Monday, 19th September, 2022

[Day 917]

Today has been dominated as you might expect by the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II which, as Britain’s longest serving monarch, is a truly historic occasion. There were various elements to today’s proceedings. First the Queen’s body was transported on a gun carriage from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey, all with due ceremony. Then came a service before about 100 heads of state which was not overlong in accordance with the Queen’s wishes but was of the order of 45-60 minutes. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave a short but moving sermon and I wondered whether his words to the effect that those who cling to office for the sake of it and are quickly forgotten were directed to the Boris Johnson’s of this world. The next part of the proceedings was the tranportation of the Queen’s coffin on the gun carriage through central London from the Abbey to Marble Arch, also known as the Wellington Arch. This part was accompanied by seemingly hundreds of armed services in every shape and livery. Then the coffin was transported by a hearse along roads that led to Windsor with the crowds very much in evidence but generally silent apart from the occasional round of applause. The procession through Windsor and up ‘The Long Walk’ seem to take an age as the hearse moved so slowly and the Queen’s four children walked behind it. Then one or two moments of either deep symbolism (or ‘kitsch’ if you wish to be impolite) was the Queen’s pony, Emma, standing with its handler on a green area on the approach to Windsor castle. A similar touch was two of her corgis, Mick and Sandy, again brought out to witness the final procession of their sovereign. In the service of committal itself, there were two moments of great symbolic importance. The first of these was when the regalia of the monarch, the orb, sceptre ad he Crown itself were removed from the coffin and placed upon the high altar of St. George’s Chapel. The second symbolic act was the Lord Chamberain deliberately snapping his ‘wand of office’ and then placing it upon the monarch’s coffin. This symbolic act was last performed 70 years ago at the funeral service of George VI but has never before been filmed on television. I did wondered, though, whether the wand of office had been ‘doctored’ by a fretsaw to make it sure that it broke when it was intended to. When it did come to the actual committal, I was mildly surprised to see that the coffin was actually placed on some type of lift and actually descended at the appropriate moment into the vault. There will be a private ceremony just for members of the Royal Family itself at 7.30 from which the TV cameras are justifiably excluded. Although I am not a great hymn singer, when it came to the service in St. George’s chapel, one of the hymns sung was ‘Christ is made the sure foundation‘ which is one of the hymns sung at my own wedding in 1967. I happen to know this because when I was digitising the wedding photgraphs in preparation for my 50th wedding anniverary celebrations, I found the organist’s original notes with details of all of the music played. This hymn was a Latin hymn dating from the 7th century although I did read somewhere that Henry Purcell might have revised it. It was deployed when Pope Benedict, one of the first popes to visit the Abbey in centuries, processed down the knave with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The video of this is quite notable as an errant order of service which had been inadvertently dropped during the procession was expertly kicked out of the way by a nun, perfectly in time with the music, at a later point in the procession. One piece of pure theatre after the coffin was lowered into the vault was a lone piper playing a lament and gradually walking away so that the congregation just heard the sounds of the lament fading away into the distance.

The whole of this operation has been planned for decades. We heard a Deputy Commissioner of the Met, one Steve Roberts (who we happen to know as our next door neigbour but one in Leicestershire when he was only 18) explaining that these plans had been in existence for about 30 years but are constantly revised and updated under the code name ‘Operation London Bridge’ So we do this ceremonial stuff incredibly well and I suppose is one of the UK’s contributions to world culture. To the inexpert eye, everything seemd to work to perfection but I suppose there is always room for things to go wrong. The reason why the monarch’s body is pulled by a team of naval ratings is because at Queen Victoria’s funeral service, one or more of the horses got restive, a crucial trace broke and the gun carriage itself was practically overturned. A quick thinking German prince saved the day by suggesting that the naval ratings be deployed to pull the gun carriage and hence a tradition was born.