The British Royal Family continue to act as an Emotional Regime

By Gordon D. Raeburn (Bishop Grosseteste University)

At the start of September 2021, a leak of secret documents revealed the plans in place for the eventual death of Queen Elizabeth II.[1] Early indications suggest a genuine leak, rather than one planned, for one reason or another.[2] These detailed documents cover extensive plans for the practical realities of the death of the monarch, but also take into account public spaces, and even actions involving social media. However, they also serve to highlight a planned emotional manipulation of the public, not only in Britain, but throughout the world. Indeed, this leak exemplifies the British Royal Family as an Emotional Regime.

In brief, as addressed by William Reddy in 2001, Emotional Regimes are instances where emotional expression is governed by the state, to a greater or lesser extent. Reddy posited that certain emotions are actually engendered in the people by the state. The people are quite literally instructed as to what to feel.[3]

Of course, there is nothing new about grand royal funerals and memorials, and they have always contained elements intended to evoke emotion and provoke memory. Shortly after his accession to the English throne, King James VI and I orchestrated monuments for his predecessor, Elizabeth I, and his mother, Mary Queen of Scots.[4] Mary Queen of Scots, of course, had been executed by Elizabeth I, so it is incredibly interesting that of the two monuments, designed to face each other across Westminster Abbey, Mary’s was the more expensive, and much taller and longer.[5] As Peter Sherlock noted, ‘James understood that a representation of the past did not need to reflect reality; instead, a representation might change public memory, and create new realities.’[6] In 1695 the funeral for Queen Mary II saw a procession of over a thousand mourners, a display of public mourning now viewed as largely organised by the court to drum up support for her unpopular husband, William III.[7] There were other methods of emotional manipulation employed. The public procession of both Houses of Parliament conveyed the continuing strength of the nation, and the commissioned music for the occasion, composed by Henry Purcell, was clearly designed to evoke grief and mourning in the audience. Politicians from all over the country, as well as the general public, openly displayed their condolences and loyalty to the king.[8] In 1817, following the death of Princess Charlotte of Wales, a period of national mourning was declared, with ‘all persons [to] put themselves into decent mourning’.[9] Compared to some other examples, this was a rather straightforward instruction to display grief in public, but in a certain sense, it also backfired. For some in Presbyterian Scotland, such as the Secession minister Thomas M’Crie, this was an imposition of English social mores upon Scotland, further exacerbated by the instructions as to how memorial services for Charlotte were to be conducted. For M’Crie, Scottish Presbyterians had been instructed to ‘divest themselves of their religious principles, at least for one day, and testify their sympathy for royal affliction, by worshipping according to the rites of the Church of England’.[10] To be clear, this was not an indication that Scotland did not mourn the loss of Charlotte. The problem was in being instructed as to how to express that mourning. Clearly, for the crown, the emotions involved had to be seen to be correct.

Thomas Sunderland, The Funeral Ceremony of Her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte of Wales and Saxe Coburg (1818), National Portrait Gallery: NPG D20919, Wikimedia Commons

The funeral of Princess Diana in 1997 offers a counterpoint, in that the outpouring of public grief on that occasion was genuine and spontaneous. She had been a very popular figure. The British Medical Journal noted at the time that throughout the country people were experiencing grief and psychological distress, with some displaying symptoms akin to PTSD.[11] And the grief was not limited to Britain. Images of the throng along the funeral procession’s route were shown on news broadcasts across the world, and the funeral itself had a record-breaking world television audience. Tony Walter noted that, for once, this was not according to a pre-planned script.[12] The public, it seemed, were grieving organically.

Maxwell Hamilton, Flowers for Princess Diana’s Funeral (1 September 1997), Wikimedia Commons

So, what can be taken from the recently leaked documents? There has clearly been a large degree of planning involved, and an awareness of the online realities of the world today. The royal family’s website will go black, displaying a short message confirming the death of the Queen, and all government websites will display a black banner and their departmental crests. Non-urgent content will not be published, and re-tweets are explicitly banned. Flags are to be lowered to half-mast within ten minutes, otherwise risking public anger. The following day Charles will be confirmed as king in front of an audience dressed in the modern equivalent of mourning. He will then travel the constituent countries, hearing official messages of condolence. A very interesting aspect of the plans is the evident concern for crowds arriving in London, potentially causing London to become ‘full’. The state funeral will take place ten days after the Queen’s death, and will be a day of national mourning, although, interestingly, not a bank holiday.

