Despite years of planning for the fall of London Bridge, as Queen Elizabeth II was codenamed, her actual death, a year ago on Thursday September 8, at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, caught her family and the nation largely by surprise. The most graphic illustration of this was that only two of her children—Prince, now King, Charles and Princess Anne—were with her, with the rest of her children and grandchildren stuck on various planes and automobiles as they raced, in vain, to see her one last time.
Anne and Charles had both been, by sheer good luck, in Scotland in the days before her death, and both made it to her bedside a few hours before she passed away. Anne had stayed overnight at Balmoral on Wednesday, but, incredibly, on Thursday morning left the castle to fulfill an engagement at nearby Blairgowrie, where she was attending a Riding for the Disabled Association event.
She was summoned back midway through the engagement.
As one friend of the family told The Daily Beast: “Everyone knew, intellectually, that she could die at any moment, but on Wednesday no-one expected her to die on Thursday.”
(Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
This was particularly the case as the queen had been in good enough spirits at the weekend that she and her advisers had agreed that outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and incoming PM Liz Truss, could make the journey to Balmoral on Tuesday Sept. 6 for the official handover of power from one to the other.
A photograph of the queen meeting Truss was subsequently released to the media. Although, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say that the queen looks tiny and frail in the image, and some perceptive individuals raised questions at the time about the extensive bruising on her hands which suggested to medical experts she had been recently unhooked from IV lines, it is worth pointing out that when it was published, few suggested it augured her imminent demise.
And Tuesday’s work was no five minute job. Johnson arrived at 11.16am and left at 11.55am. Truss arrived at 12.22pm and departed 33 minutes later at 12.55pm.
Then, the queen invested her long standing Communications Secretary Donal McCabe with the Insignia of a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order. McCabe is the last person to have been formally honored by the queen.
The queen took duty seriously, but these are not the typical actions of a woman who knows she is about to die.
As one source told The Daily Beast: “The secret of her failing health was well guarded, but she had actually been very unwell for a lot longer than most people knew. She was periodically in a great deal of pain, her eyesight was failing, her hearing was failing and she would get easily confused. She found it very hard to move. She was in a wheelchair most of the time. She had been so ill for so long that the fact that she was up on her feet being photographed meeting Liz Truss lulled people into a false sense of security.”
Another source told The Daily Beast, before her death, that the queen had been diagnosed with bone cancer; this was subsequently also reported by her friend and biographer Gyles Brandreth after her death. The condition is often extremely painful and the main form of care tends to be palliative and involve large doses of powerful painkillers, which can have a disorientating effect.
Back in London, another drama was occupying the royals anyway; Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had touched down in the U.K. a few days earlier, attending an awards ceremony called One Young World in Manchester on Monday Sept. 5. On Tuesday, as the queen was fulfilling her constitutional duties for the last time, they flew to Dusseldorf to kick off the one year countdown to the Invictus Games, spending less than 24 hours there because, on Thursday, Harry was due to attend the WellChild Awards in London.
Kate and William, who had just moved to Adelaide Cottage on the Windsor estate, were thus living a stone’s throw from Frogmore Cottage, then the Sussexes’ British base. They were focused not just on trying to avoid running into the errant brother between jaunts around Europe, but also trying to get their kids settled into their new local school. The papers were full of the latest installment of the Harry-William soap opera.
Late on Wednesday afternoon came the first tangible hint that all was not well; the palace quietly announced that after the “full day” on Tuesday, Her Majesty would not attend a virtual Privy Council meeting that evening. But the queen had got into the habit of canceling all but the most important engagements and so the news slipped by almost unnoticed.
A well-sourced report in the Guardian said that Simon Case, the cabinet secretary who has excellent contacts with the royals having previously been William’s private secretary, was tipped off about the queen’s imminent demise.
But the family certainly didn’t act in a way that suggested they were concerned. They didn’t, notably, rush to Balmoral as might have been expected if her health was perceived to be in grave peril.
