Four days before she died, the Queen had an important announcement for the shooting party she had invited to spend a few days at Balmoral Castle.
Dinner that Sunday night would be informal, she said. No black tie for the men nor long dresses for the ladies and, unusually, there would be no piper.
For decades the skirl of the bagpipes had been an indispensable soundtrack to every occasion at the Scottish castle so this was a real break in tradition.
Her guests were her Bowes-Lyons cousins, relatives through the Queen Mother’s family to whom she had always been close. One thing that hadn’t changed when they all sat down in the castle dining room that evening was the reassuring presence of the Queen.
She was on ‘good form’, they said, ‘perky even’. It was clear she drew strength from having loved ones around her.
She was on ‘good form’, they said, ‘perky even’. It was clear she drew strength from having loved ones around her. Pictured: The Queen at Balmoral waiting to meet new prime minister Liz Truss
Pictured: The Queen in 2020 heading to Windsor with one of her adored corgis. During her reign she owned more than 30
She asked that many of the traditions of a Balmoral summer should continue, even though she could not join in as she once did, particularly with the walks and the picnics, and she found it harder to do her regular newspaper crossword puzzle. Pictured: The Queen rides one of her beloved horses at Windsor Castle in 2006
Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by her stud groom Terry Pendry at Windsor Castle in 2007
Her physical decline had not made her last weeks easy: standing and walking, especially up and down stairs, were difficult and she was eating sparingly. But the joy of being at her favourite home more than made up for it.
She asked that many of the traditions of a Balmoral summer should continue, even though she could not join in as she once did, particularly with the walks and the picnics, and she found it harder to do her regular newspaper crossword puzzle.
But there were other compensations and none more intriguing than the way she made a point of watching TV weather forecasts.
The reason? She had developed an unexpected affection for BBC weatherman Tomasz Schafernaker. ‘It was like a bit of a crush; she always wanted to watch the forecasts when he was on,’ says a close figure. ‘She was amused hearing the cadences when his name was read out but she loved watching him, too.’
BBC weatherman Tomasz Schafernaker, whom the Queen had a soft spot for. She regularly watched BBC weather forecasts
The Queen may not have known it but she was in good company: the 43-year-old Polish-British meteorologist has a huge following on social media. During lockdown he was voted Britain’s favourite weatherman, in part because of his long hair that he neglected to cut.
That she found her final days in her beloved Highlands so consoling is all the more surprising after the sadness which settled on her soon after her arrival in Scotland this summer. This, I can reveal, was caused by the death of Candy, a dachshund-corgi cross breed known as a dorgi.
The loss was a huge blow to the Queen as Candy was her oldest and longest surviving dog. She had been at her side since 2004, making her more than 18 — a remarkable age for a dorgi.
Poignantly the dog had the same name as a much-loved yellow Labrador of Prince Philip. She was one of the Queen’s four dorgis (Cider, Berry and Vulcan being the others) but outlived them all.
Although in dog years Candy was in extreme old age, her death hit the Queen hard. In a highly unusual move she decided she did not want this most loyal of companions to be buried at Balmoral.
For most of her life there has been an unwritten rule that her dogs are buried where they die, so the final resting places of her pets can be found at Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral.
Normally the Queen herself oversees the burials, accompanied by her head gardener. Later, a headstone engraved with the dog’s name, date of birth and death and a suitable epitaph is put up. But on the death of Candy she arranged for the dog’s remains to be flown to London and transferred to Windsor to be buried with another long-term companion, Vulcan, who passed away in 2020.
So unexpected was her decision that her close domestic staff saw it as a sign that the Queen had every intention of being back in Windsor at the end of the holiday to supervise the placing of the headstone herself.
She still had the agreeable companionship of two other dogs, Sandy and Muick, gifts from Prince Andrew and his daughters a year ago.
There had been some other encouraging signs too. Shortly before arriving in Scotland she asked to be taken down to the mews at Windsor Castle where her stud groom Terry Pendry had continued to look after the horses, even though she was no longer riding them.
She still had the agreeable companionship of two other dogs, Sandy and Muick, gifts from Prince Andrew and his daughters a year ago. Pictured: The Queen strokes her beloved dog Candy in February. Candy died this summer
Pictured: The Queen smiles as she meets Liz Truss, in one of the last photos taken of her before she passed away
She just wanted to see them, although when she was invited to sit on a pony she agreed. She was helped up into the saddle and then a groom suggested walking the horse around the indoor riding school. The Queen did four laps and it must have been the first time she had been on a leading rein since she learned to ride as a child.
During July’s heatwave she asked for a sun-lounger to be put out for her in the garden at Windsor. At Balmoral, where the weather was less warm, she spent more time sleeping, often retiring for a nap after lunch.
