The absolute state of it. Quite literally. The absolute, absolute state of it. Lying in Westminster Hall is stateliness in this country’s most absolute form. The high stone walls, the oak beamed ceilings. The bearskins, the beefeaters and bobbies, heads bowed in tight solemn formation around the catafalque, the candles, the orb, the mace and the imperial state crown.
The state and stateliness are one and the same. It was not so long ago that human beings genuinely believed power to be drawn from appearance, from majesty. The awesome power of the state and the state of a child’s bedroom are all on the same spectrum.
According to Milton, when King Canute ordered the sea to come no further on the land, he gave force to his command “with all the state that royalty could put into his countenance”.
And it was this majesty that they waited all night and all day, queueing over bridges and up embankments for just a moment’s glance upon. The grandiose occasion of it all, the pomp and splendour, and the blurred lines between constitutions, institutions and simple flesh and blood have concealed, perhaps knowingly, the human simplicity of it all. The crowds have gathered here for the same reason crowds gather anywhere – because they’re fans.
Besides, what they came to do, she has been doing all her life. For five days the crowds will come to her. For 70 years, she went to them. It is sometimes speculated that the late Queen may have met more people than any human being ever to have lived. In seven full decades of opening buildings and gladhanding crowds you really do rack up the numbers. Politicians try and do the same in election campaigns. Her Majesty was in campaign mode for 70 years and so, arguably unsurprisingly, she ended up rather popular.
This is not to say that all this is without its flaws. When, on Wednesday afternoon, the coffin swept out of Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s late family marching behind it, it was impossible not to notice that two of them were not in military uniform. Prince Andrew and Prince Harry have both stood in the face of gunfire in service of their country, in the Falklands and in Afghanistan.
Their mother and grandmother will be rightly remembered for her dedication to a life of “service” and of “duty”, but those two know more about it than the rest. Both have worn the Queen’s uniform, but neither will wear the King’s. Prince Andrew has been stripped of his honorary royal titles for obvious, well-known and entirely justifiable reasons. Prince Harry had his removed when he chose to step down from royal duties.
It is as vivid a reminder as one can hope to wish for that this seemingly kind and gentle family are not where they are entirely through historical accident. Prince Philip used to say that the royal family would do what they do, “for as long as people want us to”. And people most certainly do want them to. But it’s not quite as simple as that.
They’re there because they want to be there as well. And they are ruthless in protecting their interests, holding their position, maintaining their reputation. In the eyes of “the Firm” as the family refers to itself, Harry and Andrew’s sins are the same – letting the side down – and so they shall be forced to exhibit their deficiencies (one rather more serious than the other) under the most piercing spotlight.
It felt like a medieval humiliation-style punishment. Not quite tarred and feathered but morning-suited, civvied. A warning sign.
No, none of this has been left to chance. Her Majesty’s elevation to living deity was no accident. People loved her immense, unflappable dignity and her quiet charm, but they were her rare human qualities.
Far too much has already been made of King Charles III losing his temper at a malfunctioning pen not once but twice, but it nevertheless remains true that his mother never really created any real viral moments of this nature in seven full decades – and he’s knocked out two in four days.
And it is not because times have changed, either. The occasion of her coronation was, for a lot of the country, the excuse to buy a telly. The modern world of camera phones and constant surveillance is the one she has lived in all her life.
When all the Earth’s riches have been laid down upon you, looking spoiled is incredibly easy and looking humble is incredibly hard. The late Queen made humility look easy – the hardest thing of all.
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It’s not surprising she has amassed the kind of fan base that will queue all night to wait for a short moment that amounts to almost nothing. They just want to be able to say they were there. Well, now they can, and they most certainly will.
As they walked past the coffin, most of the crowd stood, paused, bowed, then carried on their way. MPs, unsurprisingly, were spared the queuing. Sir Graham Brady, almost part of the constitution now himself, Keeper of the Disgruntled Letters, walked past and bowed his head. The SNP’s Joanna Cherry, not the most deferential of souls by nature, held her partner’s hand as she let out little sobs.
Few among the passing crowds will realise that, five steps outside the door, they tread on hallowed ground again. Five years ago, almost all personnel on the parliamentary estate were held all afternoon in this grand hall, while PC Palmer’s body lay outside, covered by a makeshift sheet.
In the service of his country, he had his life stolen from him. To the same cause, Queen Elizabeth II gave hers rather more willingly, in her own very different way. Seven full decades, chipping away at an enormous mortgage of good fortune, which by now even the most fervent republicans would surely consider to have been finally squared away.