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The truth about London Bridge

Flawed narratives should not distort historical memory of the planning for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II

London Bridge, the operational codename for the funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, monarch of fifteen nations and Head of the Commonwealth, was the most remarkable combined ceremonial, logistical and security operation in British history. Despite the incredible operational challenges, the events, watched by the whole world, came off flawlessly. This was not due to some inherent British genius for ceremonial (British ceremonial was in fact frequently disastrous before the 20th century) but instead due to the quiet, and secret, hard work of thousands of dedicated British public servants over the preceding 44 years. They were dukes and generals, secretaries and catering planners, civil servants and police officers. 

A revealing glimpse into the remarkable extent of the planning was offered by the awarding of an OBE in 2023 to “Dr Sarah Elizabeth Knight, Behavioural Scientist, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Ministry of Defence; For services to the State Funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II”. London Bridge will be of abiding interest to historians, operational planners and security experts for decades to come. It is therefore important that an accurate record of the history of the operation is preserved.

In fact, documentary evidence shows such claims to be quite mistaken

On 18th January, the first key historical source for the operation was released: Charles III: New King. New Court. The Inside Story, by Robert Hardman. This gripping work, marked by the remarkable official access and mastery of his subject for which Hardman is known, gives us remarkable insight into the successful first year of The King’s reign. However, in one important aspect, it paints a picture many of those involved simply cannot recognise. A key source — or sources — offered Hardman errors which risk reframing this collective effort as the triumph of one lone genius, who planned it brilliantly after starting with almost nothing, and then during the funeral saved the day when things started to go wrong. This remarkable story has already begun to solidify into “historical fact”; the Daily Telegraph’s extracts of the relevant chapter in the book were headlined “The man who rescued Elizabeth II’s funeral from disaster”.

In fact, documentary evidence shows such claims to be quite mistaken, tarnishing both the historical record and the legacy of the London Bridge planners of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, whose plans were largely what ended up being executed long after their deaths. These include the father of the current Duke of Norfolk — the late Major-General Miles having been Earl Marshal before his son. We also have men like Brigadier John Ghika, a Guards Officer whose son, Major-General Sir Christopher Ghika, ended up commanding the procession in 2022, Colonel Sir Colin Cole, a Second World War veteran and herald, and countless others who are now either dead or retired.

It is therefore important to look at some of the comments made to Hardman, not least those by the present Duke of Norfolk and Earl Marshal. The Duke — best known to some for telling a court hearing that he shouldn’t be banned from driving after running a red light while on his mobile phone in front of a police car because he was the Earl Marshal and needed to be able to “locate venues” [sic!] for the Coronation — is a signal star of the chapters on London Bridge. 

The Duke of Norfolk’s role in Operation London Bridge, as set out in Hardman’s book, appears to maximise His Grace’s contributions while minimising those of others. Hardman states:

Miles Norfolk’s strategy for regal funeral-planning was to organise it through the heralds at the College of Arms. “After several years, the best they could come up with for my father was five sides of foolscap, which didn’t say much,” says Eddie… Together with [Edward] Norfolk, [Colonel] Mather worked out that one funeral would not be enough for the Queen. There would need to be a separate service of committal at Windsor … Miles Norfolk’s one lasting contribution to the plans for the death of the Sovereign was a name [London Bridge].

Was that the total of Duke Miles’ contributions? This extraordinary claim can be tested against the written records meticulously kept by a range of government departments.

Detailed London Bridge planning started in 1978, after the Silver Jubilee, and between then and Duke Miles’s death in 2002, he and his staff of officers, heralds, and civil servants extensively drew up the plans for The Queen’s funeral. Duke Miles himself put hundreds of hours of work into planning an event he knew he would not live to see; as he told one briefing: “I will probably be dead by the time it happens”. 

Major planning conferences were held with increasing frequency — first every five years, then every two and a half years, and these were on top of annual briefings and constant meetings. On 5 July 1990, for example, one such conference was held in great secrecy at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre with the top brass of the Royal Household, Army, Police and Civil Service in attendance. A transcript of the 16 page briefing which Duke Miles gave the attendees — a tour de force — survives. All of this has been meticulously documented in hundreds of pages of files of transcripts, minutes and letters. There are surviving full plans for The Queen’s funeral from 1978; a plan from that year is so extensive that Appendix 6 is on stationary requirements during London Bridge (each office should be supplied with “Books, Note (2 large, 2 small)” amongst many other items). Rather than being a brilliant innovation by Edward Norfolk, having services at both Westminster and Windsor appears in the operational plans from the 1980s.

