There was a certain stillness about London on the day of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral. Venturing out in the early morning from my home, I could see flags on public buildings still flying at half mast, a chill autumnal feeling was in the air, which, as the day progressed turned brilliantly sunny. The shops were closed and no one was going to work; even so, there was some normality, joggers in the park, people – like me – going places on their bicycles, others walking their dogs, chatting with friends. Yet, as I got closer to the heart of London, where the funeral was to take place in Westminster Abbey, there was something undeniably different: hundreds of volunteers in red, yellow and blue jackets were manning barricades, roads were cordoned off in preparation for the funeral possession and hundreds of police were standing at the ready.
As I continued onwards, the tranquillity of the early morning was transformed into a bustle of people moving purposefully to find where best they could glimpse as much of the funeral procession as possible. In Hyde Park several large television screens had been set up so that those who wanted to sit in solidarity with others could watch the events together, rather than in their own homes. Rugs were spread out, picnics prepared and I even noticed one clump of people with a bottle of champagne.
The day’s proceedings were, as we all realised, the culmination of the previous week’s preparations (and years of planning) during which the Queen’s coffin had lain in state for a day in Scotland, travelled down to London in a vast RAF C-17 Globemaster plane and then remained for a further four days lying in state in Westminster Hall, a tradition dating back to the Stuart kings in the 17th century.
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Round Table statement
Reflection by the chair of the Round Table editorial board
During those four days thousands of people from all over the country and the world had queued for hours in order to pay their respects. I too had wanted to go to Westminster Hall in order to stand in front of the Queen’s coffin, draped in the Royal Standard, the Imperial State Crown, sceptre and orb placed on top, complemented by a simple white wreath of flowers. Throughout a rotation of bodyguards had stood vigil, their heads bowed. On one day, for fifteen minutes, the Queen’s four children had also stood vigil, followed by an unprecedented vigil of her grandchildren the next day.
As all those who managed to tread the same steps on the stone floor of Westminster Hall will testify, it was both a humbling and moving experience to pay tribute to the British monarch we had known all our lives, reflecting again on her exceptional life of service and duty to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth: her long 70-year reign surpassed in length only by the French King, Louis XIV, in the 18th century. And, having been on the throne until she was 96 years old, the late Queen Elizabeth II holds the record for being the oldest reigning monarch in the world.
The Queen’s funeral in Westminster Abbey – where she was married in 1947 and crowned in 1953 – signified the next stage in an event which has dominated our television channels and conversation since her death was announced on 8 September. While 2,000 guests filled the Abbey, among them 500 VIPS, with US President Biden, French President Macron, Japanese Emperor Naruhito, European monarchs and Commonwealth heads of government, including Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, Australian Prime Minister Albanese and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Arden, thousands lined the streets. As they waited for the funeral cortege to pass their particular location, they could track its progress and watch the service on their phones: a phenomenon to which even the Queen had to adjust, famously remarking in at least one interview that, where previously she had been able to look out into the crowd and see people’s faces, with thousands of phones directed at her, she regretted not being able to see their eyes.
From the archives:
“Devoted to your service” – 70 years of the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth (2022)
The British Monarchy and the Modern Commonwealth (2022)
Long-lived Queen (2015)
Both the procession and the service, for which the Queen herself had chosen the hymns and readings, was carried out with exemplary precision. As I watched from one of the big screens in Hyde Park, one of the most memorable spectacles was the steady march of 142 Royal Navy sailors who drew the gun carriage on which her coffin was placed, first from Westminster Hall to the Abbey, and afterwards to Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner, the King and other members of the Royal family walking on behind; there, following the deafening sound of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery firing a gun salute of 96 rounds in commemoration of the Queen’s 96 years, the coffin was removed to a hearse for her final journey out of London to Windsor Castle. Another spectacle was the passage of the hearse along the Long Walk at Windsor flanked by a moving sea of military splendour, both cavalry and infantry, together with the massed pipes and drums of Scottish and Irish regiments and the bands of the Coldstream Guards and Household Cavalry. On either side the promenade was decked with flowers left by mourners, carefully arranged in their variegated colours.
The finale to the service in St George’s Chapel was the removal of the Imperial State Crown, sceptre and orb from the Queen’s coffin, which were then placed on the altar. The next time they will be used will be for King Charles III’s coronation, a symbol of continuity amid change. The Queen’s committal, with that of her late husband, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, took place in a private ceremony in the George VI Memorial Chapel, where her parents and sister lie buried. Of the day’s commentary, perhaps the most memorable words were expressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby in his sermon at Westminster Abbey: ‘People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer.’
Victoria Schofield is an historian and commentator on international affairs. She is also the Chair of the Commonwealth Round Table Editorial Board.