Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Funeral of Prince Philip - some reflections

I spent a significant part of yesterday watching the funeral of Prince Philip, and here are a few reflections on what I saw and thought.

I watched the BBC coverage, which I thought was, on the whole, very good, and more or less back to what one would, and should, expect after some noticeably poorer coverage such as that of the Diamond Jubilee in 2012. However I see that there has been criticism of Huw Edwards and his tendency to talk too much. I thought that was in check on his part and far better than on past occasions when he was certainly far too loquacious.

The various interviewees, drawn from different generations and covering different aspects of the Prince’s life, drew upon the memories of those who knew him, but also spoke of the continuing causes he championed, such as the environment, the Commonwealth and young people through his award scheme and other initiatives. This brought out the Duke’s acuity and his ability to focus on detail and on achieving results. It also brought out the remarkable balance he sustained between being a very real figure of authority and an openness to those he met and encouraged, and to those who were employed by him.

Spring sunshine made Windsor look at its best. The emptiness of the castle was striking and beautiful, lending a sombre dignity to the buildings and setting for the procession and service. In the case of the latter the sight of the nave of St George’s devoid of chairs was especially striking. 

The Royal family were not in uniform, but in morning dress. Whatever one might think about that much publicised situation it did mean that visually they stood stood out from the military personnel, and were in consequence emphasised as a family in mourning. That gave the spectator a sense of personal immediacy and empathy that here was grief and loss, not just public ceremonial.

The service itself was very dignified in the best traditions of The Book of Common Prayer celebrated in a ‘High and Dry’ style with the distinctive presentation of both the Royal Peculars of Westminster Abbey and St George’s. and within the coronavirus restrictions. The austere wording and presence of just the Dean and the Archbishop was appropriate to what was essentially a family funeral but one that was in front of millions of viewers.

The physical emptiness of the nave and the limited number of those in the Quire perhaps reflected coincidentally something of the feelings of the Queen and her family. Here again the viewer, without wishing to intrude, was able to sense something of what might be in the minds of those actually attending. A life of almost a century is a very long one, yet in a chapel over five centuries old and in a castle over nine centuries old, it was a reminder that people live their lives against a longer timescale, yet become part of that wider identity - so the Prince’s life was one fifth of that of the Chapel, as its longest lived Knight more than a sixth of the history of the Garter. In a few weeks time it is five and a half centuries since the first monarch to be eventually buried in St George’s died, yet King Henry VI and all the other monarchs and their family members who have joined him in the vaults there felt very close as part of a continuing thread.

In some of the discussion beforehand there had been a stress on the Prince’s strong Christian belief, his liking for the linguistic economy of the BCP - an example perhaps of his “Get on with it!” approach - and also, in the singing of the Russian Kontakion for the Departed, an acknowledgement of his roots in Orthodoxy and his family members who were martyrs and Passion Bearers for that Church. Whilst he was alive this was not something that was, I think, especially noted in his public persona beyond attendance at Anglican worship on ceremonial occasions and in encouraging the work of St George’s House at Windsor. This was doubtless typical of him, not to make the private side of his life public, but it adds an important dimension to our understanding of him, and to reflect on that essentially private witness in the public sphere, and its legacy.

May he rest in peace.

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