We can be Heroes, Just for One Day. In death, Queen Elizabeth first gave us The Queue. A chance for the UK to show its gentler, more united self. That we could be quite nice to one another if we put our minds to it.
Then, at her funeral, her second gift was to – temporarily at least – give the country back a sense of its importance. Thoughts that we were a nation in decline, with a large number of its population unsure if they could afford to eat and heat in the coming months, were put on hold. We had a history worth celebrating. We and the country did matter.
Leaders from around the world were gathering at Westminster Abbey to pay their respects to our late queen in an unrivalled ceremony of pomp and pageantry. We could tell ourselves that no one else could have given their head of state a better send off. We were the centre of attention. We were a superpower. We could be proud. Delusional, maybe. But proud. Just for one day.
The guests started to arrive at the abbey shortly after 8am. One of the first was a top-hatted Jacob Rees-Mogg. Then came selected members of the public, non-reigning monarchs – take a bow the Prince of Venice and the Margrave of Baden – and other politicians.
Next were the minor heads of state, many of whom were bussed in. Several tried to show their orange invites at the door. They were just waved through. No one was expecting any gatecrashers for this event. The only uninvited guest turned out to be the spider that had got into the flowers on the Queen’s coffin. We never did get to see who was put next to the North Koreans. Or if there was an unofficial Naughty Step for dodgy regimes. The seating plan must have been a logistical nightmare.
Joe Biden arrived in his own car and had to wait at the west door to allow the procession of holders of the Victoria and George Cross to take their seats ahead of him. Then came the former prime ministers. First John Major, by all accounts the Queen’s favourite, and ending with Boris Johnson, by all accounts the most loathed. Her last service to the country while she was alive was to see the back of him. Johnson was seated next to the Mays. But unlike at Westminster Hall several days earlier, this time Theresa could put her husband, Philip, between her and Boris. Philip didn’t seem especially pleased to have drawn the short straw.
The minor royals took their places – James Severn, the son of Prince Edward, is only 14 but has still managed to accrue a couple of medals – along with the Princess of Wales and her two eldest children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte. The succession subtext was inescapable. All is well with the House of Windsor.
Meanwhile, over at Westminster Hall, the Queen’s four children along with the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sussex were getting ready to walk behind the coffin as it was pulled on a gun carriage by more that 140 sailors. Andrew and Harry were once again wearing morning suits rather than military uniform. It seemed harsh on Harry to be given the same punishment as Andrew but the royal family can be ruthless when they want to be.
Outside the abbey, there were a few cheers but mostly a sense of quiet. Even the planes had been diverted. The one interruption, on the BBC at least, was the sound of Huw Edwards telling everyone what they could already see and promising that there would be no commentary during the service itself. A blessed relief. The past 10 days of having to talk solemn banalities for 14 hours a day have driven Edwards understandably a bit mad. It’s almost as if he now considers himself to be an integral part of the royal household. Someone without whom it can no longer function.
The whole occasion was at the same time quintessentially British in its ceremony and also profoundly un-British. Normally, we try to tuck death away into somewhere where it can’t be seen. Or felt. Somewhere we can pretend it isn’t the price we pay for living. Yet here we had death take centre stage. The Queen’s coffin in the centre of the abbey. It felt somehow healing.
After opening prayers and hymns, Lady Scotland read the first lesson, taken from Corinthians. She spoke superbly, so much so that even those of no faith could half believe that faith might triumph over death. That there was an afterlife. Liz Truss predictably murdered the second lesson from St John. Speaking aloud is not her strong point and she has yet to realise that punctuation is there to help you make sense of the text. Still her deathly monotone wasn’t entirely out of place at a funeral and the Queen would have been pleased it was anyone but Boris reading it.
The archbishop of Canterbury also had a few comments to make on world leaders in general and Johnson in particular during his sermon that was unashamedly political. Only those, like the Queen, who served a higher power first and foremost would be remembered. Those whose only God was their own fragile ego would be forgotten.
There were more surprises near the end of the service with the Queen’s choice of Charles Wesley’s Love Divine. This hymn is a Methodist anthem. The anti-establishment religion given voice at the most establishment of occasions. Perhaps the Queen was a more complex and conflicted woman with regards to her faith than many had thought. Perhaps there was an egalitarian side to her that got lost among the privilege.
The King looked thoughtful as the congregation gave a spine-tingling rendition of the national anthem. Well he might. He’s not just grieving his mother, he’s got to follow her example. Who knows if the country will ever come to love him as much as they loved the Queen? Or indeed if he can hold the monarchy together. William and Harry often seem more interested in their personal feuds. Without the Queen the whole thing might fall apart.
After the service, military bands played a medley of funeral marches as the cortege processed up to Marble Arch. The Heralds and the Pursuivants, looking like extras from a Disney theme park, tried to march in time while not stepping in the horse poo, while the senior royals took their places behind the gun carriage. Their London farewell was to oversee the transfer of the Queen to the hearse. Some flowers were thrown, but this was no Princess Di moment. A time for grandeur and dignity rather than touchy-feely emotions.
The final public act took place in St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Despite a congregation of 800, it felt intimate. Almost as if we were intruding on something private. Something historic as the mace, orb and crown were removed from the coffin. Something majestic as the lord chamberlain broke the wand of office and laid it on the coffin. Something unbearable as the King stood in front of the coffin while it descended into the vault. The last we would see of the queen.
Charles looked so lonely. Lost even. As if he’d waited 73 years for this moment and now didn’t know if he really wanted it. The bagpipe lament spoke for him. As it did for all of us. Rest in peace.