An alternative theory, which some insiders subscribe to, is that the royals knew full well she was about to die, but their chief goal was not being there at the moment of death but to avoid creating speculation and a media panic; hence, keep calm and carry on.
And yet most sources agree things happened pretty quickly.
Anne was already at Balmoral, but she was the only member of the family with her mother on Wednesday evening (and, as noted above, she would subsequently leave the property on Thursday morning before hastening back).
Charles was staying in Scotland, four hours away by car at Dumfries House, where he and his wife were hosting NBC’s Jenna Bush Hager, who was due to record a TV interview with Camilla the next day. It would have been easy enough for him to head over to his mother’s that evening if anyone really thought the end was nigh.
If he had any inkling of what the next 24 hours would bring, he hid it well, as Jenna Bush Hager’s account of the dinner, which Camilla was unable to attend due to a delayed flight, makes clear.
Bush said she turned to her husband, Henry Hager, who was also at the dinner, and asked: “Will you call me ‘darling wife’ from now on?”
Bush said: “We had a wonderful evening filled with conversation that felt joyful.”
Everyone appears to have been relaxed and happy going to bed on Wednesday night.
“The queen is ill, and they have rushed off to be with her”
By Thursday morning, however, another sign that something was very wrong came when a royal helicopter was dispatched from Windsor at 6:48 am, apparently to collect Charles and whisk him to Balmoral, according to reports. Charles was photographed getting on the chopper, which then touched down in Balmoral at 10:27am.
Bush Hager, possibly jet lagged, suggested it was later: “The next morning, we were setting up the interview,” she said. “The interview was supposed to start around 2 or 2:30. I was supposed to meet with the now-queen consort around 1:30. At 12:30, we heard sort of running up and down the halls.
“Their team came in and said, ‘Can you please be quiet? There’s a call.’ We were right by Charles’ office. They said, ‘He’s on a call, can you please be quiet.’ Then, all of a sudden, we heard a helicopter.”
Bush Hager was then told that Camilla had to postpone the interview.
“They said, ‘The queen is ill, and they have gone and rushed off to be with her.’ We just said our hearts are with them.”
Despite the discrepancies in the timing, it is clear that the downturn in the queen’s health overnight was dramatic and sudden—and set off an urgent chain of events.
As the gravity of the situation began to dawn, key government and establishment figures were told the news, and shortly after 12 noon, notes were passed to Truss and to Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labor party, in the House of Parliament, telling them the queen was unwell and they had to leave the chamber.
At 12:32, Buckingham Palace said: “The queen’s doctors are concerned for Her Majesty’s health and have recommended she remain under medical supervision. The queen remains comfortable and at Balmoral.”
The BBC’s Huw Edwards, dressed in black tie, announced the news to the general public.
Buckingham Palace announced at 12.50pm that William, Andrew, Edward and Sophie were on their way to Scotland.
Things should have now at moved at dizzying speed, with a military jet laid on to whisk the royal party to Scotland reportedly due to take off at 1:30pm.
In the event, however, it didn’t take off until 2:40pm.
A military source has told The Daily Beast that the delay was caused by a row within the family, who were outraged by a suggestion by Harry that he, and, controversially, Meghan could be given a spot on the plane.
While the Netflix show Harry & Meghan had not yet screened, and Harry’s memoir had not been published, relations were still very bad between the couple and the family, particularly William.
Harry said in his memoir that he texted William, asking if he and Meghan could get a lift with him to Scotland.
“It was insane,” a friend of William’s told The Daily Beast. “They had just spent two years slagging off the entire family and calling them racists. Harry had completely betrayed William, and he was holding the memoir [published after the queen’s death] and the Netflix series over them as well. They hadn’t exchanged a cordial word in months. And then he is texting him, saying, ‘Can we get a lift with you.’ I think if it had just been Harry, maybe a way could have been found. But Meghan too? Er, no thanks.”
