President Andrzej Duda was among the world leaders in attendance as Britain laid Queen Elizabeth II to rest. Viewed by a global audience in excess of four billion, the ceremony was also followed closely by millions in Poland. However, this was not the first time that Her Majesty had caused Poles to pause.
Visiting the country in March 1996, her one trip to Poland is still warmly remembered. Accompanied by Prince Philip, the regent landed at Okęcie International Airport on March 26th and headed immediately to the Presidential Palace to meet Aleksander Kwaśniewski and his wife.
“She is a wonderful person, an outstanding personality, and a great wit,” said the President. “She has an excellent grasp of politics, which she learned from Winston Churchill.” With introductions made, and a review of the guard conducted, the Queen awarded President Kwaśniewski with the Most Honourable Order of the Bath.
In reciprocation, the Queen was awarded the highest Polish decoration – the Order of the White Eagle.
Mayor Marcin Święcicki then took the Queen on a walk of the Old Town where she opened an exhibition at the Royal Castle. Celebrating 900-years of British-Polish relations, the moment also gave her ample opportunity to demonstrate her knowledge of the historic center’s defining landmark.
When Prince Charles had visited Poland earlier, he had shown fascination with the castle’s post-war reconstruction. “You could tell that Queen Elizabeth had talked a lot with Prince Charles about the castle,” said the castle’s director. “She was very well prepared for the visit and knew a lot about the restoration.”
After, the Queen visited Umschlagplatz, paid her respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and planted an oak tree in Saski Gardens to honor the capital’s 400th anniversary.
Staying in the Belvedere Palace, the Queen was also accompanied by a 40-strong entourage that included Britain’s foreign minister, Malcolm Rifkind, as well as her secretary, courtiers, a doctor and personal hairdresser.
The next day she spoke at the Sejm and used the chance to voice her support for Poland’s bid for EU and NATO membership. “Poland needs Europe, but Europe also needs Poland,” she said to enthusiastic applause.
Afterwards, her schedule included a visit to the acclaimed Stefan Batory high school (which had been previously, and somewhat bizarrely, visited by Michael Jackson) where she watched pupils perform a fragment of Pan Tadeusz. Leading up to her visit, embassy officials had set out guidelines forbidding people asking questions about the Falklands war, mad cow disease and Diana’s split from Charles.
Instead, pupils were advised to ask her about corgis, the weather and horses.
Having enjoyed a state banquet the night before (during which Philip had broken protocol to request a Polish beer), the second night was spent at Teatr Wielki where the royal couple watched La Fille Mal Garde.
Greeted by adoring crowds everywhere she went, the Queen’s other ports of call included the commemorative boulder standing in Park Skaryszewski – here she paid her respects to the British airmen that had died close by after their plane was shot down whilst on a supply mission during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.
On her final day, she visited Kraków where a transparent umbrella shieled her from the sleet.
“The Queen showed all the best that she had,” President Kwaśniewski later recalled. “On the one hand, she showed us real human warmth. On the other, she demonstrated great dignity and decorum. She also revealed a great deal of sympathy for Poland that, she said, took shape during WWII when her service brought her into contact with Polish airmen and soldiers. Many times she told me how grateful she was to them.”