Returning to the Royal Family as an Emotional Regime, it can be argued that these documents display overt and covert emotional aspects. There seems to be an element of assumption, in that there may be public anger if the flags are not lowered within ten minutes, and the public grief will be such that London risks becoming overcrowded. To be sure, the Queen is a popular figure, and has largely escaped unscathed from certain other scandals currently affecting the Royal Family.[13] Additionally, the current global pandemic has affected the mental health of individuals and communities internationally, and should her death occur in the near future it certainly has the possibility to become a focal point for unrelated grief and trauma. And there is no doubt that, generally speaking, the British are a nation of certain standards. Flags are to be lowered on the occasion of a death. More interesting, however, is the covert manipulation of public emotion. The Guardian has suggested that the approach to social media constitutes an official blackout.[14] The expectation that the social media blackout will successfully prevent unauthorised gossip indicates a certain naivety on the part of the crown. Rather, I suspect that this policy is not intended to prevent the spread of news at ground-level, but to encourage it. It seems to be the case that the intent here is for the news of the Queen’s death to go viral. Were this to be the case, it will likely be argued that this is an indicator of the extent of international grief at her death, and an example of a genuine, spontaneous outpouring of grief, similar to that following the death of Diana. Regardless of the truth of the matter, public perception is that some members of the Royal Family had a difficult relationship with Diana, and in many regards still do. Should the public reaction to the death of the Queen not match that of Diana, some within the Royal Family may not be entirely pleased.

Finally, the death of Queen Elizabeth II has the potential to be a tipping point for the crown. Republican sentiment is growing in Britain, and a recent poll has suggested that the younger generation skews strongly in that direction.[15] Prince Charles is not a particularly popular figure,[16] so it makes sense for him to be a visible presence in the days following the death of his mother, publicly grieving, so as to engender public support. Indeed, a visible grief may go some way to overcoming memories of his tepid declaration of love for Diana in 1979 (“Whatever ‘in love’ means”). King Charles III, should he take that title, will certainly need public support in the short term, and these leaked documents could be taken to suggest that, in this regard, little will be left to chance. It may still be too late. Hilary Mantel recently courted controversy after suggesting that the Queen’s great-grandson George may never get the chance to become king, as the monarchy is likely to have been abolished in the intervening years, due to the Royals becoming viewed more as celebrities.[17] This seems a distinct possibility, but only time will tell.

Of course, the Queen is ostensibly healthy, and plans may be subject to revision. But as these documents stand, it seems that the crown continues to act as an Emotional Regime.


Gordon D. Raeburn obtained his PhD in Early Modern Scottish burial practices from the University of Durham in 2013, and also holds degrees from the University of Aberdeen and the University of Edinburgh. From 2014 to 2017 he was a postdoctoral research fellow in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotion at The University of Melbourne. In 2018 he was the inaugural John Emmerson Research Fellow at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne. Since 2020 he has been a visiting tutor at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK. His research interests include early modern European religious history, death and emotion, emotions and the environment, developments of communal identity, and emotional manipulation as a weapon of war.

Email: gordon.raeburn@bishopg.ac.uk


[1] Alex Wickham, ‘Britain’s plan for when Queen Elizabeth II dies’, Politico, 3 September 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/queen-elizabeth-death-plan-britain-operation-london-bridge/ <accessed 20 September 2021>.

[2] Pippa Crerar, ‘Palace outraged at Queen’s funeral plan leak and government could launch probe in days’, The Mirror, 03 September 2021, https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/government-could-launch-probe-leak-24903478 <accessed 20 September 2021>.

[3] William M. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 122–30.

[4] Peter Sherlock, ‘The Monuments of Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart: King James and the Manipulation of Memory’, Journal of British Studies 46 (2007): 263–89, at 270.

[5] Ibid., 274.

[6] Ibid., 289.

[7] Amy B. Oberlin, ‘“Share with me in my Grief and Affliction”: Royal Sorrow and Public Mourning in Early Eighteenth-Century England’, Parergon 31.2 (2014): 99–120, at 100.

[8] Ibid., 101.

[9] Caledonian Mercury, 13 November 1817.

[10] Thomas M’Crie, Miscellaneous Writings, Chiefly Historical, of the Late Thomas M’Crie (Edinburgh: John Johnstone, 1841), 559.

[11] Mark Shevlin et al., ‘Her death and funeral rate as traumatic stressors’, British Medical Journal 315.7120 (1997): 1467–68, at 1467.

[12] Tony Walter, ed., The Mourning for Diana (London: Routledge, 1999).

[13] ‘Prince Andrew served with papers, accuser’s team claims’, BBC News, 11 September 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-58523119 <accessed 20 September 2021>.

[14] Rachel Hall, ‘Security operation for Queen’s death includes social media blackouts’, The Guardian, 3 September 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/sep/03/security-operation-for-queens-death-includes-social-media-blackouts <accessed 20 September 2021>.

[15] Michael Holden, ‘Young British people want to ditch the monarchy, poll suggests’, Reuters, 21 May 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/young-british-people-want-ditch-monarchy-poll-suggests-2021-05-20/ <accessed 20 September 2021>.

[16] Zoë Heller, ‘Where Prince Charles went wrong’, The New Yorker, 10 April 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/10/where-prince-charles-went-wrong <accessed 20 September 2021>.

[17] Bryan Appleyard, ‘Hilary Mantel: why Prince George won’t be king’, The Times, 11 September 2021, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/hilary-mantel-why-prince-george-wont-be-king-8lghmxbhb <accessed 21 September 2021>.

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