What Harry and Meghan did next both infuriated the royals and brought matters swiftly to a head: they told their team to publicly announce not only that they would be missing the WellChild Awards, but that they were both going to Balmoral.
A former palace staffer told The Daily Beast: “You need an invite to go to Balmoral at any time, let alone a moment of massive constitutional upheaval. They knew Meghan wasn’t wanted. No-one had replied to their messages, no-one had invited her to come. Kate, who had known the queen for decades, wouldn’t have dreamed of being there at her deathbed. But for some reason, Meghan wanted to insert herself into it, so they tried to bounce the [future] king into accepting it by publicly announcing it.”
If that was the Sussexes’ plan, it didn’t work. The moment he heard Harry and Meghan’s statement, Charles knew he had to put his foot down, and he called Harry and told him not to bring Meghan.
Harry described the sequence of events in his book: “We told our team to confirm: we’d be missing the WellChildAwards and hurrying up to Scotland. Then came another call from Pa. He said I was welcome at Balmoral, but he didn’t want … her. He started to lay out his reason, which was nonsensical, and disrespectful, and I wasn’t having it. Don’t ever speak about my wife that way.
“He stammered, apologetic, saying he simply didn’t want a lot of people around. No other wives were coming. Kate wasn’t coming, he said, therefore Meg shouldn’t. Then that’s all you needed to say.”
In Harry’s telling, by the time this unseemly argument with his father concluded, it was “mid-afternoon,” he hadn’t heard from William, who he had texted looking for a lift, and so he had to charter a private plane. Intriguingly, however, a military source told The Daily Beast that the RAF jet—carrying William, Edward, Sophie and Andrew—sat on the tarmac at Northolt airport for up to an hour before taking off at 2:40pm. The source said that they believed the delay was due to uncertainty about whether Harry was expected on the plane.
Another source told The Daily Beast that the queen actually drew her last breath at 2:37pm, which need not necessarily conflict with the official time registered on the death certificate of 3:10pm, as the official time of death is when the death is medically certified, and it is believed only Anne and Charles were in the room with Queen Elizabeth when she actually died.
This raises the intriguing possibility that the passengers on the plane were notified that the queen had died, and, realizing that there was now no point waiting for any further passenger, as they would have by now missed a chance to say goodbye, ordered wheels up.
The party on the jet made it to Balmoral before the official announcement of the queen’s death was made at 6:30pm.
For Harry, however, it was when he came into land, he said, that he received a breaking news alert from the BBC saying his grandmother had died. The palace denied this version of events, saying Harry was told before the news organizations.
That such a matter, at such a time, could be publicly squabbled over by the two sides was an extraordinary indictment of how bad relations between Harry and the palace had become.
When Harry arrived at Balmoral there was a further humiliation; Charles and William had vanished, without greeting him, for a private dinner at Charles’ house on the estate, Birkhall. While the new monarch and the new heir apparent dined privately, Harry was left to eat with the b-team at Balmoral: Anne, Edward and his disgraced uncle Andrew.
Harry said in his memoir that although the quickest way back would have been to get “a lift with Pa or Willy” he ended up booking his own seat on his phone in the night.
He doesn’t say why he didn’t ask, but, after the humiliations and arguments that had defined his day, it’s not particularly hard to guess.
The queen’s body lay in her bedroom overnight on Thursday, before being placed in a lead-lined coffin and moved to the Balmoral ballroom where family, estate staff and local friends were invited to pay tribute on Saturday.
On Sunday the coffin was carried out of the ballroom by the estate’s gamekeepers and set off for Edinburgh, taking a circuitous six-hour route through Her Majesty’s beloved Scotland one last time.
This time, and for the week’s mourning that followed, culminating in an extraordinary spectacle in London as her body was pulled through the streets on a gun carriage by hundreds of members of the armed forces, the plans ran like clockwork.
After the chaos of the day of her death, one imagines that Queen Elizabeth, always a stickler for punctuality and precision and doing things right, would have been relieved that order had been so rapidly restored.