For once, politicians started the hagiography and the media followed, not the other way around.
Queen Elizabeth II was “one of the greatest leaders the world has even known”, said Liz Truss, as she led tributes to the late sovereign in the Commons. John McFall, speaker of the House of Lords, said that he “greatly admired her thoroughly modern approach to communications. She thrived in the television and radio era from the very outset of her reign, and did more than any other monarch to open up the royal family to embrace the outside world”: quite a verdict on a woman who never gave a media interview, and never knowingly expressed a public opinion on anything,other than her love of horses and dogs. Lindsey Hoyle, the Commons speaker, even said that the Queen’s funeral would be “the most important event the world will ever see”.
When Elizabeth acceded to the throne in 1952, opined Harriet Harman, “she stepped up, as a 25-year-old married woman with two children, to take her place at the head of this nation and play a huge role on the world stage. What determination and courage that must have taken. The Prime Ministers she dealt with were mostly men, and mostly twice her age.” Harman spoke of the late Queen as if she was a hard-pressed single mother in her Peckham constituency, not a monarch.
Almost everyone has described the Queen’s 70-year reign as a uniquely difficult burden, bravely borne. But many women of her generation have had far worse burdens, some of them enduring for seven decades or more. Caring for a disabled child, or living with a chronic health problem of their own. Miserable and inescapable marriages. Childhood traumas that lingered well into old age. In most cases these afflictions would have been borne without a range of palaces to move between, and without a sovereign grant.
After George VI’s death on 6 February 1952 BBC newsreader John Snagge read the words “It is with the greatest sorrow that we make the following announcement…”.The news was repeated seven times every fifteen minutes, before the radio fell silent for five hours. But after this royal death the silence was only momentary, before ten days of blanket coverage began. Newspapers that had produced huge supplements for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee barely three months earlier reprinted them, with little alteration, in the wake of her death. In all of them, the Queen was remembered as the mistress of “delightful conversations”, lighting up rooms” and “putting people at their ease”.
Hardly anyone dared to venture any criticism, however mild, of the late monarch. Strangely, the biggest warnings of the dangers of excessive nostalgia, and royal fawning by the media, were filed (by journalists as far apart as Yasmin Alibhai Brown and Alice Thomson) a few weeks before the Queen’s death, not after. There has been an almost totalitarian degree of self-censorship since.
One of the great ironies of the last few weeks has been that a woman, whose life was an exercise in understatement and restraint, has been hailed with so much hyperbole and exaggeration after her death. The queen is poorly served by such excess. She did indeed have some important accomplishments, but most of them have been ignored.
On a handful of occasions, the Queen used her “soft power”, and her natural gifts of tact and diplomacy, to help ease Britain’s way through major political crises. In 1961 the Queen’s decision to dance with Kwame Nkrumah, while on a state visit to Ghana – in the days when across much of the western world, a white woman dancing with a black man would be greeted with disapproval, or even a lynch mob – was an important statement about how former colonies would now be seen as equals. Later on in the 1960s she helped to argue for resistance to Rhodesian UDI, knowing that any indulgence of Ian Smith would shatter the Commonwealth. In the 1980s she lobbied Thatcher to impose sanctions on South Africa, and allowed this to be known (thus putting pressure on the Apartheid regime by the back door). Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda once said that had it not been for the Queen’s opposition to Apartheid, and support for sanctions, the Commonwealth might have fallen apart.
In the last 30 years her carefully-chosen words on Northern Ireland, and her magnanimous decision to shake the hands of Sinn Fein leaders, helped to ease the peace process. She came out with a handful of memorable phrases, a cut above the fortune-cookie platitudes that royals normally produce “Grief is the price we pay for love”, she opined after 9/11. “We will meet again” was a helpful bromide during the Coronavirus pandemic. Skilfully, it was both a reassurance that this crisis, like all crises, will pass, and a conscious echo of wartime resilience.
