Queen funeral: A day of private grief and public pomp as Queen Elizabeth II is laid to rest

Britain threw back the gilded curtain for an unprecedented show of arcane ritual and high ceremony to commemorate the life of its longest reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, and showcase the soft power of the monarchy to a spellbound world.

In a devoutly Christian service and an epic public procession so wedded to pageantry that it could have been staged in any century since a Norman king sat upon the throne, the nation bid a final farewell to a woman who seemed to not only embody the institution she helmed, but the very continuity of British history itself.

This was not a funeral with easy populist flourishes, or which strained to pull at heartstrings. The loss of the only monarch the vast majority of Britons have ever known ensured no such concessions were necessary, and yet at its conclusion, its protagonist remained as inscrutable in death as she had been in life.

Instead, it was a meditative affair that spoke solemnly and proudly to the nation and the wider world of Elizabeth II’s faith and duty, both honouring her life of service and showcasing the glittering apparatus of the monarchy she helped not just preserve, but renew into the 21st century.

Famously, the Queen once said she had to be seen in order to be believed. It should come as little surprise that she reserved the greatest spectacle of all for her last journey.

Under brightening skies as an overcast morning gave way to late summer sunshine, robes, tassels and swan feather plumes caught the gentle breeze, as flashing gold and polished steel glistened amongst a blur of scarlet tunics and blue velvet cuffs, black bearskins and white buckskin breeches.

From centuries of tradition, choice elements were thoughtfully parsed and repurposed, such as the funeral marches of Chopin and Mendelssohn, which accompanied the farewell to Queen Victoria, the monarch and empress which wished to be buried as a soldier’s daughter.

This was history made tangible, the royal obsequies loaded with a language all of their own. They spoke of stability and prosperity, of security and influence. Above all, they spoke of durability, as the heavy burden of the Crown passes to Charles III. This, they said above all else, was not just a time of endings, but new beginnings.

The Queen's funeral cortege borne on the State Gun Carriage of the Royal Navy travels along The Mall and around the Victoria Memorial. Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But now, all the gleaming medals and spurs are being packed away, the banners lowered, and the guns and the bells once more fall silent. As ten days of mourning slip into history, the new Elizabethan age is at an end, and with it, a long-held certainty is gone.

What will remain of her? Only time will reveal her legacy, but in a fractious age of severe hardship for so many millions of her subjects, and escalating fears of civil unrest, yesterday revealed Britain is not a place ripe for revolution. Not yet, at least.

In the great capital of this sovereign state, and in the lush countryside of Windsor, they turned out in their thousands to bid Elizabeth II a profound and respectful farewell, and to witness the rites of power and privilege.

They were joined around the world by an estimated television audience of more than four billion people, more than double the global population in the year the Queen was born. It is hard to conceive that an audience so vast will gather for an occasion so grand ever again.

Procession to Westminster Abbey

Though the day began inauspiciously under leaden grey clouds, the steady stream of people who gathered in central London in the early hours showed there would be no deterrents to an event that had been decades in the planning.

Many spectators had camped overnight on The Mall to stake a place along the procession route and, as early as 9:30am, word came the public viewing areas were already full to capacity.

By then, the tenor bell in Westminster Abbey had begun to toll once every minute, counting out the 96 years of Elizabeth II’s long and monumental life until the service to commemorate her began. Such precision typified an event unyielding in its punctuality.

Shortly after 10:35am, a bearer party formed of troops from The Queen's Company, 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, carried Elizabeth II’s coffin from the catafalque in Westminster Hall and through its north door.

Outside, the State Gun Carriage of the Royal Navy that had borne the body of her father, George VI, lay in wait. Save for the lone tolling bell, the guards came to it in silence, their boots rapping against the cobblestones of New Palace Yard as they conveyed the late monarch onto the two-and-a-half tonne carriage.

The hush remained until the first whirl of the massed Pipes and Drums of the Scottish and Irish regiments, along with members of the Royal Air Force and the Gurkhas. Those who had been trying to keep their emotions in check had their resolve sorely tested as the tune of Chì mi na mòrbheanna – the Mist Covered Mountains of Home – rang out, just as it had two decades previously during the funeral of the Queen Mother.

With that, the short, but poignant journey to the abbey began in earnest, as some 142 naval ratings and six Royal Navy officers spirited the carriage out through Parliament Square. Tethered by white ropes and chains, and eight abreast, they drew it forward at 75 beats-per-minute, a pace designed to bring them to the ancient place of worship at exactly five minutes to 11.

