Like millions of others here and abroad I followed closely the television broadcast of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II last Monday. Statistics suggest that 37.5 million people here are estimated to have watched all or part of the broadcast, and 4 billion worldwide.
The sheer number of foreign heads of state attending, and notably monarchs from Europe and beyond, was in one way not surprising, but seeing their combined presence in Westminster Abbey was a striking tribute.
Spectacle, dignity, precision were the order of the day from the armed services and others involved. Comments about how only this country can do such ceremonial have been quite frequent. This may well be true but is I think rather dismissive of other European monarchies on equivalent ceremonial occasions. The Danish ceremonies at the death of King Frederick IX in 1972 and of Queen Ingrid in 2000, let alone the funerals of Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard in the Netherlands in 2004 - worth looking at on YouTube - are testimony to a wider, shared tradition of monarchical state funerals.
The crowds lining the routes in London, in Windsor and in between indicate the regard, the affection, the love in which the Queen was held. People were not there just for the show or the spectacle. Some BBC commentators pointed out the standard phrases used by people about it being an historic moment or the importance of being there were attempts to describe a much more complex set of emotions about community, service and identity, as well as loyalty, respect and devotion on their part.
Dr Kat of the excellent Reading the Past website posted a video on the death and funeral of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, which can be seen at The End of the First Elizabethan Era. It was particularly interesting to see the striking similarities in the funeral procession of the first Queen Elizabeth to that of the second 419 years later.
The playing of the Beethoven Funeral March composed by Walch had an almost hypnotic effect with the combination of the music, of the drum beat and marching feet, accompanied by Big Ben. It was in some ways almost exhausting or enervating to watch and hear. The effect for those involved, let alone the Royal Family and for those who knew the late Queen as staff is difficult to imagine.
The various parts of the funeral ceremonies were an instance of the “Invention of tradition” in the proper sense of that oft used phrase. I prefer to think of it as the recovery of tradition, or a blending of tradition and inspiration. This can certainly be said of the ceremonies the preceding week in Edinburgh. This was the most elaborate funeral of a monarch in centuries.
In both Westminster Abbey and St George’s Windsor the nation has temporarily churches which are not only rich in the history of the monarchy but also two buildings where the visual impact for participants and viewers is profound. The vision of King Henry III in commissioning Westminster and of King Edward III in founding the Otder of the Garter and of King Edward IV and King Henry VIII in building St George’s element has withstood the passage of centuries.
This was arguably the most elaborate and public funeral of a sovereign since that of King James I and VI in 1625. Her Majesty was the first monarch to have a funeral service in Westminster Abbey since King George II in 1760. I know nothing of that occasion but suspect that like most royal burials of that period it was muted in its tone. The processions were perhaps longer, more impressive than others in the twentieth century which were mainly a means of moving the late monarch across the capital to burial at Windsor. Again the Westminster Hall lying- in-state, first held for a monarch in 1910 was longer than previous ones.
The actual service at Westminster had an ecumenical dimension that is a sign of the times. The presence of the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh or the participation of the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster would have been unthinkable in 1952. The only other time a Cardinal has been involved on such an occasion would or could have been at the funeral of King Edward IV in 1483 when Cardinal Thomas Bourchier was Archbishop of Canterbury.
At Windsor again there were huge crowds and the service m, which had not been broadcast television in 1952, was transmitted. Much was made by the commentators about the symbolic breaking of the Lord Chamberlain’s wand as something never seen by the public hitherto. This specific action is recorded certainly for the funeral of King Henry VIII in the same chapel in 1547, and presumably has an earlier origin.
This then was a day of great emotion, rich in symbolism and history, yet made accessible to a vast viewing public. It was a ceremonial and liturgical celebration in both senses of the word.