Edward Norfolk should have recalled this. The surviving records show his constant presence at such planning meetings, shadowing his father, and his name appears on the circulation list for all such documents. To choose some examples at random, on 12 September 1989, he (then the Earl of Arundel) attended a meeting with British Rail at Wolverton “held in furtherance of the requirement of the Earl Marshal that he and the Earl of Arundel and others concerned be able to inspect the Royal Train with fittings in place of the Funeral Car (which was part of the Funeral Train)”. On 19 October 1989, he attended a meeting at New Scotland Yard with Duke Miles, Sir Colin Cole, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Peter Imbert, and the Assistant Commissioner to discuss the security arrangements for London Bridge. On 24 May 1991, Lord Arundel was present when Duke Miles and a group of navy, army and police officers reconnoitred Windsor to work through difficulties with the planned route of the gun carriage. 

When the regularly updated plans for The Queen’s funeral were distributed to the few who were entitled to see them, security was tight. All recipients had to confirm receipt and that they had destroyed previous versions. On 28 June 1990, an updated Earl Marshal’s Operational Instruction consisting of a sixty-page summary of the current London Bridge plans was distributed. On 5 July 1990, from 1 Battersea Bridge Road, Lord Arundel returned a form he had signed stating “I acknowledge safe receipt of the Earl Marshal’s Operation Instruction Copy No 2”. That sounds like rather more than five sides of foolscap. 

Edward Norfolk also appears to have allowed events from the Queen’s funeral itself to become jumbled in his mind. “As he had also feared,” Hardman writes:

… the coffin was 32 minutes late by the time it reached Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner for its rendezvous with the hearse … later, down at Windsor, cross words broke out in the marquee where those in the final procession were assembling. The Earl Marshal and his fellow marchers eventually arrived with 11 minutes to go before it was time to begin the last long march. There were about 200 people in the marquee and, instead of having 50 minutes for lunch, they had zero minutes… I knew there was a need for me to take command and lead from the front. I felt my father willing me on. I went outside to check with [Major General] Chris Ghika and the Army were all ready. So I told everyone to get out of the tent immediately. “The heralds were all exhausted and were trying to have lunch. I said, ‘Get out, we’re on parade.’ Someone said, ‘We need a pee.’ I said, ‘Pee on the lawn.’ Someone else was complaining about not eating. I said: ‘Too bad. The marchers duly followed the Earl Marshal’s orders and lined up on the road – with not a minute to spare. For, at that moment, bang on time, the police outriders suddenly appeared from around the corner, escorting the coffin along the Datchet Road.

This account makes no sense. If the events were running 32 minutes late by Wellington Arch, why would 200 senior officials of the military and royal household be sitting down hoping for a leisurely lunch the best part of an hour later in Windsor, not even having had the sense to use the loo in the meantime? In fact, multiple witnesses present suggest that Edward Norfolk’s account of saving the funeral at this point should not be the story that goes down in history.

Immediately after the delay had become apparent at Wellington Arch, it was made clear to the (70 or so — not 200) participants on the coaches to Windsor that their lunch break had become 15 minutes rather than 50. This proved ample time to use the lavatory, wolf down a sandwich and reassemble in formation. None of these witnesses recall Norfolk coming in to summon people out or arguments occurring. The idea that he told people to “pee on the lawn” seems eccentric — two multiple-occupancy toilet trailers were in place next to the marquee. The procession formed up in ample time; participants recall a 15 minute wait for the hearse and its outriders to arrive on Albert (not Datchet) Road. 

Much more could be said about the planning of London Bridge. Historians who write about it will have a wealth of documentary evidence far beyond that of any previous state occasion. But the promotion of erroneous narratives remains a threat to historical memory. To allow them to stand unchallenged would be an insult to the dedicated public servants to whom the credit for London Bridge is due, and to the Queen they served.

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