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Behind them came those bearing the most personal of losses, as the public caught its first glimpse of the royal party. King Charles III and his siblings followed the coffin of their mother, joined by the new Prince of Wales, Prince Harry, and Peter Phillips. They were followed by the Queen’s cousin, the Duke of Gloucester, her nephew, the Earl of Snowdon, and the Princess Royal’s husband, Sir Tim Laurence.

As Big Ben showed five minutes to 11, the gun carriage, true to the meticulous timetable, came to a halt outside the abbey’s Great West Door, and the sailors, headwear removed, bowed their heads. The eight-strong bearer party of the Grenadier Guards resumed their delicate task, moving forward to raise the coffin and turning to the ancient place of worship where Elizabeth was both married and crowned.

The stillness of the moment revealed a simple personal message left by the new King on the wreath of rosemary, myrtle, pelargoniums, roses and hydrangea atop his mother’s coffin. “In loving and devoted memory”, the handwritten note read. “Charles R.”

An emphatically Christian service

As the bearer party came forwards with the oak coffin, draped in the Royal Standard and surmounted with the Imperial State Crown and the sovereign’s orb and sceptre, the abbey readied itself for its first funeral for a monarch since that of George II in 1760.

The choir sang the Burial Sentences, starting with ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ to a setting by William Croft – the same scripture set to music that was sung at the beginning of the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002.

Inch by inch the guards came, ushering Elizabeth II into the Quire, before resting her coffin on a blue draped catafalque. The King and the Queen Consort came behind, with the former seen wiping tears from his eyes as he entered the abbey.

The emotion of the moment became even more acute when Prince George and Princess Charlotte joined the solemn procession, walking between their parents down the central aisle.

For those who have dictated throughout this remarkable period of mourning that duty and sacrifice must take precedence over grief and sentiment, their inclusion in the procession must have brought satisfaction and admiration.

Yet for others, witnessing the young royals, aged just nine and seven, and the barely concealed subtext of succession, it was hard not to think of the stifling pageantry of a quarter of a century ago, when their father and uncle made their long and lonely journey behind their mother’s coffin.

Surrounding the family were leaders from every corner of the world. There were presidents and potentates, emirs and sheikhs. Among them sat Denmark's Queen Margrethe II, who, after 50 years, is now Europe's longest-serving monarch.

What followed was an emphatically Christian service for a monarch whose faith was constant. Giving the bidding, the Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle MBE, Dean of Westminster, said the abbey had come together “in grief and also in profound thanksgiving” to remember Elizabeth II’s “long life and selfless service” and “unswerving commitment to a high calling”.

The first hymn, ‘The Day Thou Gavest’ written by John Ellerton, evoked the image of one day, one era, leading into another, observing how “the sun that bids us rest is waking”.

Following readings from Baroness Scotland and Prime Minister Liz Truss, the choir and congregation sang The Lord’s my Shepherd to the Crimond tune. The same hymn, which has its roots in Elizabeth II’s beloved Aberdeenshire, was sung at her wedding nearly 75 years previously.

Outside on Horse Guards Road, the crowds hushed as a radio broadcast of the funeral service was played over speakers. Some sang quietly along with the hymns, others chose to content themselves with their thoughts.

On Constitution Hill, dozens of spectators could be seen gathering around an iPad perched on the crook of a plane tree to watch a livestream of the service taking place less than a mile away.

Back inside the abbey, the Most Rev Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, provided the most intimate offering of the service.

In his sermon, he told mourners the grief felt around the world over at Elizabeth II’s death was drawn from her extraordinarily long and full reign, adding she was a “joyful” woman, one “present to so many” who had touched “a multitude of lives”.

Addressing the congregation, he said: "People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer. But in all cases those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are forgotten.

“The grief of this day – felt not only by the late Queen's family, but all round the nation, Commonwealth and world – arises from her abundant life and loving service, now gone from us.”

The Reverend Dr Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, later led the first of seven prayers, recalling with gratitude the late Queen’s “gifts of wisdom, diligence and service”.

A psalm composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams for Elizabeth II’s Coronation in 1953 was followed by a new anthem, based on Paul's letter to the Romans, specially composed for the funeral by Sir James MacMillan.

As the Dean of Westminster gave the blessing, the end of the service was in sight. Four state trumpeters of the Household Cavalry played the Last Post, preceding an impeccably observed two minute’s silence.

The national anthem was sung before the Queen’s Piper, Pipe Major Paul Burns of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, played ‘Sleep, dearie, sleep’.

