Sleep, Dearie, Sleep: Second Elizabethan age comes to emotional end

·7-min read

With the Second Elizabethan age at an end, it was a moment which will be forever etched in history.

Millions watched around the globe as a nation in mourning staged a final goodbye to its cherished longest-serving monarch.

The Queen’s haunting state funeral was unprecedented in scale and grandeur for a sovereign incomparable in duty and service.

The world’s kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers flocked to Westminster Abbey, travelling thousands of miles to bear witness to the seismic change taking place in the UK.

It honoured her public life but “grief is the price we pay for love,” the sage Queen once said, and the deep personal heartache was evident too.

King Charles III, stricken with sorrow, led his country, his siblings, his children and young grandchildren in honouring the Queen.

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Charles takes part in the ceremonial procession (Tim Goode/PA)

Charles, visibly moved, seemed close to tears as the national anthem was sung – for him, in rousing tribute to his new reign.

His words of tribute, handwritten on a message on the Queen’s coffin, were a poignant touch from her son and heir: “In loving and devoted memory. Charles R.”

The coffin was a blaze of colour, a striking sight against the black-and-white chequered stone floor of the gothic abbey.

The funeral wreath contained glorious gold, light and bright pink and deep burgundy, with touches of white, to reflect colours of the Royal Standard draped beneath.

It was a moving gesture from the King to his mother, with the flowers and foliage cut from the gardens of Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Highgrove and chosen by him for their symbolism.

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The wreath was chosen by Charles (Jane Barlow/PA)

There was rosemary for remembrance, myrtle, the ancient symbol of a happy marriage and from a plant grown from a sprig in the Queen’s wedding bouquet, English oak to symbolise the strength of love, as well as pelargoniums, garden roses, autumnal hydrangea, sedum, dahlias and scabious.

Sparkling beneath the lights were the Crown Jewels – the Imperial state crown, the orb and the sceptre – the historic symbols of the monarchy.

In a daunting task, Prince George, a nine-year-old future king, and Princess Charlotte – a mini me of her mother in her smart black hat – were there to see first-hand the respect and admiration their great-grandmother inspired.

So young, they were barely visible, flanked by their parents, in the procession as it moved through the abbey,

In a change to the originally suggested formation, the Prince and Princess of Wales walked protectively either side of their children, rather than in front of them, with Kate holding Charlotte’s hand – after William openly acknowledged in recent days that his own experience at Diana, Princess of Wales’s funeral was fresh in his mind.

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Prince George and Princess Charlotte were in attendance (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

The bulk of the 2,000-strong congregation were in their seats almost two hours before the deeply religious service began.

Some checked their black coats for marks or adjusted their hats as they sat, while others leafed through the order of service, emblazoned on the front with the Royal Coat of Arms, in a frame of mourning black.

Others gazed up at the ancient church’s intricate stone lantern as the abbey’s one-and-a-half tonne tenor bell could just be heard in the distance every minute for 96 minutes, reflecting each year of the Queen’s long life.

With the rise and fall of the organ echoing around, visiting clergy in their long sweeping robes, and many multi-faith representatives, moved through the nave and ornate quire to take their seats.

As the coffin procession making its way through the streets of London neared the Great West Door, the approaching regimental stomp of the naval ratings pulling the gun carriage on ropes grew louder and louder and guests fell silent within the walls.

It was the first time in 262 years that the abbey had staged a monarch’s funeral.

But George II’s last goodbye in 1760 descended into a scrum of chaos when his coffin was moved into the Lady Chapel.

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Westminster Abbey was packed with mourners (Gareth Cattermole/PA)

No one knew what they were meant to be doing, and the Yeoman Guards struggled with the weight of the coffin, crying out for help.

This time there were no such disasters and Britain did what it does best, setting the stage amid military pomp and splendour and traditional refined dignity for the final curtain on the Queen’s reign.

No chances were taken this time, and the movements were choreographed to the letter.

Even just over an hour before the service began, the abbey’s falconer took his dark brown Harris falcon, Rufus, to the roof to check for pigeons.

The 15-year-old majestic, hooded bird has been patrolling the church for the past five days in a bid to scare away London’s famous pests for fear they cause a disruption.

The day of the funeral though, Rufus’s bells were removed so as not to disturb the solemnity of the occasion.

In his sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury took the congregation back to a time when the Queen at the age of 21 pledged to devote her whole life to service. “Rarely has a promise been so well kept,” he remarked.

And as he pointed just behind to his left, he spoke of when the Queen was crowned in the hallowed surroundings in 1953, telling how she “began her Commonwealth silent prayer, just there at the High Altar”.

He told how she joyously touched a multitude of lives and how the royals were “grieving as every family at a funeral” but in the “brightest spotlight”.

As world leaders listened, the Archbishop offered a reminder that those who serve will be loved but those “who cling to power and privileges are forgotten”.

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(PA Graphics)

Some 500 dignitaries were there witnessing the scenes but there was a protocol to be kept to – something to which the Queen always adhered.

US President Joe Biden was 14 rows back on the south transept, with Realm governor generals and Commonwealth countries taking precedent in front.

Mr Biden was behind the Polish leader and in front of the Czech Republic. The First Lady Jill Biden was next to Switzerland.

Directly across the aisle from Mr Biden’s place, the seat was labelled the Republic of Korea.

All six of the Queen’s surviving former prime ministers – Sir John Major, Sir Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson – were there, a stark remind of the many PMs who had come and gone during the Queen’s time on the throne, with Liz Truss now at the helm as the 15th.

Rousing traditional hymns were sung, with the choir lifting the melodies with their soaring harmonies.

After the Last Post came the two minutes’ silence, with all in the abbey frozen for a moment in time, save for an occasional cough or shuffling of feet, before the revival with the Reveille and the triumphant national anthem.

The Queen symbolised the stability of the nation, and most people had known no other monarch on the British throne.

At the centre of national life, Elizabeth II was head of state, head of the armed forces, head of the Commonwealth, and supreme governor of the Church of England.

But many felt they knew her personally – her tightly curled hair, beaming smile and ever-waving white gloved hand – a lover of marmalade sandwiches, corgis and studying the form in The Racing Post.

She was the country’s leading lady for so long.

And, in the abbey, it finished with a wandering, sorrowful goodbye – a nod to the Scottish Highlands where she loved to live and where she died.

Her lone personal piper – whose time playing the bagpipes outside her window each morning to wake her is at an end – performed the traditional sweetly titled lament Sleep, Dearie, Sleep.