The first and ONLY time Queen Elizabeth II broke royal protocol

During the Queen's 70-year reign, the Queen only ever broke protocol once, and it was at a very poignant moment in the history of the royal family

The first and ONLY time Queen Elizabeth II broke royal protocol
Queen Elizabeth II, the longest reigning monarch only ever broke protocol once and it was for family (Geoff Pugh - WPA Pool /Getty Images)
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LONDON, ENGLAND: Queen Elizabeth II breathed her last in Scotland, on September 8 after her health deteriorated. The royal family confirmed she passed away peacefully at Balmoral. The longest reigning monarch only ever broke protocol once and it became one of the most famous historic moments. 

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During her 70 years of reign, it was the first and only time that the Queen broke protocol as she bowed in public. The Queen bowed her head in front of the gun carriage bearing the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales'. It broke all protocol as a queen is never supposed to bow her head to someone beneath her in rank. "And it was not just the sovereign acknowledging Diana, it was the sovereign acknowledging her people," The Sun reports.

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Queen Bow down at Diana's funeral procession (National Geographic/Youtube screengrab)
Queen Elizabeth II bows down at Diana's funeral procession (National Geographic/Youtube screengrab)

The tragic demise of Diana, the Princess of Wales on August 31, 1997, was a week that changed the monarchy. Princess Diana's sudden death had shocked the world and never before had the Queen faced such anger from a grief-stricken country that could not understand her apparent coldness. The Queen had been at Balmoral with her family, including her young grandsons Prince William and Prince Harry, when the news came in via a call from Paris at 4:15 am that Diana was dead in a car crash and the doctors had been unable to save the 36-year-old. For once, the Queen had not put her duty first. For once, her priority was to be a grandmother.

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The Queen’s first thoughts were for Diana’s boys, William and Harry, 15 and 12, respectively. They were asleep, and it was decided they should not be woken immediately. In the meantime, she ordered staff not to turn on radios or TVs in case the princes heard them. Newspapers were to be hidden. The boys were to learn about the tragedy in peace and were to be allowed to mourn a mother, not a superstar.

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British Royal Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-1997), wearing a blue jacket over a black dress, with Eton housemaster Dr Andrew Gailey, Prince Harry, Prince William, and Prince Charles outside Manor House on Prince William's first day at Eton College in Eton, Berkshire, England, 6th September 1995. (Photo by Princess Diana Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Princess of Wales, Diana (1961-1997) with Eton housemaster Dr Andrew Gailey, Prince Harry, Prince William, and Prince Charles (Princess Diana Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Prince Charles woke them and was the first to break the news to the princes at 7 am. Charles decided he wanted to go to Paris to collect Diana’s body, despite the couple divorcing a year previously after separating in 1992. The Queen believed it was more important he stay at Balmoral with his sons.

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At this point, it’s claimed a member of the royal household interrupted, “Would you prefer, Ma’am, that the body of the Princess of Wales be brought home in a Harrods van?” It was the first angry voice raised against the Queen for her reaction to the death and it would not be the last. Charles got his way but first, the Queen decreed that the family would go to church as usual. And so, the first the world saw of the bereaved William and Harry on that terrible Sunday morning being driven to Crathie Church in Aberdeenshire. Diana was not mentioned during the service. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tony Blair had gone to his own local church service in Trimdon, Co Durham, and made a statement that was beamed live around the world. He declared, “She was the People’s Princess and that is how she will stay.” His words captured the public mood by storm.

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Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, circa 1952. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, circa 1952
(Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By the next day, the PM’s team urged the royals to speak to the nation. But they held firm. As a courtier stormed, “This is not a bloody election campaign.” For privacy and for the boys, the Queen wanted that Diana’s funeral be a small family affair at Windsor. Charles disagreed and insisted on a full-scale funeral at Westminster Abbey, as he worried that public sentiment would be against him. The Queen was desperately divided thinking about the effect it would have on her young grandsons.

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“I think it was a very hard decision for my grandmother to make. She felt very torn between being the grandmother to William and Harry and her Queen role," Williams told BBC in 2017. While the funeral argument continued to rage, rumblings were beginning about why flags on all government buildings were flying at half-mast but not at Buckingham Palace. The Royal protocol stated that the only flag ever flown above the Palace was the Royal Standard, and only when the sovereign was in residence. This flag represented the monarchy and therefore it was never lowered. As courtier Sir Malcolm Ross later explained, “She didn’t lower the Royal Standard on the death of her father.” 

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Floral tributes, photographs and messages sit outside an entrance gate to Kensington Palace ahead of the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales on August 30, 2017 in London, England. On August 31, 1997 Princess Diana was fatally injured, aged 36, in a high speed car crash in a Paris, France. The months following her death saw a huge public outpouring of grief with a sea of tributes left by members of the public outside Kensington Palace.
Floral tributes, photographs, and messages sit in memory of Princess Diana (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

The public was infused with rage against the monarch over Diana's death. The Sun’s editorial fumed, “Not one word has come from a royal lip, not one tear has been shed in public from a royal eye. It is as if no one in the royal family has a soul.” By the following day, the issue was on The Sun’s front page with the headline, “Where Is Our Queen? Where Is Her Flag?” Tony Blair and Prince Charles told the Queen that if she did not make some gesture, she risked being booed at the funeral. She was bewildered. At last, the Queen issued a statement, her press secretary, Geoff Crawford, stood outside St James’s Palace, where Diana’s body was lying, and said, “The royal family have been hurt by suggestions that they are indifferent to the country’s sorrow at the tragic death of the Princess of Wales. The Princess was a much-loved national figure, but she was also a mother whose sons miss her deeply. Prince William and Prince Harry themselves want to be with their father and grandparents at this time in the quiet haven of Balmoral. As their grandmother, the Queen is helping the princes to come to terms with their loss.’’ The statement also announced that the Union flag which has never before flown above Buckingham Palace would go up at half-mast! As one commentator wrote afterward, “Her words may have rescued her reign.” By the end of the week, she captured the national mood in a moving TV broadcast, then came out of Buckingham Palace to join crowds and watched as Diana’s flag-draped coffin was carried to Westminster Abbey. She stood next to a banner that had been draped on the palace railings by a mourner reading, “Diana: Princess of Love.” And she bowed!

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