It was one of the most high-pressure public undertakings in modern history. With the responsibility of a grieving Royal family and nation on its shoulders, the eight-strong bearer party from the Queen’s Company, 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, remained in perfect step as they carried the late Queen Elizabeth’s 500lb lead-lined coffin at Westminster Hall, Westminster Abbey and St George’s Chapel in Windsor.
During the state funeral we felt our shoulders stiffen in sympathy as they lifted the heavy coffin onto the catafalque in the abbey and lowered it onto the gun carriage outside, and ensured Her Majesty’s crown, orb and sceptre remained in place as they negotiated the steps of St George’s Chapel – yet the guardsmen’s expressions stayed resolutely stoic.
They would have seen it as the greatest honour and their duty, maintains Christopher Mellor, 38, formerly of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards where he served for over four years. “The Grenadier Guards have been the monarch’s personal bodyguards since they were founded by King Charles II in 1656. When it’s your job to be on guard at royal palaces and state events you start to feel an enormous closeness to the family,” says Mellor.
The Grenadier Guards, and in particular the tall, strong and exceedingly fit members of the Queen’s Company (now King’s Company) who formed the bearer party, are seen as la crème in military circles and as such have a reputation among Army wives for being pompous. At the annual company dinner, the heights of the tallest members are recorded, a list which dates back to the 1660s. “There have been some giants over the years,” explains Jamie Loder, whose father, Captain Simon, was a member of the Queen’s Company. “You can’t be in the company if you’re under 6ft.”
Yet while physical prowess is essential to be selected as a member of the bearer party (technically pallbearers march alongside the coffin and the bearer party carries it), you do not need to be expensively educated. According to Loder, there is a selection process which dates from the time of Charles II: the most junior officer in the company would command the bearer party with the most senior sergeant or warrant office. Loder’s father narrowly missed out on the honour when he joined.
The Queen’s bearer party, which included married father-of-one, Company Sergeant Major Dean Jones from Derbyshire, Luke Simpson, 19, from Nottinghamshire, 24-year-old Freddie Hobbs from West Sussex and Fletcher Cox, 19, from Jersey, were chosen, according to the Ministry of Defence, for displaying “the highest standard of bearing and turnout” and a deserving nature. Cox was a celebrated cadet at school and awarded the Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal in 2018 – the highest accolade that can be achieved by young soldiers on Jersey, while Simpson was praised by his former school for being “an outstanding example of where dedication, hard work and commitment can take you”.
On deployment in Afghanistan or Iraq these men learnt to hold their nerve in any situation yet it was at intense training under the guidance of the Household Division Drill instructors that Monday’s bearer party learnt to handle a weighty coffin with seamless elegance and poise. Contrary to rumours that they were called up at the 11th hour, the group spent many hours together with an identical weight coffin, learning the precise moves required.
Drill practice is a major feature of the Grenadier Guards and Mellor remembers loathing it. He concedes, however, that it is the making of a fine soldier. “We have a saying in Guards, ‘excellence on drill square, excellence on operations’ – I was shouted at a lot but I soon learnt that drill directly informs your behaviour on operations.”
Lt Col James Shaw, the Guards’ officer in charge of parades, was reported to have said: “They carried the responsibility of the nation on their shoulders. It was the most important job which had to be perfect and it was.” But the stress and anxiety would have started long before, as they practised their drills and ensured their ceremonial uniforms (known as home service clothing) were impeccable.
Guardsmen are responsible for dry cleaning their dashing red tunics and polishing their boots, which for the occasion of Her Majesty’s funeral had been specially cobbled with rubber soles rather than the standard double soled drill boots with metal studs, to provide better grip.
Such was the immaculate conduct of these steady shouldered men, who are in mourning for the late Queen for another week, that there are calls from MPs Dan Jarvis and Tobias Elwood and former head of the Army Lord Dannatt for them to receive gongs in the New Years Honours List. There is a precedent already set at the last state funeral; the Grenadiers bearing Winston Churchill’s coffin in 1965 received the British Empire Medal. The Ministry of Defence has yet to announce whether or not they’ll be decorated but among their families, friends and the nation they are already national treasures.