"Your people are suffering," proclaimed the Mirror — "Speak to us, Ma'am."
With the generally more sedate broadsheets only moderately more restrained, Elizabeth II was confronted by an unprecedented chorus of newsprint criticism over her Balmoral breakfast that Thursday morning. Rupert Murdoch's Sun put it most powerfully.
"Where is the Queen when the country needs her?" demanded an open letter on the paper's front page. "She is 550 miles from London, the focal point of the nation's grief. Her castle at Balmoral is about as far away as it is possible to get from the sea of flowers building up outside the royal palaces … Every hour the Palace remains empty adds to the public anger at what they perceive to be a snub to the People's Princess. Let Charles and William and Harry weep together in the lonely Scottish Highlands. We can understand that. But the Queen's place is with the people. She should fly back to London immediately and stand on the Palace balcony."
There was some convenient relief in the energy with which Britain's newspapers turned on Elizabeth II that Thursday morning, 4 September 1997. Three days earlier, those same newspapers had been the objects of bitter blame. Photographers who ventured too close to mourners laying flowers outside the palaces had been shouted at and menaced — the butt of public fury at the role of the paparazzi in hounding the princess into the Alma Tunnel in Paris. The announcement by the Paris police that Henri Paul, the driver on the fateful night, had had more than three times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood had let the editors off the hook, and they wasted little time diverting public anger away from their own role in the tragedy.
But the idea so beseechingly stated in The Sun's open letter, that royal people exist as vehicles for the collective emotions of the communities they head, was undeniable. And exhibiting emotion was one aspect of the royal job that Elizabeth II — unlike Diana — had never done with any ease.
"She has a deep mistrust," says one of her advisors, "of what she calls 'stunts.' "
Elizabeth II is not an actress. At the heart of Britain's performing monarchy is a serious, matter-of-fact woman who is an obstinate non-performer. Blessed with a ravishing natural smile, she finds it impossible to switch on that smile to order. She had issued a statement of regret on the morning of Diana's death and was now supervising a practical family effort to comfort the two boys who were most intimately affected. Rather shy, and quite the opposite of her outspoken husband, she had never been a step-forward-and-open-her-mouth type of person — and her staff had taken their cue from that.
"We got a day behind the game," admits more than one of those at the centre of that week's activities.
How to catch up was the urgent theme of the discussions that Thursday morning in Buckingham Palace — and as the ideas bounced around in Robert Fellowes's office, the flag suddenly became the simplest issue. After the tabloid front pages and the tone of that morning's radio coverage, there could even be a question of public order at stake. Some concession would have to be made, and it seemed obvious that, protocol or not, the Union Jack would need to be flying at half-mast over the palace on the day of the funeral. Other members of the family would have to show themselves in public before that, and, most important of all, the queen would have to speak to the nation.