The Elizabethan era is laid to rest

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II was a chance for Britons to reflect upon their national identity and consider how their nation has transformed over the past seventy years. It also marked the beginning of a new period of uncertainty.

King Charles III and the Queen Consort follow behind the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it is carried into St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, Berkshire for her Committal Service. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo.
King Charles III and the Queen Consort follow behind the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it is carried into St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, Berkshire for her Committal Service. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

During the first week of September 2022, the United Kingdom absorbed an unprecedented double shock: the installation of a new Head of State and a new Head of Government within four days of each other. Neither change was the result of a democratic process of mass suffrage. Monarchs are chosen by bloodline and inheritance. For the third time running during the Conservative Party’s twelve years in power, the self-selecting membership of the Tory Party (some 180,000 people) chose a new party leader, who automatically became prime minister because she could command a majority in parliament without having to seek a fresh mandate at a general election. In a final coda to her decades of unflinching service to the nation, it was apposite that the last public duty performed by the ailing Queen Elizabeth II was to ‘kiss hands’ formally sealing the transition in government from the outgoing prime minister Boris Johnson and to Liz Truss, the fifteenth of her reign.

The greatest tribute to the late queen, demonstrating the widespread affection and respect in which she was held, is that these changes in Britons’ rulers were accepted by the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The monarch, in the personages of the late Queen Elizabeth and her heir King Charles III, was celebrated in ceremonial and pageantry even as she was mourned.

The last time the UK was united with such common feeling, with so many millions at home and abroad looking on, was for the Olympic Games in 2012. The Queen presided over the opening ceremony and took an unexpected starring role in a short film with James Bond. Minus the sporting content, the Queen’s funeral and the arrangements around it, both official and ad hoc, contained many of the same threads which the film director Danny Boyle (the mastermind behind the opening ceremony) wove into a different tapestry for his spectacular which took place at what was subsequently renamed the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London.

Indeed, in happier times earlier this summer, the same elements were central once again to the public events staged for Her majesty’s Platinum Jubilee. They are the aspects of the British identity which conjure the most pride: the National Health Service, military prowess and victory in the two world wars, world-beating pomp and circumstance offset by modest informality and the ‘keep calm and carry on’ mentality.

In 2012, the Olympics opening ceremony had nurses twirling around hospital beds. Meanwhile in 2022, doctors and nurses from the NHS were invited to walk behind the gun carriage carrying the Queen’s coffin, pulled by Royal Navy sailors to the Wellington Arch. The arch at Hyde Park Corner was originally erected to celebrate victory over the French at the Battle of Waterloo.

Inside the Abbey, the recipients of the UK’s highest awards for gallantry, the Victoria and George Crosses, were invited to sit alongside the foreign potentates. So were 183 ordinary subjects who had made a difference for the better in their communities, including people who had helped others get through the Covid pandemic, a campaigner against knife crime and a lifeboat volunteer.

During the Olympics, British troops made an invaluable contribution, taking over running entrance checks at the venues after private security firms began to flail. Without their deployment, the games would not have run as smoothly as they did. The monarch is the Commander-in-Chief of the UK’s Armed Forces and the military makes up one of the four central pillars of Britain’s mourning, alongside royal history, the Anglican Church, and celebrating the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Over the past week, the bloodline members of the Royal Family have worn military uniforms as part of their ceremonial duties, including at the two ‘Vigils of the Princes’ around the Queen’s catafalque in St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh and in Westminster Great Hall. This led to some controversy; the King instructed the two princes who had seen active service — Andrew in the Falklands conflict and Harry in Afghanistan — not to wear uniform as they have both retired from being ‘working members’ of the Royal family. Andrew resigned from his public roles in May 2020 following his association with the convicted American paedophile Jeffrey Epstein and when allegations of sexual assault levelled against the Duke of York himself began to receive increased scrutiny. Harry, Charles and Diana’s second son, officially left his role as a working royal in 2020, deciding to become financially independent and relocating to California with his American wife Meghan, and their two children Archie and Lilibet.

King Charles wore civilian clothes for his first official acts as head of state: his broadcast to the nation, the Accession ceremony at St James Palace, and first visits as King to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

The British monarch is head of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith, a title bestowed on Henry VIII by Parliament during the Reformation. Both Charles and his mother have professed a deep, personal Christian faith. Prayer and religious services played a central role in the mourning period — presided over by the Dean of Westminster, the Royal Chaplain and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England. For all that, the task of organising state funerals is inherited by the Dukes of Norfolk, Britain’s premier recusant Roman Catholic Family.

These threads of officialdom came together alongside time-honoured and informal aspects of the British character for Her majesty’s Lying-in-State at Westminster — a comparatively recent tradition only dating back to Edward VII in 1910. The British like to be known for their love of queuing. The line to pass by the coffin in Westminster Hall stretched back more than four miles along the banks of the Thames. Her majesty lay in state around the clock for five days, twenty-four hours a day. At times it took more than twenty-four hours to pass through successfully. It took England’s best known footballer David Beckham (who was also key to securing London the 2012 Olympics) thirteen hours. The queue became a focus of international media attention and a chance to showcase another British trait — enthusiastic stewards in high visibility jackets giving orders.

Mourning and funerals are inherently retrospective. They are about remembering and celebrating a life and the pain of missing someone who has gone. One of the most frequent reasons given by the public when asked why they were attending the events of the past week was ‘because it’s history.’ Queen Elizabeth II was a leader of great grace and accomplishment. She had been a constant and stable presence throughout the lives of the vast majority of her British subjects. In commemorating her death, the citizens of the UK once again basked in nostalgia, looking back at what they had lost. The organised obsequies were palpably a brave attempt to strengthen the fraying and loosening bonds holding the UK together — as Queen Elizabeth II appears to have wanted.

