The death of Queen Elizabeth, at such a great age, after such a long reign, was always going to call for a unique solemnity and grandeur. That much was expected. Less expected, perhaps, was how many would rise so magnificently to the occasion.
There is the king, of course, who within hours of his mother’s death was transformed into a more serious, more authoritative, and also somehow more approachable figure than he ever seemed to be as a prince. There is Princess Anne, as ever low-key, who accompanied her mother’s coffin to London and spoke of how fortunate she had been to share “the last 24 hours of my dearest mother’s life”.
Then there are the two princes, who had to replicate for their grandmother the long walk they had made as children behind their mother’s coffin. And, in the centre of everything, the dead queen in her lead-lined coffin, draped in the Royal Standard, with the wreath, the crown, the sceptre and the orb – the accoutrements of power remaining, still, until she is buried at Windsor.
But another star has emerged over the past 10 days, shining, if anything, brighter than the others. And that star is the people. From one day to the next, the people have come out in ever greater numbers.
Sometimes, it almost seemed – as when the king and Prince William met some of those queueing to file past the queen’s coffin – the people were on an equal footing with royalty. Along with the extended hands, there was an assuredness, a cheerfulness, and an informality that seemed to speak of a new, less stuffy and more relaxed age.
We shall see, of course. But those encounters on London’s South Bank did not come completely out of the blue. They were the culmination of small episodes over a week in which monarchy and modernity seemed to meet. There were the crowds waiting for the queen’s coffin at Buckingham Palace, who formed something akin to an impromptu guard of honour.
There were the drivers who screeched to a halt in the fast lane of the A40, when they realised that the queen’s cortege was travelling towards them along the opposite carriageway, and jumped out of their cars to salute from the central reservation.
There was the matter of Prince Harry’s military uniform. The king had apparently decided quite early on that the disgraced Prince Andrew, a helicopter pilot in the Falklands War, would be permitted to wear his ceremonial uniform to stand guard at the lying-in-state.
That left Prince Harry, the only other member of the royal family to have seen active service, alone in being required to wear civilian dress. It is reported that the initial decision was based on Harry no longer being a “working royal”. It is also reported that he did not make any request himself. So how come the king decided that Harry could, after all, wear his uniform to guard the queen at her lying-in-state – albeit without the “ER” insignia?
Could it be that he heeded rumblings in public opinion about the perversity of a situation where the only senior royals not wearing military uniform were those who had fought for queen and country in real wars? Maybe that is not what happened, but perhaps it did.
Last, but not least, has been the queue, hugging the South Bank of the Thames, at times right back to Bermondsey in the east. Many have remarked on how much the queue came to resemble a pilgrimage, with the queuers’ singleness of purpose, their camaraderie along the way, and the charities and well-wishers offering victuals and encouragement through day and night.
There is also the applause. The first time I can recall public applause at a royal funeral was when the crowd that had gathered outside Westminster Abbey clapped Charles Spencer’s tribute to his “hunted” sister, Princess Diana.
It has now become a feature at funerals, but a sprinkling of applause from the public has followed the royal party around, including when they finished their stint standing guard at the coffin.
For me, though, the most striking aspect of everything that has happened over the past 10 days is the alacrity with which King Charles has been embraced by the people.
Early enthusiasm, of course, may pall. Missteps could lead to the monarch forfeiting the goodwill that has passed – with negligible public dissent – so directly from mother to son. (© Independent News Service)