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What happens when a monarch dies? Lessons from history

From King Harold’s demise on the battlefield in 1066 to the passing of Queen Victoria, the death of a monarch has, throughout history, tended to prompt uncertainty and instability. What plans have those at the heart of the royal establishment traditionally put in place to make the transition of power as smooth as possible? Tracy Borman investigates…

Queen Victoria's son, King Edward VII, rides in Queen Victoria's funeral procession, February 1901. (Photo by Reinhold Thiele/Thiele/Getty Images)
Published: September 10, 2022 at 10:19 am
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At 11 o’clock on the evening of 21 April 1509, England’s first Tudor king, Henry VII, finally succumbed to “the sharp assaults of death”. The only people who knew of his passing were the handful of privy chamber servants and advisers clustered around his bedside. Anxious to set his affairs in order and ensure the security of the realm amidst the uncertainty that always accompanied the death of a sovereign – even one with a living, and popular heir – they ordered that the news be “secretly kept”. The late king’s servants continued to deliver food to his rooms as if nothing had happened.

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Despite their efforts, rumours of the king’s death were already circulating in the city the following day. Fearing unrest, those who were privy to the secret began to quietly stock the royal armoury. Then, on 23 April, when the court was filled with dignitaries for the Feast of the Order of the Garter, Henry VII’s death was finally announced. All the frenzied activity behind the scenes had apparently been worth it: Henry VIII would be the first monarch since 1422 to accede to the throne peacefully as a crowned king, rather than by usurpation or conquest (Henry V having died of dysentery on 31 August 1422).

Although the protocol surrounding the death of a monarch has changed a bit since Tudor times, secrecy has been a running theme throughout the long history of the British crown. This is understandable: the change of regime tends to prompt uncertainty and instability, and those at the heart of the royal establishment have always been keen to make the transition as smooth as possible to safeguard the crown (not to mention their own positions). Or, in the case of Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather, King George V, to ensure that it was reported in the right newspapers.

George had been a heavy smoker from a young age and, like his late father, Edward VII, had suffered from chronic bronchitis for a number of years. By the beginning of 1936, the 70-year-old king knew he was dying. On the evening of 20 January, it was clear that he had just hours to live. The senior royal doctor, Viscount Dawson, later admitted that he had hastened the king’s end just before midnight with two lethal injections so that his suffering would not be prolonged. But he had also been prompted by a desire that George’s death should be announced in the morning edition of The Times, rather than in “less appropriate… evening journals”.

Of course, secrecy is not always possible, particularly during much of the medieval period when kings had a habit of dying in battle. 1066 is widely considered one of the most important dates in English history because it ushered in not just a new monarch, but an entirely new ruling elite. Having defeated and killed the Saxon king, Harold II, at the battle of Hastings (although perhaps not with an arrow in the eye, as the Bayeux Tapestry would have us believe), William of Normandy proceeded to sweep away almost every last vestige of the old way of life – customs, laws, and even language. The Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was virtually wiped out and the English countryside was dominated by imposing new castles, a symbol of Norman domination.

Four centuries later, the Wars of the Roses saw the crown change hands no fewer than seven times – most of those on the battlefield. The last occasion was at Bosworth Field in August 1485, when Richard III was slain by the forces of Henry Tudor.

Hot pokers & missing princes

Battles may be bloody, but at least they are decisive ­– for the most part. What has sparked greater instability in the crown’s history is when the death of a monarch has been shrouded with doubt. After being ousted from the throne by his wife and son in January 1327, Edward II was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. Almost immediately there were plots to free the captive king, but these were brought to an abrupt end in September when parliament was informed that Edward had died. To remove any doubt that he was really dead, his body was taken to Gloucester for public display on 22 October. Two months later, he was buried in the city’s abbey, with his son Edward III and widow Isabella in attendance.

The official line was that Edward had died of natural causes, but he was only 43 and had been in robust health. More likely is that the various plots to free him had prompted Isabella or her lover, Roger Mortimer, to have him quietly murdered. Rumours soon began to circulate about how this was achieved, the most notorious of which is that Edward’s bowels had been burnt out with a red-hot spit or poker inserted into his behind. But there were also rumours that the deposed king had escaped from Berkeley.

