A century of grief – how the Observer has seen Britain’s state funeral over the years | Queen Elizabeth II


Mthe blown drums, the catafalque, the plumed helmets and a new familiarity with the count marshal; these are the characteristics shared by the great state funerals of the last century and a quarter of British history. But past media coverage of “national mourning,” like the Observer refers to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, reveals another common factor.

The state funeral, a rare event, must be explained to each generation. His pomp and arcane lore are still mysterious. The reports therefore read like a dark catechism; a list of conventions intended to give an identity to a nation.

In 1910, on the death of Victoria’s son, Edward VII, a Observer The writer made this point when he praised Westminster Hall and Saint George’s Chapel in Windsor, quoting the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, who had, he thought, “never said a word more true that “every nation’s Bible is its own story” and in these two buildings… are two of the most glorious pages of this Bible – not printed on perishable paper, but engraved in noble stone.

Monday’s funeral will follow a pattern established at the end of Victoria’s reign. Elizabeth II, like her ancestors, will visit Windsor Chapel, described on the death of her grandfather in 1936 by our special correspondent as “this perfect specimen of perpendicular architecture”.

State funerals are intended for monarchs only, but exceptionally “a highly distinguished personality” may be buried in this manner. The last Briton to receive this honor was Winston Churchill in 1965, in recognition of his leadership in World War II. A repeated plan codenamed Operation Hope Not reflected the Queen’s wish that the nation “have the opportunity to express their grief”.

His funeral varied from that of George VI in that the coffin traveled from Westminster Hall to St Paul’s Cathedral, then by river to Waterloo, for a final train journey to Oxfordshire.

The front page of The Observer for Churchill’s funeral. Photography: The Observer

The Observer reported that once Big Ben rang for the former prime minister at 9.45am when the motorcade started, it remained silent. At the funerals of Edward VII, George V and George VI, Big Ben rang out at 10 a.m. with a stroke for each year of the monarch’s life.

Despite the cold weather, 321,360 people lined up to view Churchill’s coffin and 164 wounded were treated among the queues as ‘cold gray skies produced a deadly backdrop for the morning ritual’ before “the cumbersome cannon carriage which had carried Queen Victoria’s coffin bore her, driven by the naval ratings”.

State funerals require the gun carriage carrying the coffin to be pulled by Royal Navy sailors using ropes rather than horses. And they are also overseen by the Earl Marshal (Edward Fitzalan-Howard, 18th Duke of Norfolk), a grand officer of state, while a simple “ceremonial funeral” is held by the Lord Chamberlain, an officer in the royal household . In 1965 the Observer explained the role of the 17th Duke of Norfolk, then Bernard Marmaduke Fitzalan-Howard, as “chief planner” of Churchill’s rites: “This timid little man with puffy little eyes was Earl Marshal and the highest authority on the royal and state ceremonies, since he succeeded to the dukedom at the age of nine.He was only 27 when he organized the funeral of George V and the coronation of George VI.

Key national figures such as Diana, the Princess of Wales, the Queen Mother, Margaret Thatcher and, a year ago, the Duke of Edinburgh all had ceremonial funerals, which also usually have a state lie, procession with a gun carriage and a military presence.

Queen Victoria’s funeral consisted of bringing her body from her home on the Isle of Wight. The Observer recorded the death as “the terrible calamity we hoped we could avert last week” and published a poem by Reginald Hughes:

“The queen is dead! Our queen, queen of queens;/And England sits as in a dream, and weeps,/And rich and poor, and high and low are made/Peers by the patent of nobility of the sorrow.

In the spring of 1910, at the funeral of Edward VII, the new King George V walked “in the wake of the dead king” as his father’s main mourner. The royal body had been held in the Throne Room of Buckingham Palace at the request of Queen Alexandra, ‘who in her great sorrow wished it to remain as long as possible in the room where the death took place’ . There was, the Observer predicted, to be even more “human majesty” and “direct foreign representatives of kings” than at the funeral of his mother, Victoria.

George V ordered the Earl Marshal “to express the hope that at the hour of burial memorial services will be held in all the major centers of the country”, partly because, although Monday is a public holiday, it is not a fixed precedent. George VI’s funeral was also a normal working day. State funerals were, this newspaper noted, not uncommon at this stage: “At a time when crowns have fallen like leaves in autumn, England feels pain in her whole being at the passing of her sovereign. .”