As the piper turned and walked towards the Deanery, King Charles clutched his ceremonial sword and looked straight ahead, visibly struggling to maintain his composure, as the haunting lament rang out around the abbey’s fan vaulted roof.

A return to public pomp

After such private sorrow, the penultimate chapter of the day heralded a return to public pomp. As the abbey’s organist played Bach’s Fantasia in C minor, the procession moved down the Quire, and out through the Great West Door into bright sunlight, the clouds having thinned to reveal swathes of blue sky, not a plane in sight.

At 12:20pm, the long journey to Windsor began in all its sombre splendour, led by George, Elizabeth, Darby and Sir John – not peers or dignitaries, but rather four horses from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

With the sailors in their blues once more drawing the gun carriage by hand, the procession spanning more than 3,000 military personnel travelled along Broad Sanctuary and Parliament Square, past the Cenotaph and the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, Elizabeth II’s first prime minister.

At times, the procession – all clean lines and rigid formations – was entrancing. At others, it felt absurd, not least with the advent of those holders of ancient offices little glimpsed in ordinary life. Who knew that the Rothesay Herald of Arms in Ordinary has been around since 1398?

Through Whitehall the slow and steady march went, as military bands played marches by Mahler and Chopin. Minute Guns were fired in Hyde Park by The King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, synchronised with horologists at Big Ben, which tolled at 60-second intervals, its tone calmed by a muffler.

Outside Buckingham Palace, chefs, butlers and police officers were among those members of staff lined up in front, hands clasped and heads bowed, to bid their Queen farewell, as her coffin was taken clockwise around the Victoria Memorial.

Some members of the public threw flowers in front of the carriage and, as it neared The Mall, tired children were hoisted onto aching shoulders.

The cortege took the late Queen past the bronze memorials she had unveiled in honour of her parents, and as it approached Wellington Arch, the distant sound of beating drums grew louder and ripples of applause spread – a sign the climax of the vast procession was near.

The clamour did not last long. Silence soon descended as the Grenadier Guards, their boots crunching on gravel, readied their Queen for the last leg of her journey to Windsor. In that moment, the day’s bombastic choreography gave way to a simpler image of intense power – that of a hearse bearing a coffin.

Before the saluting King and his family, the national anthem was played for the Queen in London one final time and, with that, she set off home, as the sprawling urban landscape of the capital relented to the rolling green fields of Berkshire.

People of all ages turned out from towns and villages along the winding route. By the time the state hearse had reached the Long Walk to Windsor Castle, a route flanked by thousands of well-wishers, its bonnet and roof brimmed with flowers thrown by mourners.

The procession, now more modest in scale, saw the King and his family follow the coffin one last time, before Elizabeth II was taken inside St George’s Chapel.

It was in this historic place of worship the monarch sat alone last April as she mourned the Duke of Edinburgh, her husband of 73 years, in the midst of a raging pandemic. Yesterday, she was surrounded by those she loved, and who loved her, with her eldest son taking the same seat she had occupied.

Before an intimate congregation, the Very Rev David Conner, the Dean of Windsor, praised Elizabeth II’s "life of unstinting service" to the nation and the Commonwealth.

He said: "In the midst of our rapidly changing and frequently troubled world, her calm and dignified presence has given us confidence to face the future, as she did, with courage and with hope."

The Windsor committal service, which also heard a prayer from the Rev Kenneth MacKenzie, the minister of Crathie Kirk near Balmoral, saved the day’s most poignant pageantry for last.

The Crown Jeweller removed the Imperial State Crown and the orb and sceptre, before the King placed a small flag of the Queen’s Company Camp Colour on his mother’s coffin, and the Lord Chamberlain, Baron Parker, ceremonially broke his wand of office.

It fell to Pipe Major Paul Burns to perform one last tribute for his Queen, sounding the lament, ‘A Salute to the Royal Fendersmith’, as she was slowly lowered into the chapel’s Royal Vault ahead of a private family service, where she will be reunited with her husband.

The sight of the coffin disappearing from view for the last time closes a seminal chapter of British history, one that will no doubt be analysed and pored over for centuries to come. Few are the monarchs whose name defines an era. Rarer still are those who can reign for generations with a minimum of controversy or scandal.

For decades now, the question of how a hereditary sovereign can maintain a place in a modern, liberal democracy has always been met with a short and simple response – Elizabeth II. Now a new monarch must step up and ensure the promise of continuity can temper a great sorrow. This is a time of new beginnings as well as endings.

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