Not even the Queen could have imagined an occasion so rich in music and beauty

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So many moments; so many memories. The haunting, spine-tingling lament of the late Queen’s faithful piper, Paul Burns, high above the Westminster Abbey congregation as the ceremony drew to a close.

The men and women of the Royal Navy, shoulder to shoulder as they pulled her late Majesty’s gun carriage.

The expressions of the late Queen’s children, stoical and set. The most powerful of the international guests, U.S. President Joe Biden, forced to wait at the entrance to the Abbey behind a procession of the holders of the Victoria and George Crosses.

The Mounties at the head of the procession. The awe-inspiring stillness as the Last Post rang out. The colours of the uniforms. The faces in the crowds. The blasts of the guns. The tolling of the bell. And perhaps above all, the beat of the drum: unchanging, unwavering, hypnotic in its solemnity.

Of all the great spectacles that have unfolded in our nation’s capital over the past 70 years, there has never been one like the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. It was at once Britain’s saddest day and our greatest, utterly magnificent and yet unbearably moving.

Of all the great spectacles that have unfolded in our nation’s capital over the past 70 years, there has never been one like the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II

Of all the great spectacles that have unfolded in our nation’s capital over the past 70 years, there has never been one like the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II

Even amid the pomp and beauty, it was impossible to forget that this was a farewell to an individual human being, a wife and mother who had dreams and fears we may never know. And as I watched her children and grandchildren, so obviously fighting to control their emotions, I was reminded of countless humbler funerals, very far from the eyes of the world.

Yet, of course, this was not just a private occasion. Such is the burden of monarchy. For a Queen, even in death, there can be precious little division between the personal and the public.

In every detail, from first to last, this was an event steeped in history. Even the venue, Westminster Abbey, is the very embodiment of Britain’s past: the resting place of kings and queens, warriors and poets, as well as the place where Elizabeth was married in 1947 and crowned in 1953.

When her pallbearers, eight Grenadier Guardsmen, bore her into the Abbey, they stepped over the great marble memorial stone to her first Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. It was Churchill who had stood on the tarmac to welcome her back from Kenya after the death of her father in 1952, and Churchill, with tears glistening in his eyes, who proclaimed the dawn of the New Elizabethan Age.

‘All around,’ Churchill told the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association before Elizabeth’s coronation a year later, ‘we see the proofs of the unifying sentiment which makes the Crown the central link in all our modern changing life, and the one which above all others claims our allegiance to the death.’

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Even amid the pomp and beauty, it was impossible to forget that this was a farewell to an individual human being, a wife and mother who had dreams and fears we may never know

Almost 70 years later, Churchill’s words perfectly describe the scene at her funeral. Every detail was impeccably judged to capture the same blend of the unchanging and the innovative, the timeless and the modern, united in allegiance to the Crown.

The First Lesson, for example, was read by Baroness Scotland, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, born to Dominican and Antiguan parents, who came to Britain when she was two.

The first black woman to be appointed a Queen’s Counsel, she was also the first woman to serve as Attorney General — a post first created in the mid-13th century, during the reign of the Plantagenet King Henry III.

The music, too, had the same blend of old and new. One of the Queen’s chosen hymns, for instance, was Charles Wesley’s exquisitely beautiful Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, first written in 1747.

Yet Wesley was actually reworking an earlier song, Fairest Isle, from John Dryden and Henry Purcell’s opera King Arthur, which was written in the early 1680s to mark the 25th anniversary of the Restoration of Charles II.

