Remembering the dark start of another jubilee

10 years ago, the Queen lost the two lynchpins in her life, but the Golden Jubilee celebrations went on

Alastair Grant Pool/AP

As Diamond Jubilee celebrations gather steam—enormous crowds (above) turned out on Thursday to see the Queen and Prince Philip in London—there was a pause on Friday to remember the deaths 10 years ago of the two lynchpins of Elizabeth II’s life, which made for a very dark start to the Queen’s Golden Jubilee of 2002. Only three days after the 50th anniversary of her accession, the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret died on Feb. 9 after succumbing to the latest in a series of strokes that had forced her from the public’s eye. And then on March 30, Easter Saturday, while the Queen was riding in Great Windsor Park, she was informed her mother was dying. She rushed to her bedside at the nearby Royal Lodge and was there, with Margaret’s children David and Sarah, when the last empress of India died. The BBC announced the news, making headlines of its own when executives told Peter Sissons, the on-air presenter, not to wear a black tie. “Don’t go overboard,” the weekend editor explained. “She’s a very old woman who had to go sometime.”

When Buckingham Palace announced the Queen Mother’s lying-in-state at Westminster Hall would be four-days-long, politicians and editorial writers moaned that it was too long, no one would show up, and it would be embarrassing. The public proved them wrong. Roy MacGregor captured the remarkable scenes for the National Post: “On Sunday at the Westminster subway stop, it had reached the point where the public address system was warning that ‘the wait is now 12 hours’—and still people were racing to join what has become the longest statement in British history. Four abreast they stretched across Lambeth Bridge, then all along the south bank of the River Thames, under Westminster Bridge, under Hungerford Bridge, under Waterloo Bridge, under Blackfriars Bridge, under the new Millennium Bridge, all the way back to Southwark Bridge within sight of London Bridge. An eight-bridge salute to a 101-year-old woman.” As poet Ben Okri wrote: “Sometimes the meaning / Of a death can be measured / Too in the depths of silence.”

The sight of the Queen arriving alone for the funeral drove home the point that she’d just lost two of her closest confidantes and relatives. (Philip and others accompanied the Queen Mother’s body from the hall to Westminster Abbey). As the Queen and Philip were driven home after the service, the crowds that still lined the route broke into spontaneous applause. And the Queen could be seen wiping a tear or two from her face.

Before those two funerals, royal officials had dampened down expectations for the Golden Jubilee celebrations (plans included two concerts at Buckingham Palace and a huge parade through London) because it was only five years after the death of Diana—a moment that spawned a feverish outpouring of criticism directed towards the monarch for being slow to “feel the pain” of the public. Officials relaxed, however, upon witnessing the affection directed towards the Queen after her mother’s death. Even though the Golden Jubilee turned out to be a hit, successfully and irrevocably drawing a line under 15 years of royal tantrums and turmoil, as they planned for the Diamond Jubilee, officials opted for a “go big or go home” approach to celebration planning. Soon they’ll know if they made the right choice.

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