For most women in public life, these achievements would be enough to swell the obituary pages. There should be no need for the ridiculous inventions and genuflections of the last few weeks.
Foreign observers are baffled by how British reverence for the royal family often cuts across political and social divides. Indeed, if anything there is an inverse relationship between social status and monarchism: it often seems to be the poorest and the most socially excluded who idolise them most.
Really posh people – and believe me, I have met a few – will more often laugh at, not with, the royals. They will stand for the National Anthem, and they will bow and courtesy when required, but in private they will gleefully exchange stories of royal gaffes and gossip. Their irreverence is tinged with affection of course, but it is far from genuflection. They regard the royal family as social equals, or even as social inferiors. There is still a vestige of suspicion against the royal household as Hanoverian parvenues, and a lingering distaste for the vulgarity of their palaces (really posh houses are shabby-chic, with little gilt or red velvet).
By contrast, large sections of the British left will often fall over themselves to revere the monarchy. There’s been surprise at the sincerity of the Labour conference’s two-minute silence for the queen, and its full-throated rendition of God Save The King in honour of her successor. But the only surprise is that the national anthem hadn’t been introduced as a conference ritual much earlier, by Attlee, Wilson or Callaghan.
As a councillor in the Labour-run London borough of Greenwich, I was amazed by the broo-ha-ha that greeted its designation in 2012 as a royal borough – a largely meaningless renaming that brought no special privileges, but much expense on rebranding. The council’s then-leader even said that being handed the “Letters Patent” by the Head of the Crown Office, in the Queen’s Robing Room in the Palace of Westminster (a ceremony that marked the borough’s official designation as royal), was “undoubtedly the proudest moment” of his 20-year political career. The effect that one meaningless bit of parchment can have is quite something. Greenwich’s royal connections are old hat: several blood-splattered Tudor monarchs happened to be born there 500 years ago, and one of Prince Philip’s many titles was Baron Greenwich. But becoming a royal borough, we were told, would help “engage” disaffected white working-class voters and give them renewed pride – a ridiculously patronising, and outdated, view of the white working class that merely showed how removed from reality many of us councillors had become. This sort of suffocating monarchism almost converted centrist Dads like me into ardent republicans.
Queen Elizabeth was superlative of course. She was, after Louis XIV, the longest reigning monarch in modern European history (and some would argue that Louis XIV doesn’t count, as he acceded to the throne at the age of four and was king in name only, under a regency council, until his early twenties). She was certainly the longest reigning monarch in British history, who saw no fewer than 15 Prime Ministers, from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss – the sublime to the ridiculous.
Her longevity meant that her funeral last week was only the third of a monarch in the last 112 years, after those of George V in 1936 and George VI in 1952. The sight of so many policemen in dress uniforms with medals, wearing white gloves, will have taken many viewers back to the 1950s. The funeral music was much as it was at George VI’s funeral. In 1952, traditional hymns and funeral sentences from the Book of Common Prayer were given new settings by composers such as William Henry Harris and Walford Davies; likewise in 2022 traditional music was given new arrangements by Judith Weir and Sir James Macmillan. But George VI’s funeral in 1952 was pared back by post-war austerity (and it was, unlike Elizabeth’s coronation a year later, untelevised).
In fact, what we saw in Westminster and Windsor last week was essentially an Edwardian event. It has often been noted, by David Cannadine, Eric Hobsbawm and others, that many ancient British traditions were invented by the Victorians. As C P Snow once wrote, “Nine English traditions out of ten date from the latter half of the 19th century.” But when it comes to royal funerals they are a few decades out. Many of the rituals of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral were first seen barely a century ago, at the funeral of her great-grandfather. The lying-in state in Westminster Hall is not an ancient tradition going back 900 years, as many newspaper stories have insinuated: in fact the first monarch to lie there before burial was Edward VII in 1910. The Imperial State Crown that rested on Elizabeth II’s coffin was made as recently as 1937 (even if it includes stones that are much older). Elizabeth’s final resting place is not an ancient vault in Windsor, but the King George VI Memorial Chapel, a tiny extension of St George’s built in the 1960s, whose poky interior looks at first glance like a suburban bathroom.
