By Jennifer Hassan and Harry Mount
London: It was an image that broke hearts as it was televised to the world: Dressed all in black, her head bowed, Queen Elizabeth II sat isolated and alone inside the chapel of St. George’s as the royal family gathered under stringent coronavirus restrictions to say goodbye to Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
After 73 years of marriage and a loving union that saw her husband often by her side or two steps behind, the British monarch cut a lonely figure as the coffin entered the venue. To many she appeared vulnerable – perhaps for the first time in her long reign when she has been frequently hailed as a pillar of strength in the country throughout myriad crises and periods of darkness.
But behind the scenes, she does have contact with her family and now fully vaccinated, is visited regularly, while the 22 staff in the royal household bubble provide company and consolation.
On social media, many said that they were heartbroken and deeply saddened at scenes of the monarch sitting by herself during the funeral, while others said the images were a nod to her strength of character – as a woman, wife and queen.
The image of a family forced to gather as a small group to say goodbye to a loved one is a shared experience in the brutality of the coronavirus pandemic: millions of families around the world have had to honour their loved ones under stringent rules and regulations that are designed to keep people apart.
“A reminder of how this pandemic has changed all our lives. The Queen sits alone, with a mask on, as she says farewell to her ‘strength & stay’ for so much of her life,” read one tweet by a BBC presenter, while others hailed the monarch’s bravery in the face of grief.
But while she entered the chapel alone, the Queen was eventually joined -albeit at a two-metre distance – by her family in the pew, and she does have support within her “bubble” of family and 22 royal household staff.
Since the latest relaxation in COVID rules, members of the royal family have been allowed to visit the Queen, albeit at distance. Prince Andrew lives only a few miles away at Royal Lodge. Prince Edward and Sophie Wessex (who is particularly close the Queen) are 21 kilometres away at Bagshot Park. Prince Charles and Princess Anne have also been in regular contact.
The family did not leave Windsor Castle until five hours after the funeral, suggesting the Queen was able to spend time with her children and grandchildren in the afternoon of the ceremony, although Buckingham Palace refuses to say whether there was any kind of private wake.
When the Queen and Prince Philip began isolating at Windsor Castle in March last year, they were attended by 22 staff who were allowed to enter their bubble.
These are the people who will be now on hand to provide the Queen with consoling company.
Last year, they were dubbed “HMS Bubble” by Tony Johnstone-Burt, Master of the Household and a former Royal Navy officer. The Queen and Prince Philip enjoyed the HMS Bubble joke – not least because Prince Philip’s wartime nickname was “Big Bubble”. (It comes from Cockey rhyming slang ‘bubble and squeek’, for Philip the Greek.)
In an email Johnstone-Burt sent to all staff last year, he wrote: “There are 22 royal household staff inside the bubble, and it struck me that our predicament is not dissimilar to my former life in the Royal Navy on a long overseas deployment.
“Indeed, the challenges that we are facing, whether self-isolating alone at home or with our close household and families, have parallels with being at sea, away from home for many months, and having to deal with a sense of dislocation, anxiety and uncertainty. Regardless of the roles we perform, we do them to an exceptional standard to allow the Queen and other members to do their duty to the best of their ability, too.”
The closest of all the Queen’s staff is Angela Kelly, her senior dresser, who has been working for her since 1993. Throughout lockdown, she has been visiting the Queen at Windsor Castle, driving every day in a disinfected car from her grace-and-favour Windsor home.
The Queen trusts her so much that she has let her write two books – with a third in the pipeline – about royal life. Their backgrounds may be different – Angela, 62, divorced three times, was brought up in a council house, the daughter of a crane operator at Liverpool Docks. But they chat away happily and know each other inside out, quite literally: Angela Kelly breaks in the Queen’s new shoes before she wears them.
The Queen has resumed professional duties this week, conducting a telephone call with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Her governmental work will be carried out via another member of HMS Bubble, her Private Secretary, Sir Edward Young.
Ever-present in her household through lockdown has been the Queen’s Page of the Backstairs, Paul Whybrew. Known as “Tall Paul”, he is renowned for starring alongside her in the James Bond sketch with Daniel Craig at the 2012 Olympics. Said to be a calming presence, it has been reported that he is the aide who accompanies Her Majesty when she settles down to watch the television.
The Washington Post, The Telegraph London