In the original, King Arthur is basically a disguised version of the Merry Monarch himself. So, probably unknown to most people who sang it yesterday, Wesley’s hymn contains layer upon layer of history, harking back to the 18th century, then the 17th, and then beyond them the mists and mysteries of Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Almost 70 years later, Churchill’s words perfectly describe the scene at her funeral. Every detail was impeccably judged to capture the same blend of the unchanging and the innovative, the timeless and the modern, united in allegiance to the Crown

Almost 70 years later, Churchill’s words perfectly describe the scene at her funeral. Every detail was impeccably judged to capture the same blend of the unchanging and the innovative, the timeless and the modern, united in allegiance to the Crown

Almost 70 years later, Churchill’s words perfectly describe the scene at her funeral. Every detail was impeccably judged to capture the same blend of the unchanging and the innovative, the timeless and the modern, united in allegiance to the Crown

Tradition, then. But also change. For a few moments later we heard a new anthem by the Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan, Who Shall Separate Us From The Love Of Christ? And there was also a haunting unaccompanied setting of Psalm 42, Like As The Hart, written especially for the occasion by Judith Weir, the first woman to become Master of the King’s Music.

That blend of old and new was, of course, supremely fitting. The poet Philip Larkin once wrote that what made Elizabeth II so remarkable was that, amid so much social and cultural turbulence, ‘she did not change’.

In some ways, though, Larkin was wrong. The Queen did adapt: cautiously, gently, to match her people’s mood. She ruled a country that had in some ways changed utterly over her 70-year reign, as reflected by the greater diversity of the crowds, as well as the prominence of so many powerful professional women — among them the other reader at the Abbey yesterday, her final Prime Minister, Liz Truss.

When we tell the story of Britain since 1952, though, perhaps it’s too tempting to concentrate on what changed. Distracted by the froth of fashion, we notice everything that has altered, not everything that has stayed the same.

The Queen’s quiet flexibility, for example, would have meant nothing had it not been anchored in her profound conservatism. She knew, as anybody who loves our country knows, that our history is a source of unmatched pride — a story with sombre chapters, yet also one with glories unrivalled by any other nation in the world.

When we tell the story of Britain since 1952, though, perhaps it’s too tempting to concentrate on what changed

When we tell the story of Britain since 1952, though, perhaps it’s too tempting to concentrate on what changed

When we tell the story of Britain since 1952, though, perhaps it’s too tempting to concentrate on what changed

Indeed, if you wanted to teach a child about the breathtaking sweep of our national narrative, you could do worse than start with the details of yesterday’s funeral. The eight young Guardsmen who bore her coffin belong to a regiment that began as Charles II’s bodyguard during his years in exile, before earning honours in the War of the Spanish Succession, the Peninsular War, the Battle of Waterloo and the campaigns in the Crimea and the Sudan.

Similarly, the men and women of the Royal Navy who escorted her coffin belong to a service that liberated Europe from the tyranny of Napoleon Bonaparte, led the fight to stamp out the slave trade and braved unspeakable perils to win the Battle of the Atlantic against Hitler’s U-boats.

Even the Abbey itself, built by Edward the Confessor in the decade before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, is a hall of heroes with few rivals anywhere in the world. A few yards inside the doors, for example, lies the grave of the Unknown Warrior — an unidentified World War I serviceman, who gave his life, as the inscription reads, ‘for God, for King and Country, for loved ones, home and Empire, for the sacred cause of justice and the freedom of the world’.

Walk down the nave, following the route of the late Queen’s coffin, and you see more memorials. The scientists Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Ernest Rutherford and Stephen Hawking; the great Labour politicians Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin, who stood at Churchill’s side in World War II and were instrumental in founding Nato; the playwright Ben Jonson, the missionary David Livingstone.

The haunting, spine-tingling lament of the late Queen’s faithful piper, Paul Burns, high above the Westminster Abbey congregation as the ceremony drew to a close

The haunting, spine-tingling lament of the late Queen’s faithful piper, Paul Burns, high above the Westminster Abbey congregation as the ceremony drew to a close

The haunting, spine-tingling lament of the late Queen’s faithful piper, Paul Burns, high above the Westminster Abbey congregation as the ceremony drew to a close

In the North Transept you see the graves of William Pitt the Younger, who masterminded the victory over Napoleon; William Wilberforce, who spearheaded the movement to abolish slavery; and William Gladstone, the great reformer who led Britain to its Victorian zenith. In the South, you find Poets’ Corner, with the graves of Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson and Rudyard Kipling.