These are uncertain times for the United Kingdom. Independence movements could yet lead to the UK’s break-up. In both Scotland and Northern Ireland referendums for self-determination are active possibilities. In spite of high levels of employment, the UK economy is teetering on the brink of deep recession, inflation is at its highest level since the 1980s. Sterling, which will soon have a new head on its notes and coins, is under pressure. The UK both joined and left the European community during Elizabeth’s reign and is now once again uncertain of its place in the world. Some of the 15 remaining ‘realms’ of the Commonwealth which also have the monarch as Head of State are openly pondering republicanism.

Boris Johnson said that the Queen was ‘absolutely on it’ at their terminal audience two days before her death. He told the BBC that ‘her sense of duty had kept her going’ and she was ‘quoting statesmen from the 1950s’. It is not known if these citations included US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s famous slight: ‘Great Britain has lost an Empire and not yet found a role.’

In her life, as in her death, Elizabeth II applied balm to these troubles. The nations have come together during ten days of official mourning. Often overlooked or patronised by Westminster politicians, Scotland played a leading role in the obsequies because her majesty had chosen to retire to Balmoral prior to her death. Her four children first stood vigil around her coffin in St Giles Cathedral, and the people in Edinburgh were the first to file solemnly past it. Charles received the condolences in person in both the Great Hall of Westminster and the chamber of the Holyrood Parliament.

Opinion polls suggest that only a minority of those who vote for the Scottish National Party favour retaining the monarchy, yet both of Scotland’s nationalist first ministers, Alex Salmond and Nichola Sturgeon, signed the ledgers at King Charles’ accession ceremony at St James’ Palace in London. Reflecting the wishes of the majority of all Scots, the SNP leadership has made it clear that it intends to keep the King as monarch of an independent nation.

A royal progress through the governing places of Wales and Northern Ireland followed before the state funeral at Westminster Abbey, with the new Prime Minister Truss in attendance at each stage.

In spite of a bitter and brutal history of relations with the British crown, the Republic of Ireland responded with grace to the death. The tricolour flew at half-mast on government buildings. Elizabeth II is celebrated for her visit of reconciliation in 2012, when she spoke lines of Gaelic, once banned by the British, and paid her respects at the Garden of Remembrance ‘for all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom’. In the margins of mourning, Irish political leaders suggest there is a fresh chance to avoid the confrontation over post-Brexit trade arrangements.

There is no doubt that the British public love and respect the late queen more than they respect the institution of the monarchy. In her latter decades she developed a public personality unrelated to her regal duties. During the 1990s, public opinion turned against the Royal Family during ‘the annus horribilis’ of marital break-ups in the next generation, culminating in the tragedy and melodrama of the violent death of Diana, Prince Charles’ ex-wife in 1997. As with an earlier period of criticism when the Queen was considered slow in responding to the Aberfan disaster, she was attacked for being hesitant joining in the public grief for ‘the Peoples’ Princess’. This was rectified under advisement from Prime Minister Tony Blair and the new Labour government’s officials. By the year 2000 the Queen was loosening up. She linked hands with Blair to sign ‘Auld lang Syne’ under the Millennium Dome. With greater confidence she demanded a speaking part in the opening of the 2012 London Olympics and a decade after that she presided generously over a tea party with Paddington Bear, Britain’s best loved illegal immigrant.

But Queen Elizabeth II only allowed shards of daylight upon, what Walter Bagehot called, ‘the magic’ of monarchy. She kept any personal opinions to herself; she never gave a media interview and she was physically untouchable. Incidents of touching lèse-majesté, such as Michelle Obama’s hand across her back, generated international news stories.

Prince Charles has voiced opinions on a range of subjects, especially related to environmentalism, and has given media interviews, including one with Jonathan Dimbleby in which he confessed to adultery. Returning to Buckingham Palace for the first time as King, he inspected the ‘floral tributes’ left at the railings by the public. The scene was reminiscent of the Queen’s walkabout following the death of Diana, except that the King shook hands with the crowd and was kissed on the cheek by one lady. His first broadcast to the nation as king was more expansive than his mother’s in 1947, when as heir presumptive on her twenty-first birthday she dedicated her life to the service of her peoples. He equally dedicated the rest of his life to service, but he also spoke as well of his ‘darling’ wife and children, and distributed his titles among them.

Charles’ popularity has shot up during the mourning period. Only 32 per cent told YouGov that he would ‘make a good king’ this May, by mid-September it was 63 per cent. The King’s evident ordinary humanity could be an asset to his reign, but it could also expose a frailty never permitted by the late Queen’s stoicism. At an official signing in Hillsborough Castle filmed by a TV crew, the King displayed a very different temperament to his mother. He became flustered after writing the wrong date and swore, ‘I can’t bear this bloody thing,’ when a pen leaked ink.

In her youth, Prime Minister Liz Truss advocated the abolition of the monarchy to a Liberal Democrat conference. At no point did she use the traditional formula ‘Her majesty has done me the honour of asking me’ when announcing her appointment as prime minister. This may be down to her somewhat blinkered single mindedness. She also took the King’s hand at their first formal meeting.

This sad transition of monarchy offered a breathing space for the King, the prime minister and the British people. Mourning and celebration temporarily banished the cost of living crisis from the headlines. Truss paused the controversial cull of civil service and government ranks which she had embarked on the week prior.

The transformations the nation underwent over the past seven decades are worthy of reflection. Elizabeth II guided and united the nations of the United Kingdom through them. The nation’s direction and leadership is much less certain in the post-Elizabethan age.


Adam Boulton