Picture credit: FRANK AUGSTEIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Royal pomp and circumstance

What is it for?

The last royal funeral I attended was held on a bright, breezy March Thursday. The great north wind kept the many flags and banners busy: slashes of bold colour, straining on their poles. But it did not deter the army burial party, six of them, burley men all, in dress uniforms, under the command of a keen-eyed sergeant major. They shouldered the lead-lined, English oak coffin bearing the royal remains, wrapped in wool and linen, embroidered with royal heraldic symbols. Medals glinting in the noonday sun, slowly into the cathedral they came, lowering their burden onto the catafalque, the funeral bier. Such occasions even have a language of their own.

The simple, wooden sarcophagus had arrived by special hearse, drawn by four seal-brown horses, escorted by mounted knights, the dazzle of a spring sunburst mirrored on their full armour and helmets. Hundreds of thousands had earlier filed past the coffin or lined the route. I will never forget the moment the chatter died away and a respectful hush descended as the former Sovereign passed by. There was the usual array of royals and civic dignitaries, splashes of blue uniforms, chainmail, bishops in their bright stoles, croziers and mitres, the flap of judicial robes caught by the wind, the reflected brilliance of the chains of lord mayors and mayors. A moving service with a special poem composed by the Poet Laureate. Pomp and pageantry at its best.

It was 26 March 2015, and I was witnessing the final interment in Leicester Cathedral of King Richard III. Three years earlier, his battered remains, hurriedly dumped in a long-gone abbey, had been retrieved from under a car park in the city and exhaustively identified by forensic science. Here was a monarch, much lambasted by Shakespeare, who was killed on 22 August 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The reaction of the crowd was telling. It mattered not that he had died over 500 years earlier. Here was a royal corpse and the British public wanted their share of the occasion of a state funeral, however obscure. 

Some 537 years and 24 monarchs after Richard’s violent end, the peaceful departure of Queen Elizabeth II, whose funeral will take place on 19 September, sent ripples around the world. Apart from small groups of die-hard republicans and anti-monarchists scattered here and there, one cannot fail to have been impressed by the respect paid by those who have no monarch of their own. Germans and Greeks, Italians and Poles, Ukrainians, Americans and the French, and many more, showered upon the new king words of heartfelt admiration for his late mother. 

President Macron was particularly effusive, delivering a rare television address in English. With a palpable sense of regret, he intoned that “she embodied a people and represented a sense of eternity,” praising her for “mastering our language and touching our hearts. To you, she was your Queen. To us, she was The Queen. She will be with all of us forever.” Macron’s erudition hit on something. That an omnipresent figurehead has suddenly disappeared from our midst. The president’s words also hinted at something deeper, which France and other nation-states have mostly shed over the centuries. Of a set of accumulated traditions and an inheritance that stretches back to the Norman arrival on these shores, around 35 generations ago, that prevails to this day.

The Queen, then, was the embodiment of something much larger than herself. An institution so old as to be almost intangible. As I write, the next representative of that heritage, Charles III, has been proclaimed as King. We are in unknown territory here, for the last proclamation of a King was made in 1936. All the officials then present are no longer with us. Even that of Elizabeth was 70 years ago. Although Sir Winston Churchill (in 1965) and Earl Mountbatten of Burma (in 1979) were accorded state funerals, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was the last given a major royal funeral in 2002, when more than a million people lined the 23-mile route from Westminster Abbey to St George’s Chapel, Windsor. After her, was the 2015 final interment of Richard III. The reaction of the crowds to this last event was proof of what President Macron alluded to, that royalty and tradition still hold sway in 21st century Britain. 

The manuals of monarchy have had to be dusted off and their (presumably illuminated vellum) pages consulted as to what actually happens, who announces what, how and where. In London and Edinburgh, select members of the Church, aristocracy, judiciary, Royal Company of Archers, College of Arms, Honourable Artillery Company, Privy Council, not to mention various regiments, bands and corps of drums, and a whole host of state bodies whose very existence we have forgotten, will be summoned to don their glad rags. Led by the 18th Duke of Norfolk, Earl Marshal and eighth of the Great Officers of State, as though out of a Hans Christian Andersen story with princesses in attendance, they will magically appear in their flowing robes, flashing gold and scarlet, knee breeches and buckles, a wig here, a sword there. 


