’t know for sure if the queen will be in attendance until perhaps just a few hours before the service starts. The palace are not going to say because they don’t want to repeat the mistake of her attendance at climate change conference Cop26, which they promised the queen would attend only to cancel with under a week’s notice.
One imagines the queen will do everything in her power to get to Philip’s memorial, which is very far from a regular, working engagement, and rather a deeply personal affair which her position requires her to share with the public. Of course, given the unique nature of it, it is understandable that her office are keeping all their options open and contemplating the radical move of building a tunnel to get her into Westminster Abbey unseen.
But delaying decisions about attendance until the last moment and then smuggling her in like contraband is not a strategy that can be repeated regularly, if at all.
Whispers are starting to circulate that Tuesday may be the queen’s last ever in-person appearance and that her contribution to the Jubilee celebrations may end up being a video address on a big screen at Buckingham Palace.
The preparations for the occasion of the queen’s death are an exercise in meticulous precision. Known by the codename Operation London Bridge, they detail to the minute what will happen in the extraordinary days that will follow Elizabeth’s demise.
The road to that point is proving considerably more chaotic—at the center of it, a strong, independent monarch who knows how she wants, and doesn’t want, to be seen in public.