The tradition of the monarch’s hearse being hauled by naval ratings only dates back to Victoria’s funeral in 1901, and came about by accident (a strap broke when the hearse was dragged by horses, and ratings stepped in at the last minute). Intriguingly, the funeral of Victoria – the last female monarch, whose reign almost as long as Elizabeth’s – was full of innovations. Ancient traditions, such as the funeral procession being accompanied by peers of the realm, were ruthlessly discarded (just as the long-standing practice of placing a wax effigy of the deceased monarch on his coffin was discontinued after the funeral of James I in 1625). Victoria’s funeral was, unexpectedly for someone who had spent much of the last four decades of her life wearing black in memory of Albert, a vibrant and colourful affair. As The Times’ Ben Macintyre reminds us, until Victoria’s funeral in 1901 the dominant feature of a royal funeral procession was judges and peers, not soldiers. It is thanks to Victoria’s instructions, ahead of her own death, that so many colourful military uniforms were seen at Elizabeth’s funeral.The events of last week were thus an amalgam of Edwardian traditions, and a few more ancient ones. The last time that a monarch’s funeral was held at Westminster Abbey was George II’s, in 1760 – after that they were all, until last week, held at St George’s Chapel in Windsor.
There were a few genuine innovations. Some were unwelcome: the royal coffin was conveyed from Balmoral to London, and on to Windsor, by road and air rather than by train. The antipathy to rail, on security grounds that don’t really make sense, is an unwelcome reminder that we now have a government that talks about building roads, but little about building railways. Other innovations were much more welcome. The proceedings gave a prominent role to women, many of them women of colour – not just Truss, but also Penny Mordaunt (who chaired the accession council meeting), Patricia Scotland (who read a sermon in Westminster Abbey as secretary-general of the Commonwealth), and Shermara Fletcher, a young evangelical from “Churches Together in England”, who read a prayer. A few more trailed innovations failed to materialise: the Telegraph reported that NHS workers would march in front of Her Majesty’s coffin, but in the end none did.
The main innovation was just to make everything bigger. There is no long-standing tradition of three separate services (funeral, committal and burial), and three was probably one or two too many. In an intriguing interview with the Earl Marshal, snatched during the week between the royal death and the funeral, the Duke of Norfolk revealed to The Times that he felt that the “ceremonial needs to move with the times.” By tradition there are no eulogies at royal funerals, but Justin Welby’s sermon came close to one. The lying-in-state was extended from four days to five, and above all the funeral itself was relocated from St George’s Chapel (capacity 800) to Westminster Abbey (capacity 2,000). For all the talk of who would and who wouldn’t be invited to the abbey, it is far bigger than St George’s, where previous royal funerals were much smaller affairs (President Truman did not attend George VI’s state funeral in 1952: only Dean Acheson, his Secretary of State, represented the US).
Far from being immutable rituals dating back over many centuries, royal funerals have often innovated from one decade or century to the next. But this funeral was different: it was the accumulation of lots of comparatively young traditions, with little taken out but a lot added in. Of course it was great theatre: a worldwide TV audience of four billion proves that. But it defied one of the usual conventions of theatre: less is more.
Queen Elizabeth’s funeral must be the most over-rehearsed event in British history. David Leakey (a former Black Rod best known for his fallings-out with Speaker Bercow) has revealed that much of his time in Westminster was spent rehearsing for Operation London Bridge. Like all over-rehearsed events, everything went like clockwork, but without any spontaneity, or even much genuine emotion. For those who believe (as I do) that a constitutional monarchy is the least worst system open to us, it is galling to confess that the Queen’s death left me profoundly unmoved. There was much respectful silence, but very few of the tears that were seen after Princess Diana’s death in 1997. The response was normative. Many felt melancholic, or disjointed, simply because times and spaces were indeed out of joint. TV schedules were disrupted, and large parts of central London were closed off.
