Truculent ponies too cold to trot. A funeral carriage stuck in the mud. Mourners crushed to death. Jewels that tumbled — mid-procession — off the crown and on to the road. The British state funeral, the ultimate valediction to a public servant, has seen it all.
When Queen Elizabeth II is taken to her final rest on Monday, the ceremonies will have an immutable air. Her coffin will be carried by gun-carriage in solemn military procession from Westminster Abbey, led by heralds, pulled by sailors, and followed by a cortège of royals and dignitaries marking the end of the second Elizabethan age.
But these rites, and how they have evolved over the centuries, reflect not permanence but one of the monarchy’s other strengths: the ability to adjust to the demands of the times, nod to family wishes when possible, but, above all, improvise when things go wrong.
“There is a sense of history and continuity, a repetition of ritual that dates from time immemorial,” said John Wolffe, a professor of history at the Open University. “But the past two centuries of state funerals is also a story of innovation. Many of the most distinctive features were still quite novel when Queen Elizabeth II was born in 1926.”
No sovereign’s coffin, for example, received a military procession through London until 1901. Only with Edward VII in 1910 did a King or Queen lie in state in Westminster Hall. Monarchs of the 18th century preferred more private ceremonies at Windsor Castle.
Traditions and recurring practices have emerged since the late 19th century, some inspired by the burial rites for Elizabeth I. But no fixed template for the state funeral has ever existed. Customs — such as Tudors adorning the coffin with a lifelike effigy of the monarch — have come and gone. State funerals are rare and unique events, always shaped to circumstance.
“The ignorance, the historical ignorance, of everyone from top to bottom . . . ” grumbled the courtier Viscount Esher after the death of Queen Victoria. “You would think the English monarchy had [not] been buried since the time of Alfred.”
Monday’s ceremonies will be the product of years of planning by Buckingham Palace, conversations with the Queen before her death, and the practical constraints of putting on the biggest event in London for generations.
One feature will distinguish this formal state funeral from other public ceremonies for a prominent person: the gun-carriage, pulled by sailors, which bears the Queen’s coffin. Like many ceremonial precedents, it emerged from mishap and misadventure.
Queen Victoria in part chose the gun-carriage so she would not repeat the excesses of the Duke of Wellington’s state funeral in 1852, which used a 10 tonne funeral car forged from bronze cannons captured at Waterloo.
Wellington’s car proved so heavy 60 police officers were required to release its wheels from the mud. To make matters worse, once outside St Paul’s Cathedral it took almost an hour to lower the coffin from under its majestic silk canopy because of mechanical failure.
“For forms of ugliness, horrible combinations of colour, hideous motion and general failure, there never was such a look achieved as the car,” wrote Charles Dickens. He did not even mention multiple fatalities from a crowd commotion when Wellington was lying in state.
Improvisation has also played a part. Victoria’s written instructions were for eight white-and-cream ponies to carry her coffin on the gun carriage. But whether because of faulty fixtures or horses baulking at the chilly conditions — accounts of the day vary — the hearse was unable to move.
Prince Louis Battenberg intervened and suggested a naval guard of honour drag the carriage instead, a make-do decision that set a precedent for state funerals to come; 98 sailors will draw the late Queen Elizabeth’s carriage on Monday.
Personal preferences have also been an important factor. Queen Victoria wished not to lie in state in public. Benjamin Disraeli declined a state funeral, while Winston Churchill embraced the idea with gusto; one planner recalled him requesting “guns, trumpets, soldiers, the lot!”
Relatives too can have a say. Queen Elizabeth changed the order of service for her late father to include the hymn: “Abide with me”. And at the behest of the Queen Mother, Edward VII’s wire-haired fox terrier, Caesar, was invited to walk in his funeral procession.
The loyal hound later penned a book entitled Where’s Master?, which Professor Wolffe described as a “poignant dog’s-eye view of the bleakness of bereavement”.
Such popular touches reflect how a sovereign’s funeral has been used and adapted, particularly in the 20th century, to reinforce the monarchy’s legitimacy and deliver timely messages about the state’s priorities.
“Everyone talks about tradition and continuity but it hasn’t always been stable,” said Alice Hunt, a historian at the University of Southampton. “We have always made it look like it is. That is quite a British thing to do. One of the reasons it has lasted is because it has changed.”
The need to carry Queen Victoria from her death place on the Isle of Wight, for instance, was taken as an opportunity for a grand naval review across the Solent at a time of transition for the Royal Navy.
Similarly, Queen Elizabeth’s death at Balmoral, the royal estate in Scotland, has provided space for her successor King Charles to emphasise the union at a time when the four nations of the UK appear to be drifting apart.
But no amount of smart planning can account for some challenges. While following his father George V’s coffin in procession, Edward VIII recalled seeing “a flash of light dancing along the pavement”.
For the sake of dignity, he did not bend over to retrieve the object: the jewelled Maltese cross that adorned the crown. But fortunately the sergeant-major bringing up the rear picked it up “with scarcely a missed step”.