These rumours were taken so seriously that in March 1330, Edward’s half-brother, Edmund, earl of Kent, was executed for plotting to restore the late king. Before her death in 1358, Isabella left instructions that she be buried with Edward's embalmed heart over her breast, more to prove that he really was dead than as a final act of wifely devotion.

An even more notorious mystery surrounded the death of Edward V and his younger brother, Richard – better known as the princes in the Tower. Edward was just 12 years old when his father, Edward IV, died in April 1483, so his uncle, Richard of Gloucester, was appointed Lord Protector. Richard wasted no time in placing his nephews in the Tower, ostensibly to prepare for Edward’s coronation. But in the event it was Richard, not his nephew, who was crowned, after both boys were declared illegitimate. By then, they had disappeared. The vast majority of Richard III’s subjects believed the boys had been quietly murdered at his orders, which fatally destabilised his rule. But the conspiracy theories that one or both survived persist even to this day.

The death of Queen Victoria

Fast-forward to more peaceable times and the beginning of 1901, when Queen Victoria lay dying at her favourite seaside retreat, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. She had reigned for longer than any British monarch before her. The contemporary historian Lytton Strachey summed up the public mood: “It appeared as if some monstrous reversal of the course of nature was about to take place”, he wrote. “The vast majority of her subjects had never known a time when Queen Victoria had not been reigning over them.”

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Queen Victoria.
Queen Victoria. (Image by Getty Images)

It is perhaps not surprising that the woman who had transformed mourning into an art form after losing her beloved husband, Albert, in 1861, had prepared detailed instructions for her burial. As well as the arrangements for her lying in state and funeral (which was to be bedecked with white and gold rather than black), she had also left orders to her dressers about the items which were to be buried with her. Mementos of her late husband dominated, of course, and a photograph of the dead queen shows her swathed in her wedding veil.

But Victoria also left secret instructions that she should be buried with a picture of her former companion (and, it was rumoured, her lover) John Brown, together with a lock of his hair, both of which were placed in her left hand, hidden from view by a bunch of flowers. Once the coffin had been sealed, it was conveyed across the Solent between two rows of battleships and cruisers for the funeral at Windsor on 2 February. It was then interred next to Albert’s in the royal mausoleum at Frogmore in Windsor Home Park.

The pomp and pageantry that accompanied Victoria’s death and burial set the blueprint for the rest of the 20th century, and much of it is still in place today. Formal responsibility for the arrangements following the death of a monarch rests with the Earl Marshal and the College of Arms, who are also responsible for coronations. Preparations for the current queen’s death have also been made by the cabinet office.

What happened when Elizabeth II died?

Since the reign of Elizabeth II’s father, George VI, codenames have been used by key officials for the death of a royal family member to prevent Buckingham Palace switchboard operators from learning of the death before it is formally announced. George VI’s death was codenamed ‘Hyde Park Corner’, but from the late 20th and early 21st centuries, funeral plans for senior royals have been made under the cover of names of prominent bridges (Operation Tay Bridge for the Queen Mother and Forth Bridge for Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, for example).

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‘London Bridge’ was the codename for the death of Elizabeth II. Given her extraordinary longevity – she died at 96 on 8 September 2022 – it is perhaps no surprise that painstaking preparations had been underway for years, with the Queen herself involved in some of the planning. Her private secretary conveyed the news to the prime minister, the cabinet secretary, and the Privy Council Office. It was then filtered down to ministers and senior civil servants before being conveyed across the Commonwealth by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s Global Response Centre. The media was then be informed. By the time the footman pinned a dark-edged notice to the gates of Buckingham Palace, the news already had spread across the globe.

Authors

Tracy Borman
Tracy BormanAuthor, historian, joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces

Tracy Borman is a best-selling author and historian, specialising in the Tudor period. She works part-time as joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and as Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust.

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