Why did so many people pour onto the streets of London merely to catch a glimpse of a flag-covered coffin, or a passing carriage? Thirty-hour queues, stretching as far eastwards as Southwark Park, show that demand for this spectacle exceeded supply. But many of those craning to catch sight of the royal coffin in Edinburgh or London were, as Dominic Hinde has argued, consciously seeing a “ritual on borrowed time” – enjoying the scarcity value of an event that may never happen again on such a scale. Many of them were mourning not just their Queen, but loved ones of the same generation who had died during the Covid pandemic and whose own death rites had been curtailed.
Television also gave us some new traditions: an endearing royal tantrum over a leaking fountain pen (dubbed “Pengate”), and the furore over a small number of republican protests in front of the royal cortege, which were over-zealously policed. Is it sacrilegious to say that as well as bringing out some of the best British virtues, the last two-and-a-half weeks have also brought out some of our worst vices? We have seen the sanctimonious tut-tutting about Holly Willoughby and Philip Scofield’s alleged queue-jumping at the lying-in-state. Above all there has been a much greater vice: the killjoy cancellation, or postponement, of routine events by over-compliant bureaucrats. In my home county of Northants, a museum even pulled an innocuous book about the monarchy off its bookshop’s shelves, because its cover shows Charles reaching for the crown and being chastised by the late Queen with the words “Wait for it!”.I cannot imagine why the Last Night of the Proms could not have gone ahead two days after Elizabeth’s death, with its programme tweaked to reduce the bombast. It would have been the perfect time and place for new settings of Jerusalem, Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man, or even a new composition. In life, George V did little other than to collect stamps, and denigrate the Sussex seaside resort of Bognor. But on the morning of his death, the German composer Paul Hindemith went to a BBC studio and wrote, in the space of just six hours, Trauermusik (“Mourning Music”), for viola and orchestra, which was performed live on the BBC that very evening, conducted by Adrian Boult.
In some ways the aftermath of this monarch’s death was more sombre than the last one 70 years ago. In 1952 football matches carried on during the mourning period, with black armbands and two-minute silences. But this time all football was cancelled – with major consequences for small businesses that provide catering and other services at professional matches, and for families who use amateur matches and practice sessions as a form of childcare.
Has this period of national mourning fostered national unity? If so, the principle that most have united around is that life shouldn’t have been as disrupted as it was. My partner is a member of a military wives choir, whose admissions policy is very flexible (we are unmarried, and neither of us are in the military). Much less flexible were the strictures for rehearsals between the royal death and the royal funeral: one busybody tried to ban tea and cake until wiser heads prevailed. At a pub quiz I frequent, the quizmaster did a straw poll, by email, to see if the regulars wanted to proceed with a quiz the night before the funeral: everyone replied to say that they did.
Some state funerals of the 1950s and 1960s were arranged with lighting speed (incredibly JFK’s funeral, which was hardly foreseen, took place on Monday 25 November 1963, just 72 hours after his assassination in Dallas on the 22nd). Security, and the elaborate requirements of broadcasters, mean that such events cannot be planned so quickly now. It is a paradox that just as most things have got quicker, funeral preparations have slowed down. The pace of life was slower in 1952. Eleven days in 2022 feel a lot longer than they would have done 70 years ago. Periods of royal mourning will never be this long again.
Royal events often come in neat cycles. The Queen’s death came 20 years after the death of the Queen Mother, and it coincided, almost to the day, with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the funeral of her daughter-in-law Princess Diana.