Who knew that the second most important figure after the King at the London ceremonies is the Lord Mayor — a reflection of the once all-powerful mercantile city? Tricorn-hatted town criers in ruffs and lace, ringing handbells, will echo slices of this ceremonial in towns and villages throughout the realm. For lovers of pageant, horse-drawn carriages and state trumpeters, the next few days, with the route and timetable of the Elizabethan funeral cortège precisely mapped out, enabling much of the nation to personally witness her final journey, will be a feast of something that Britain does extraordinarily well, the pomp and the circumstance.

There will be those who say, what is the point of all this frivolity, the expensive uniforms, the outlay on policing and security? The answer lies in what the republics of the world do elsewhere. All have manufactured a pageantry of their own, where smart, bemedalled troopers, in gleaming boots and spurs, line routes and open doors (in America, France, Italy, Poland and Russia, for example). Helmets and swords are flourished. Horses are frequently involved, or at the very least, long processions of automobiles, motorbikes, flags and banners, marching bands, aerial flypasts and all the rest. There is no country in the world that does not award medals to its people, dress them in dazzling uniforms or give them honorific titles. Folk like pageantry and festivals. If the United Kingdom were to do away with this, we would only end up reinventing it all over again, and at similar cost. The objections of the nay-sayers are more a reflection of their own petty-mindedness than the mood of a nation. 

Other professional contrarians will argue the inappropriateness of the forthcoming commemorations at a time of great financial hardship. Yet, this is precisely why such occasions often take place. Just as Roman emperors once ordered gladiatorial games in times of domestic stress, in their amphitheatres and at the Colosseum, the 1952 Coronation was designed to lift ration-book Britain out of post-war gloom and austerity. More than ever, a royal funeral followed by a state coronation will help provide the nation with closure on the Elizabethan age, and forget their personal woes, if only for a day, to usher in the Carolean era. 

Arguably the pomp reflects a public need to “own” Her Majesty’s send off

Arguably the pomp reflects a public need to “own” Her Majesty’s send off. We have come a long way from the opposition of Geoffrey Fisher, then Archbishop of Canterbury, to broadcasting the 1953 Coronation by the BBC, on the grounds that “the cameras would be intrusive and cheapen the solemn occasion.” Her Majesty chose to overrule such nonsense. This is how our constitutional monarchy evolved: the Queen reigned with popular consent but did not rule. On 14 September, the royal coffin will be transported across London, via the Mall, Horse Guards, Whitehall and Parliament Square to the Palace of Westminster, members of her family following on foot, led by the King. After a short service in Westminster Hall, four days of lying in state will take place, where millions are expected to file past in respect. In the middle of Westminster Hall, as part of a tradition stretching back to at least the seventeenth century, her coffin, on a raised platform — a catafalque — will be draped in a royal standard, topped by her crown and other regalia, and guarded 24 hours a day. Be warned: I recall the average waiting time to pay one’s respects to the Queen Mother in 2002 was 24 hours. 

Hotels and rental apartments already report being fully booked. Special trains will be laid on. Folk will soon start to camp out, to secure the best pavement vantage points of the once-in-a-lifetime ceremonial. She was not only the perceived leader of the United Kingdom, but after 70 years, the world’s senior diplomat and statesperson. Thus, many of the world’s heads of state will attend the Queen’s funeral at Westminster Abbey on the 19th. The service will be televised, and a National Silence of two minutes held. Afterwards, the royal coffin will be moved in formal procession from Westminster Abbey to Wellington Arch and from there, to Windsor Castle.

