In death, as in life, all eyes were on her. Inside the same abbey where she was crowned nearly seven decades ago, there stood, this time, not a hesitant young woman dressed to dazzle, but a small coffin. Still, in 2022 as in 1953, it was impossible to look away. In a sea of dark suits, mostly pale faces and much grey hair, it was the coffin that provided the colour and chief spectacle: the reds and yellows of the royal standard, the polished gold of the orb and sceptre and, resting on a purple cushion, the sparkling diamonds and pristine sapphire of the crown.
For all the pomp and finery that preceded that funeral service, and which would follow it, both through London and later in Windsor – the brocaded uniforms and muffled drums, the feathered hats and musical laments – it was that draped box that commanded the attention. Its emergence from Westminster Hall shortly after 10.30am, shouldered by men who had sworn an oath to defend the Queen in life, like the sight of the coffin placed on a gun carriage, pulled not by horses but by a column of naval ratings, touched some deep corner of the collective memory. There was something ancient, even elemental to it: young men bearing the body of their fallen queen.
The day’s rites reminded us of things we already knew, but which we forget or prefer not to talk about – things about both her and this country. Contemporary Britain understands itself to be largely secular or, if not that, then avowedly multifaith. And yet the service in Westminster Abbey was robustly Christian. The hymns, the readings, the eulogy – all stressed the late monarch’s abiding faith in Jesus Christ. No inclusive generalities, no ecumenical offerings from leaders of non-Christian creeds: this was a Christian funeral for a committed Christian. “Go forth, O Christian soul,” they bade her. Charles once wanted to be known as Defender of Faith – in general – but his mother’s funeral confirmed there was to be no shifting on that point. Defender of the Faith she was, and Defender of the Faith he will be.
There were reminders too of how much had changed since the coronation and of how much had stayed the same. The congregation of 1953 would scarcely have imagined that the abbey would one day listen to devotions offered by two women of colour, to say nothing of a female bishop. And yet those who filled the pews nearly 70 years ago would have found much reassuringly familiar: a procession that was overwhelmingly male, with only the queen’s male relatives, save for her daughter, allowed to walk behind the coffin. The women followed by car.
We knew already that Britain, or more precisely the Palace, was without rival when it came to the business of pageant and ceremony. The choreography was perfect, every footstep of every red-tunicked guardsman synchronised – even those of the pallbearers carrying their sorrowful load up the steep steps of St George’s Chapel, Windsor – so that the TV pictures beamed around the world were gorgeous, no matter the angle. When a drone looked down, it saw boots moving in neat unison or flowers laid out on the verges of Windsor’s Long Walk in geometrically flawless lines. In abbey and chapel alike, the choirs produced the sound of heaven. Even the weather complied, the capital under a bright blue sky, as if nature itself was awed by the occasion.
When a rare moment of imperfection came – a frog in a cleric’s throat, another churchman dropping a piece of paper – it too brought a useful reminder. That, despite the presence of kings and queens, presidents and potentates, and despite the splendour, it was still a human event, a family funeral, with all that that entails. The glimpses of the disgraced Duke of York, barred from wearing the dress uniform allowed to his siblings, the downgraded Prince Harry, or Earl Spencer, brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, prompted the recollection that, for all her majesty, the queen headed a family with its fair share of domestic troubles – perhaps more than its fair share. The knots that appeared on the brow of Charles, the hint of redness around the eyes, were reminders that the new king is also a son grieving the loss of his mother.
And yet, magnificent though the day was, it may not be what many will remember as their farewell to the late monarch. For hundreds of thousands, the real goodbye started last Wednesday with the lying in state in Westminster Hall. For five long days, around the clock, we witnessed a slow-motion, people’s funeral as Britons queued up for the right to say a brief, personal goodbye.
To stand in the hall, watching those filing past, was unexpectedly mesmerising, an endless series of small dramas played out in four or five seconds each. In an exquisite hush, the floor carpeted against the sound of footsteps, and with all phones and cameras prohibited, an old soldier might pause and salute. A young man would cross himself. A couple would dip their heads. A mother and daughter might curtsey in unison. Then they would keep on walking, most giving one last look back before heading out into the daylight. Some of them had queued for 12 or 13 hours, just for those few seconds facing the remains of the Queen. Not one said it had not been worth it.
Whether it came then, or when the military standards dipped as the procession passed the Cenotaph, or when those lining the A30 tossed flowers on to the royal hearse, or when TV viewers saw the orb, sceptre and crown removed from the coffin before it was lowered into the chapel vault at Windsor – whenever it came, that moment brought with it the same, if seldom voiced question: what exactly were we burying?
One answer was suggested by the presence in Westminster Abbey of so many world leaders, many of them agreeing to slum it and travel by coach. Few would claim they did that out of respect for the office of British head of state: rather, they came to London out of a very specific admiration for Elizabeth II. She was a priceless diplomatic asset for Britain. Even a US president could be wooed by the offer of tea with the Queen.
Somehow she pulled off the illusion, seeming the figurehead of a great power, wearer of what we were reminded is still the “imperial state crown” – even when there’s no empire. She pulled off that trick, seeming a plausible successor to Victoria, even to the first Queen Elizabeth. It would be bold to predict that King Charles will do the same.
She was a political asset closer to home too. Consider the symbolic power of her handshake with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness or the impact of her advice to Scottish voters to “think very carefully” before the independence referendum of 2014. Was that impact down to the office she held or who she was, the gravitas she had acquired over a reign that had endured so long that her first prime minister was Winston Churchill?
That suggests one more thing that was interred in Windsor. Elizabeth was the last human link in public life to the second world war, the foundational event of modern Britain. Our relationship with that epic event becomes more remote now, a matter of history rather than living memory. Along with Elizabeth, we may have buried the postwar era.
We will certainly no longer have a head of state who speaks with the moral weight of the wartime generation. That poses a challenge to the monarchy itself, now devoid of what had been its most powerful argument. Much has been said in recent days about the deep, even mystical connection between the people and their sovereign, one that seems rooted in a Britain, or perhaps an England, that goes back a thousand years. But again the question looms: was that bond with the institution of monarchy, or with Elizabeth herself? If it was chiefly the latter, will some of the irrationalities, unfairnesses and costs of a hereditary monarchy now press on the public mind in a way they did not while she lived?
Most profound of all is the question contained within all the others. Is it possible that in the Windsor vault now lies buried the person who, more than any other, served to cohere these islands? The last 10 days have been a holiday from the usual political polarisation: admiration for the Queen was one of the few things most people could agree on. It’s telling that the new king made such early visits to Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. His mother was part of the glue that bound together the union. If that turns out to have been the magic of Elizabeth, rather than the crown, then it’s not clear how long there will be a United Kingdom for Charles to reign over.
Even in families that are not royal, funerals serve as healing events, to be sure – but they can also see the eruption of arguments long postponed. In burying its matriarch, Britain may at last have to confront what has laid buried for so long.