Back in September 1997, my first serious gig in journalism was explaining what the death of Diana really meant for the future of Britain, and her monarchy. Just a few days after her funeral, I landed in upstate New York as a cub reporter for Taconic Newspapers, a chain of broadsheet weeklies (which have sadly since hit the wall) covering Dutchess County, about 50 miles north of the Big Apple . My old friend Joe Guinan, who was already working for the papers, wrote a stirring op-ed column arguing that Diana’s death was Chappaquiddick, Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the murder of St Thomas a Becket, all rolled into one. The way she had been hounded to her death, and the perceived indifference of the royal family after it, could mean only one thing: the impending end of the British monarchy.
My own piece, published alongside Joe’s, was more nuanced. Far from being an ordinary kindergarten teacher swept unknowingly into a royal fairy tale that soon turned sour (as many American newspapers were arguing), Diana was almost royalty herself: as a Spencer she came from one of England’s foremost aristocratic dynasties, as an illegitimate descendant of Charles II and a distant cousin of Churchill. Far from being the storming of the Bastille, the outpouring of grief that met her death was, I argued, because of her royal status, not in spite of it. After the Queen returned from Balmoral to Buckingham Palace to lower its flag to half-mast and emote with the crowds of mourners, their anger soon subsided.
Diana’s death was, I explained to American readers, simply the British equivalent of the JFK assassination: the wholly unexpected, violent death of a glamorous young icon at the height of their powers. Her death would, like JFK’s, fascinate and produce legions of conspiracy theories, and “end of an era” lamentations, for years to come. But it would not seriously jeopardise the future of the British monarchy, which had withstood far worse crises within living memory: the abdication crisis of 1936, and the Queen’s own ‘annus horribilis’ of 1992, which saw the Windsor Castle fire, Princess Anne’s divorce, and two royal separations (of Andrew and Fergie, and Charles and Diana).
Likewise, there now seems to be no prospect of the end of Elizabeth’s reign leading to the end of the monarchy itself. After the eulogies have come, both from the right and the left, many self-serving Jeremiads, either about the unlikelihood of “seeing her like again” (from the right), or about the impending disintegration of the royal family, the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth – or even all three (from the left). But as so often in the past, the British monarchy will adapt to survive. Timothy Garton Ash deserves credit for a rare outbreak of nuance, arguing that while Queen Elizabeth’s demise may be the end of an era, it probably won’t be.
Camilla’s metamorphosis from public enemy number one into the nation’s favourite stepmother has been one of the most skilful salvage operations of our time. King Charles himself has indicated that he sees the monarchy as a defender of Britain’s creaky, unwritten constitution, and a bulwark against the kind of heavy-handed government that prorogues parliament unlawfully. In his first public words after the Queen’s death, he vowed to “hold in the greatest respect the precious traditions, freedoms and responsibilities of our unique history and our system of parliamentary government”, and to “uphold the constitutional principles at the heart of our nation.” A few hours later, speaking in Westminster Hall, Charles echoed this message, as if no-one had been listening the first time.
The paradox is that Charles cannot defend constitutional principles without being accused of breaking them. Those who denounce the royals as stupid and incurious are often the first to condemn Charles’ ‘spider memos’. As Prince of Wales Charles was sanctimoniously accused of “political interference”, but the extraordinary thing is that his memos seem to have had precisely zero impact on government policy. For all the talk of continuity, there is a real prospect that he will carry on “meddling” as king. He will need to. To many observers, the Commonwealth is little more than an ineffective taking shop, and given the human rights records of many of its members its moral purpose is unclear. As its new head, Charles must strive to give it a new purpose. While demand for Scottish independence has flatlined, the real prospect of a border poll in Northern Ireland means the future of the United Kingdom is decidedly precarious.
The monarchy has always been “modernising”, but because the expectations of modernisation have been so low, the changes are often imperceptible. Genuine changes to the royal family are always borne of events beyond its control: it was the Windsor fire of 1992 that led to Queen Elizabeth II paying tax on her income, and to the opening up of Buckingham Palace to help pay for the restoration.