At some stage during the lying in state, senior members of the royal family will stand guard around the coffin, in the tradition known as the Vigil of the Princes. They will be joined by one group, heads bowed, and rifles reversed, whom the Queen’s departure will affect more than most. These are the uniformed services of the United Kingdom and those of the Commonwealth where she remains head of state. They include the armed forces and the police, firefighters, and other first responders. 

The armed forces have always enjoyed close proximity to their monarchs. This evolved from the earliest days, when retinues of knights, squires and pages formed (in today’s terminology) their “close protection”. In the 1600s these became regiments, whose descendant bodies form the battalions of today. These men and women in khaki, and their compatriots on the high seas and in the air, have all signed what my old friend and mentor, the historian Richard Holmes, called “the blank cheque of personal sacrifice”. They will perform their duties, wherever they are told to go, even at the risk of death or serious injury. They are sustained by what Holmes also called “the bonds of mateship”, a form of closeness born of facing extreme adversity together. It is difficult to replicate in other walks of civilian life. A senior Royal Marine officer in the 1982 Falklands War once observed that “he was damned if he was going to sacrifice his life for Mrs Thatcher [the then Prime Minister]” but was “quite content to do so for his Commander-in-Chief, the Queen”. 

Military service remains a great leveller

That is because the quid pro quo of this relationship is the frequent interaction of the monarch with their armed forces. It begins with them undergoing officer training and learning to wear the uniform. There are no shortcuts from the pain and fatigue, the only time they are treated as equals. All three of the armed services have had royals serving with them. In 1918 Prince Albert (the future George VI and Elizabeth’s father) found himself, as part of the Royal Naval Air Service, a founding member of the Royal Air Force. His royal brother, the Duke of Kent, died on active service with the RAF in 1942. More recently, I witnessed the graduation of Princes William and Harry from Sandhurst. I had been there decades earlier, with a member of a Middle Eastern royal family. He was not very soldierly and the bane of our platoon. “You, Sir, are an idle prince — as much use as an ashtray on a motorcycle,” our sergeant screamed, as he warned the future monarch of the consequences of not pulling his weight. Military service remains a great leveller.

Charles III, when Prince of Wales, captained the minesweeper HMS Bronington for a year in 1976, just as his father had served as First Lieutenant of the frigate HMS Wallace during the Sicily landings of 1943 and his grandfather saw action on the battleship HMS Collingwood at Jutland in 1916. As service number 230873, Princess Elizabeth herself wore the army uniform of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) in 1945. Having endured the sweat and exhaustion of training, they are accepted by the armed services as one of their own. 

Most regiments and corps have a royal designation and royal sponsors, known as a Colonel-in-Chief. New officers are given a commissioning scroll, each personally signed by the monarch. The Queen smudged her signature on mine, perhaps to prove it was genuine. She took these duties very seriously, with frequent visits and parades. Such occasions did not focus on the officers, for she insisted on mingling, effortlessly, with all ranks and their families. I recall the wife of a private soldier from a modest background, recounting to me how she had found herself discussing babysitting facilities in Germany, over tea with Her Majesty. The interaction worked in a very personal way, too. I was struck by an observation of the late Jonathan Sachs, former Chief Rabbi. He observed the effect of the late Queen’s sensitive and soothing engagement with a group of Holocaust survivors. Meeting her, he thought, “brought blessed closure to their deeply lacerated lives.”

Most of those in the armed forces, and many in the other uniformed services, will meet a royal. It is not why they volunteer for a hazardous career, but somehow helps cement the notion of service to one’s country. In few other societies and eras has the head of a nation been so close to those who serve her. As my friend, the historian and former officer, Robert Lyman, put it to me, “Soldiers live, breathe, serve and sometimes die in the service, not for the prosaic stuff of political happenstance, but for a much higher tier of British society, represented in the person of the monarch.”

Hence, there will be no bitterness or resentment by those in uniform, called to put in long hours over the next couple of weeks. All across the country, they are quietly, without fuss or complaint, packing bags, pressing uniforms, polishing boots and buttons, and saying goodbye to their loved ones, to set off for their final duty to their Queen.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover