ALL WEEK, a river of mourners has queued for hours alongside the banks of the Thames in London to pay their respects to their longest-reigning monarch as she lies in state in Westminster Hall. Tens of thousands also lined the narrow streets of Edinburgh to gaze on the hearse bearing the queen’s body last week.
Pilgrimage to bid farewell to a loved monarch is not limited to Britons: World leaders, including Presidents Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan, are gathering to attend her funeral service at Westminster Abbey on Monday.
These are not the modest obsequies of a Scandinavian monarchy. Nor is this the hysteria of an oppressed people who take to the streets when a long-lived dictator — a Stalin or a Mao — finally dies. Of course, there is media hype, but the heightened emotions are not all manufactured. Walking in Westminster last week as the royal coffin arrived, the stillness of the crowds and reflective silence among usually noisy Londoners was striking.
For many secular Britons, the pomp and pageantry of royal ceremonies are a substitute for religion, but even agnostics and non-believers in monarchy are slightly awed by the scale and solemnity of the occasion. Few of those who watched were not moved when the queen’s coffin was drawn in a gun carriage from Buckingham Palace to Westminster, while her eldest son, King Charles III, and his sons followed her to the accompaniment of somber strains from military bands.
Courtesy of the television cameras, millions outside the UK get to be spectators and even participants too. The country’s gift to the world represents a theatrical display of soft power. Royalty is the biggest British brand, bigger than James Bond, bigger than the Bard, bigger even than the Beatles. How did it happen?
Among all modern nations, the British have been more successful at inventing traditions that appear linked to an immemorial past, but are in fact late 19th and early 20th century innovations. The Scottish kilt was the invention of an Englishman, and the idea of a tartan for every Scottish clan was dreamt up as a marketing ploy by canny textile manufacturers. (The Welsh managed to invent their own national dress without English help.)
The modern monarchy, however, has been the most successful British invention — or reinvention — of them all.
For the royals didn’t always put on such a good show. After watching Queen Victoria open Parliament in 1860, Lord Robert Cecil observed:
Some nations have a gift for ceremonial. This aptitude is generally confined to the people of a southern climate and of a non-Teutonic parentage. In England the case is exactly the reverse. We can afford to be more splendid than most nations; but some malignant spell broods over all our most solemn ceremonials, and inserts into them some feature which makes them all ridiculous.
William IV’s drab coronation was derided as the “Half Crown-nation” (a skit on the half crown coin, worth only a fourth of a pound sterling), while at Victoria’s unrehearsed coronation, the clergy lost their place in the order of service and the choir was pronounced “inadequate.” Those who carried her long train gossiped throughout.
But as the Crown’s power waned in the dawn of the democratic era, the ceremonial grew more elaborate and its execution became flawless — the beginning of what historian David Cannadine calls a “cavalcade of impotence.” By the time Victoria died, the once reclusive and unpopular Queen Empress had celebrated two highly successful jubilees and become the unofficial grandmother of Europe. Hundreds of thousands also lined the streets on the death of her son Edward VII in 1910 and for Queen Elizabeth II’s father, George VI, in 1952.
The same inventiveness was shown in the final hours of the British empire.
There was no great ceremony after the redcoats lost the Battle of Yorktown and with it the original 13 American colonies. When London was forced to abandon Ireland — its oldest overseas colony — soon after World War I, its last chief official quietly drove away from Dublin Castle. And it was a member of the royal family, Lord Mountbatten, the last imperial viceroy of India, who in 1947 decided it was better to foster feelings of goodwill to the former imperial power and to go with dignity. Speeches were given by the elites on both sides, the Union Jack was lowered at midnight and the flags of India and Pakistan were raised. The process was designed to give the appearance of an orderly transition, although afterward partition led to appalling violence.
Soon the British had got decolonization down to a tee. Independence ceremonies held in purpose-built stadiums sometimes occurred at the rate of four a year in the 1960s, with a royal usually in attendance. The folks back home could see from TV that the British had left the place in reasonable order while the new rulers enjoyed being treated as equals and gladly signed up to the new democratic Commonwealth of Nations.
Dissenting opinion has always held that both the vanished empire and today’s ceremonial monarchy are “a Tory racket,” opium for the masses. Cynicism, however, needs to be tempered. Labor leaders have often been more royalist than Conservatives. Constitutional monarchies preside over some of the most stable and successful democratic countries on the planet. The queen and her family grasped the implications of decolonization more quickly than much of the political class. Flinty-hearted Tories would have let the Commonwealth wither but for the queen. Some English Conservatives even harbor the wish that Scotland should go its own way to save the expense, but the Crown keeps the Union alive.
After the queen’s funeral, “the Firm,” as the royal family is known, will continue to modernize, doubtless becoming less formal in manner. Yet the pageantry that still moves millions — the golden carriages, military salutes and strange ceremonials — has turned out to be one of Britain’s most durable creations.