Although there was no official day of mourning in 1952; the Observer reported that “there will be a general suspension of work and business in London and many towns and cities across the country”. “In the West End, all major stores will be closed and their example will be followed by many smaller establishments in all parts of the capital. Two minutes of silence will be observed across Britain and Northern Ireland from 1.30pm. Silence will also be observed throughout the empire.

A complex formation of soldiers surround the steps of St Paul as mourners enter, seen from afar
Churchill’s funeral, on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Photograph: PA Archives

Service at Windsor would be simple, we reported, regardless of “the scene of medieval panoply and pageantry”; “The only anthem will be King George’s favourite, Abide With Me.” Music is now an important part of the royal funeral: the choices for Monday’s ceremony will be announced on Sunday.

On Churchill’s death, the BBC’s third program played “a specially composed and broadcast piece, a tribute march in honor of a great man by Sir Arthur Bliss, master of the music of the Queen”.

In February 1952, Observer Writer Patrick O’Donovan described the funeral of the late Queen’s father at St George’s Chapel: “There were heralds pacing the aisle, old gentlemen in shiny coats who are nothing more than palisades for the display of royal arms, men who bear titles of impossible romance. The wreath on the coffin “shone with ice”, he added, but the grenadier bearers “stumbled over the steps”.

Also writing for Observer was former Prime Minister Lord Attlee, who is said to have arrived at the funeral ‘hesitantly on a stick’. In his famous play ‘The King I Knew’ he remarked that George VI was “lucky not to be born to succeed the throne”. The newspaper chief said: “It is as if the collective soul has been touched to a depth that politics, economics and diplomacy never reach.”

Clothing is always important: there were rules about when to wear crepe when mourning Victoria. Prior to her son’s funeral in 1910, an advertisement for the Dickins & Jones store promoted two mourning outfits “to wear immediately”; a delicate envelope, the Pauline, and the more graceful Hanover. In 1936, Queen Mary, the widow of George V, and Queen Maud of Norway, her sister, were heavily veiled inside a state pram, while public mourners wore a black armband.

The front page of a watcher with a great slogan
The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. Photograph: Kathy deWitt/Alamy

The queue to see George V included “city workers in bowler hats and dark blue coats, women, rich and poor, football fans, wearing the colors of their teams.” In 1965, fur was all the rage for those paying homage to Churchill. “The Queen Mother appeared first, in a plain broadcloth coat and black fur stole.” The Duchess of Kent “like most women in the cathedral” wore a fur hat, while “Princess Alexandra wore magnificent black fur”. Elizabeth II, on the other hand, “wore a simple half-belt cloth coat and a plain black beret”.

News pages have often focused on the queues, with public mourners at George V’s funeral apparently thronging Westminster Hall for his second day of lying in state. “Crowds of mourners were larger and the number of people who filed past the flower-crowned coffin exceeded 128,000 up to 10 p.m. last night, a two-day total of 238,000. At that time, 20,000 people were still queuing.

It was a foggy January but “the pilgrimage to Westminster Hall continued throughout the day yesterday and by midnight when the doors were closed 150,777 people had filed past the catafalque”. The early morning queue, “stretching over a quarter of a mile”, was “joined by several housekeepers who decided to visit Westminster Hall before heading home”.

At Windsor in 1952, “eight to ten thousand people were turned away in disappointment waiting to see the wreaths sent for the King’s funeral”. A frustrated police officer commented, “This is just mass stupidity. If we had let everyone in line in, they would have gone a few hours after it got dark.

There were no colored bracelets. Historically, the places on the route of the procession were sold out and in 1910 the cost seemed high: “It was well expected that the prices would be higher than on the occasion of the funeral of the late Queen Victoria, especially that the course of the procession will be shorter”, but a window on the first floor cost £50. In 1936, seat prices ranged “from two to ten guineas”, five guineas being described as “a fair price for a good view”.

Over the decades, the rules for state funerals have proven to be flexible. As the Observer noted ahead of Queen Victoria’s funeral: ‘No ransacking of old records would be likely to reveal an entirely satisfactory set of precedents for the great ceremonies to be performed at the end of the week on the fulfillment of the last sad rites and observances deemed worthy of the funeral of the greatest monarch of modern times, or perhaps of all.


theguardian Gt

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