Charles now needs to get on the front foot. After two weeks of reviving royal traditions, it’s now time for Charles to create some new ones. The public indulged the Queen’s funeral, but amidst a cost of living crisis Charles coronation should be dignified, simple – and short. But he also needs to deliver some bold changes that go far beyond tinkering with the protocols of funerals and coronations.
As I’ve explained, the elision between royalty and the armed forces only dates back to Victorian times. Military uniforms look great in processions, but the convention that service in the armed forces is the default occupation of all young royals has to end. Charles himself has always seemed happiest messing around with his watercolours, gardening or pondering old buildings. His RAF and Royal Navy careers ended in the mid-1970s. Yet he wore a uniform to his mother’s funeral, while the only two royals with genuinely long and distinguished military careers – Harry in the army and Andrew in the Royal Navy – were just about the only ones not wearing uniform. Military uniforms should be reserved for those on active service, and should not adorn those like Prince Edward, who only qualify as honorary colonels-in-chief (Edward only completed three months of Royal Marines training in the mid-1980s, miserably, before dropping out).
Charles needs to keep to his vow to radically modernise and slim down the monarchy. Andrew needs to be banished permanently. The ambiguity over the status of minor royals such as the Queen’s surviving cousins (the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Kent, Prince Michael, and so on), and their wives and children, should be ended. The Crown Estate and the Duchy of Cornwall should be properly nationalised. Loopholes that allow the Crown to veto, or evade, certain aspects of new legislation should be rigorously closed.
As in most European royal families, British royals should either be working full-time on official engagements, or else be “ordinary” people, with ordinary jobs, living outside royal palaces. There should be an end to the self-indulgent debate about what to “do with” Harry and Meghan: as Harry is now only fifth in line to the throne he should not be a working royal anyway. As long as he no longer gets a share of a sovereign grant, who cares if he wants to make a fortune from Netflix? Above all, the next generation of royals should go to state schools, and then be free to take jobs in whatever field they like.
If much of the iconography of modern royalty is Victorian, than so are it buildings. Ironically the two most attractive royal residences are relatively recent acquisitions in the Cotswolds: Highgrove, a picture postcard Georgian mansion, and Gatcombe Park. Balmoral and Sandringham are completely Victorian, as is Royal Lodge, where the Queen grew up and where Prince Andrew still lives, pending his banishment. Windsor Castle is largely Victorian, a heavily over-restored conception of what a medieval castle should look like.
Having four royal palaces in central London – Buckingham Palace, Clarence House, St James Palace and Kensington Palace – is at least two too many. Only Kensington Palace and St James Palace are of any real architectural importance. Buckingham Palace, or Buckingham House as it was originally known, was an eighteenth century house of some interest, until it was ruined by a heavy-handed eastern front by Edward Blore in the 1850s, to be replaced by an even more heavy-handed effort by Aston Webb in 1913. Apparently Charles hates it. That’s good news: it should (assuming that Parliament does not relocate, rendering the Palace of Westminster vacant) become the museum of British history that London so sorely needs. Windsor Castle and Kensington Palace should be opened fully to the public, with only nominal entrance charges, along with Buckingham Palace, (now that the costs of Windsor Castle’s restoration have been paid, the steep entrance fee of up to £55 at Buckingham Palace’s state apartments should be drastically reduced).
The royals should be allowed to keep Balmoral and Sandringham as private homes, but in London they should only have St James Palace, and the adjacent Clarence House, which should become their working headquarters. St James Palace’s historic rooms would make a much better backdrop for investitures and so on than Buckingham Palace’s pompous ballroom, which looks like something out of a four-star hotel. Perhaps the palace should become one.
The idolatry that has greeted Queen Elizabeth II’s passing is not guaranteed to be repeated after the passing of Charles, or his successors. One thing that most people agree on about the late Queen is that she worked hard. Over 70 years, her hard work helped to see off any threat to the future of the monarchy. Charles won’t have nearly that long. The hard graft starts now.