Although frail, she remained alert and chatty almost until the end. The Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields dined with her on Saturday and again on Sunday lunchtime. He spoke of her ‘good spirits’ and ‘engaging’ company. Dr Greenshields, who preached at Braemar and Crathie parish church where the Queen used to worship, said she was ‘absolutely on the ball’.
‘She was talking about her past, her love for Balmoral, her father, her mother, Prince Philip, horses, very much engaged with what was happening in the church and what was happening in the nation, too.’
He described how she took him to the window and she was ‘looking over her gardens with great pride and affection’.
Even two days before her death, that famous enthusiasm was undimmed. On Tuesday she spoke by telephone to her trainer Clive Cox about the prospects of her filly Love Affairs, which would go on to be her final winner in her career as a racehorse owner. Pictured: The Queen shakes hands with Liz Truss
He added: ‘Her health was frail, we knew that, but when I left her on Sunday she was very positive, and I’m just finding it very hard to believe that in those few days things had changed so much.’
Even two days before her death, that famous enthusiasm was undimmed. On Tuesday she spoke by telephone to her trainer Clive Cox about the prospects of her filly Love Affairs, which would go on to be her final winner in her career as a racehorse owner.
He said: ‘We talked about the filly, how the race might pan out, how another horse of hers was doing in my stable and about a couple of other things. She was as sharp as a tack.’
No one witnessed this incredible resilience she possessed more than her closest aides. And it was her staff who were determined to make sure that if this was to be her final summer, it was comfortable.
Pictured: Royal Balmoral Castle in Scotland, the Queen’s favourite home where she spent the last weeks of her life
Photograph of Queen Elizabeth II with the Duke of Edinburgh and their children at Balmoral Castle
Ever since the Covid pandemic when the Queen moved permanently to Windsor Castle, this small team of domestic servants have been rotating every two weeks.
It was changeover in the week the Queen died, which meant that a day after she had audiences with the outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson and incoming Liz Truss, her senior page Paul Whybrew and her footman Ian Robinson, whose responsibilities including walking the dogs, returned to her side.
There were other familiar faces, Angela Kelly, the Liverpool dock worker’s daughter who had risen from dresser to personal assistant and curator, and her lady-in-waiting Susan Rhodes. Susan, who began working for the Queen in 2017, is married to Simon Rhodes whose mother Margaret was a childhood friend and first cousin of the Queen.
But when it came to her last wishes none was more important than Whybrew, her longest serving aide, who had been at her side for 44 of her 70 years on the throne. He will have known the whereabouts of the Queen’s private keys that unlock the safes and strongboxes that hold her diaries and other intimate secrets. In recent months he had overseen the removal of many of her private possessions from Buckingham Palace to Windsor. All these and the keys will now pass into the possession of King Charles.
Even though she spent much of her last weeks in her rooms at Balmoral, she was not alone. Throughout the summer, Royal Family members had dropped in, not to say goodbye but to share memories.
Even though she spent much of her last weeks in her rooms at Balmoral, she was not alone. Throughout the summer, Royal Family members had dropped in, not to say goodbye but to share memories. Pictured: Queen Elizabeth II at Balmoral Cricket Pavilion to mark the start of the official planting season for the Queen’s Green Canopy (QGC) at the Balmoral Estate in October 2021
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Balmoral, 1972
They included Prince Edward (who has taken over barbecue duties from his late father) and his wife Sophie, Prince William, Kate and most recently Lady Sarah Chatto, the Queen’s niece with whom she had a special bond.
Even on Tuesday there was no immediate alarm about the Queen’s condition, although she was clearly tired after the exertions of receiving not one but two Prime Ministers. It is understood that a doctor and nursing staff were kept close by throughout her stay at Balmoral and she was receiving regular medical attention.
The sudden change in her condition on Wednesday, while not entirely unexpected, was still a surprise. As her health deteriorated and a sense of dread descended, the castle staff began alerting the Royal Family.
Royal Family Picnicking at Balmoral Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
Queen Elizabeth II with the Duke of Edinburgh and their children Prince Edward, Prince Charles, Princess Anne, and Prince Andrew, at Balmoral
Only two were in Scotland, Princess Anne and Prince Charles, who was with Camilla hosting a dinner at Dumfries House, the Palladian mansion he saved for the nation. Both were able to be at their mother’s side for her passing.
It is not known how those final hours unfolded and whether the Queen, like her mother, received the last rites.
Unable to make the journey to church for divine worship during the summer months, clergymen had, however, prayed with the Queen at the castle.
Sustained for so long by her Christian faith, it is certain that she would have wanted some spiritual guidance at the end.
In a life governed by meticulous protocol, her final weeks in her beloved Highlands could not have been better scripted.