And so on, and so on; names after names, glories upon glories, the record of an island people who have never been perfect, but who have nevertheless done more to raise humanity from ignorance, poverty and misery than any other country on the face of the earth.

For a tiny, pitiful minority, I know, our history is a source of shame. They have spent the past few years whingeing that Britain is finished, and spent the last week scoffing and sneering at every opportunity.

Is Britain really finished, though? Tell that to anybody who watched yesterday’s dazzling spectacle, a triumph not merely of discipline and devotion to duty, but of extraordinary organisational detail, every element fitting perfectly with the next like the components of the world’s most sophisticated clock.

Tell that to the colossal crowds who lined the streets of London and Windsor — or indeed Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast — to bid farewell to our longest-serving monarch.

Tell that to all those who marvelled at the sheer sweep and grandeur of the past few days; tell that to everybody who felt a lump in their throat at God Save The King.

They have spent the past few years whingeing that Britain is finished, and spent the last week scoffing and sneering at every opportunity

They have spent the past few years whingeing that Britain is finished, and spent the last week scoffing and sneering at every opportunity

They have spent the past few years whingeing that Britain is finished, and spent the last week scoffing and sneering at every opportunity

And yes, it was all an exercise in political theatre. But that’s what monarchy is, isn’t it? Theatre in the deepest, truest sense, like the first plays of the Ancient Greeks. At once political, historical and spiritual: a vast, solemn ritual spanning the centuries and binding the generations together.

It was theatre, because so much of life itself is theatre. Even the humblest funeral is a spectacle, a ritual, an epilogue that brings one story to an end and allows the mourners to embark on new chapters of their own.

The late Queen, of all people, surely knew that better than anybody. From the moment she came into the world in 1926, she was an actor in a drama, watched by millions upon millions of spectators for whom this was the greatest and most meaningful story of all.

Yet not even she could have imagined that her time on the stage would have such an overpoweringly moving conclusion, so rich in music and beauty, so heady in its sense of history, so intensely charged with the emotions of a nation and a Commonwealth united in mourning.

My abiding impression of yesterday’s dazzling spectacle, though, was not the sense of sadness, as marked as that was. It was something altogether more unexpected: the enormous, unchecked, entirely unironic sense of national pride.

The late Queen, of all people, surely knew that better than anybody. From the moment she came into the world in 1926, she was an actor in a drama, watched by millions upon millions of spectators for whom this was the greatest and most meaningful story of all

The late Queen, of all people, surely knew that better than anybody. From the moment she came into the world in 1926, she was an actor in a drama, watched by millions upon millions of spectators for whom this was the greatest and most meaningful story of all

The late Queen, of all people, surely knew that better than anybody. From the moment she came into the world in 1926, she was an actor in a drama, watched by millions upon millions of spectators for whom this was the greatest and most meaningful story of all

We have had few opportunities in recent years to feel proud of our country, not least because so many supposedly clever people seem determined to run us down. Yet among the threads running through the past few days, perhaps the most vivid has been the intense patriotism of millions of ordinary people, who loved their Queen, love our monarchy and love our country.

And that, more than anything else, is what I will remember: the deep, unshakeable faith in everything that Britain has always stood for — our monarchy, traditions, flag and history.

It was there in the Guardsmen carrying the coffin and the sailors pulling the gun carriage, in the lament of the piper and the voices singing the National Anthem, in the ranks of the soldiers and the faces in the crowds.

And it was embodied above all, by the one person who was not there yesterday, yet whose presence overshadowed all else: her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. She believed in Britain, and we loved her for it.

But now, at last, her part is over, and the curtain has fallen. As she takes her place among the greatest men and women Britain has ever produced, it is up to us to write the next chapter in our magnificent national story.




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Author: ntotb

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