The Queen turned 80 on 21 April this year, and while she may finally have been prevailed upon to scale back on her public duties, she remains — as anyone who saw her during her visit to the Baltic States last week knows — in robust good health.
Alex Galloway, the Clerk of the Privy Council, has however deemed this a prudent juncture to dispatch a circular letter to all the 500 or so members of Her Majesty’s Privy Council to ensure that he has up-to-date land and mobile telephone numbers and email addresses for each of them should he ever need to relay urgent information. The phraseology that the career civil servant employs in his letter is studiously matter-of-fact, but his purpose is abundantly clear: he has in mind the arrangements that will need to be put in place when the sovereign dies. And, as he well knows, time will be of the essence: it is a requirement that an Accession Council — comprising all the members of the Privy Council — be convened within 24 hours of the Queen’s death to agree and sign the Proclamation of Accession.
Her Majesty, taking her example from her late mother, is not merely aware that such matters are now being considered by her most senior courtiers, but is making her own wishes painstakingly clear. It is not that she is a morbid woman, any more than Queen Elizabeth was before her, but that she knows it is vital for the wellbeing — if not the future — of the monarchy that this occasion be handled correctly and, what’s more, handled in a way that reflects the mood of the times.
And it is, of course, not merely a funeral that is exercising the minds of HMQ and her senior courtiers, but also a coronation, which is why the Prince of Wales and his advisers across the Mall at Clarence House are taking a close interest in the discussions. ‘Her Majesty has carried out her duties to the letter throughout her life and she knows that they extend to the very end of the final act,’ a courtier taking part in the discussions tells me. ‘She recognises, however, that she should not exert her influence one second beyond the conclusion of her funeral. The coronation is a matter solely for the PoW.’
While he has always revered his mother, Prince Charles is understandably keen that his coronation should bear his imprimatur and that it should be seen to mark the beginning of a new era and a new kind of reign. Paddy Harverson, the Prince’s formidable spokesman, declines to be drawn at all on the issue of the coronation for reasons of seemliness. The coronation is in any case, constitutionally, the responsibility of the Duke of Norfolk in his capacity as Earl Marshal and Hereditary Marshal and Chief Butler of England. While he may be the most senior Duke of the realm, Edward Fitzalan-Howard would not obviously do anything that would be contrary to the wishes of the heir apparent.
I am told that, in the early years of the 21st century, Prince Charles is of the view that much will have to be done differently from the coronation of 1953. It will not be possible, for instance, for the five tiers of the hereditary peerage to wait in attendance on him in the way they did for his mother. Tony Blair’s ‘reforms’ have, of course, rendered them all but obsolete. Although his mother permitted television cameras from the BBC into Westminster Abbey to transmit live pictures of her coronation, they were required to withdraw at certain points in the ceremony which she felt, together with Dr Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to be too sacred. Prince Charles, for his part, recognises that such deference no longer pertains. He understands that if the event is to be accorded full live coverage by the major channels, it must be truncated from the three hours of pomp and circumstance that kept more than 20 million Englishmen and women enthralled in drab, postwar Britain into a ‘less unwieldy’ and more ‘focused and telecentric’ event for blasé modern viewers.
He wants the event also to acknowledge the religious diversity of the country that he will be ruling. In 1953 the Queen pledged solemnly to do her utmost to ‘maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law’. In what will be regarded as a dramatic break with convention, I am told Prince Charles is drawn to the idea that, following the formal Christian ceremony in the Abbey, in which he will be crowned ‘by the grace of God’, there should be a separate interdenominational ceremony in Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster to reflect his desire to represent the peoples of all religions. The proposed separate gathering would be unlikely to take place immediately after the formal Christian coronation, but at a later date.
In doing this he would simply be fulfilling his promise to his biographer Jonathan Dimbleby in the 1994 television documentary Charles: The Private Man, The Public Role, that he wished to be seen as a ‘defender of faith’ rather than ‘defender of the faith’, the form of words used since the time of Henry VIII.
Multiculturalism may now be going out of fashion, but the idea of a separate service to meet the requirements of other faiths was, with interesting timing, mooted by the influential Evangelical Alliance in a new report called Faith and Nation. Its point, in essence, was that it would be Charles’s prerogative to have a separate gathering of any kind that he wished, but they did not want him to meddle with the traditional holy liturgy of the ancient coronation service itself. ‘It is no secret that the PoW has long felt passionately about this matter,’ the courtier adds. ‘His determination not to yield so much as an inch of this ground has been strengthened a hundredfold by the events of recent weeks. It has dismayed him to see the people who will one day be his subjects turn upon each other on the basis of their religious convictions. As sovereign, he will wish to demonstrate that he is apart from the politicians who have been sounding off so much lately on, among other things, the issue of veils and that he can set an example for the entire country to follow.’
There is also, of course, the matter of the Duchess of Cornwall. In 2004, when she was still Prince Charles’s mistress, she was coolly informed that royal protocol meant that it would be ‘inappropriate’ for her to sit next to him in Chester Cathedral for the wedding of Lady Tamara Grosvenor and Edward van Cutsem, since the close connections that the bride and groom had with the royal family meant that this was deemed to be a formal occasion. So incandescent was the Prince when this was made plain to him — and, even more embarrassingly, to the public when I broke the story in the Sunday Telegraph — that he decided that neither he nor Camilla would attend the event. He married her, I was told by the well-informed royal author Sarah Bradford, precisely because he never wanted her to be put through such humiliation again.
At his coronation he is every bit as determined that his wife should stand beside him and become his Queen. ‘There will be no talk of her being merely his Princess Consort or any other such half measures,’ the courtier concludes. ‘If, as heir to the throne, he has acquired a reputation in some quarters for weakness and vacillation, then he is making it very apparent in the discussions that are now ongoing that he intends, as Sovereign, to be bold and decisive from the outset of his reign.’
The dress code for the proposed subsequent gathering at Westminster Hall is, of course, far from being finalised. One thing, however, can be said with some certainty. Veils will be more than welcome.
Tim Walker is the editor of the Mandrake diary in the Sunday Telegraph.