The Daily Telegraph
Ritual, tradition and ceremony give the nation the language to mourn
At a time of national grief, old customs hit the heart the hardest, none more so than the tolling of a bell
This is not private opinion nor empty ceremonial but a ritual by which the nation expresses the Queen’s place in its life
Without the ritual, Britain would still mourn, but the language for its doing so would be shrivelled and ordinary
Asingle bell tolling is a most moving sound, a drop falling into the still sea of time. Seventy years ago, it was the five-ton bell called Great Tom at St Paul’s that rang once a minute for two hours for King George VI. Now it is his daughter’s turn. We heard the bell toll from the Curfew Tower at Windsor during the funeral procession of the Duke of Edinburgh last year. At each toll, a gun was fired by the King’s Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery.
Bells and guns sound for the Queen now.
At the death of a monarch, ceremonial comes into action, not automatically but because everyone with a role knows what to do, even though it is such a long time since such a thing last happened.
It is supposed to be impersonal; it is supposed to be formal.
For this is not private opinion nor empty ceremonial but a ritual by which the nation expresses the Queen’s place in its life.
One thing changed at the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. At Buckingham Palace until then the royal standard flew when the Queen was in residence. Otherwise no flag flew.
But to convey royal mourning to a people not necessarily versed in protocol, the Queen was persuaded that the Union flag should for the first time be flown above the Palace – at half mast.
There is no moment when the United Kingdom is without a monarch. The accession council meeting at St James’s Palace confirms that the new monarch has come to the throne.
This council groans with the weight of precedent, because it is mostly composed of Privy Counsellors. But at the last count, there were 719 of them. So a selection had to be made for the accession council.
They were to be joined by the Great Officers of State. These are not ministers such as the Home Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer.
They are ceremonial positions of great antiquity: the Lord High Chancellor, whose position predates the Norman Conquest (and since Tuesday has been filled by Brandon Lewis), the Lord Great Chamberlain, who in the person of the Marquess of Cholmondeley we have grown used to seeing at the state opening of Parliament wearing a red and gold-frogged coat, bearing a long white wand and expertly walking backwards.
These roles are not trivial, even if the advent of Penny Mordaunt as Lord President of the Council and Lord True as Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal this week made little impact.
There are other tasks for here-today-and-gone-tomorrow politicians, but the British constitution keeps itself in balance by handing down functions: the more solemn the role, the more antiquated the dress it assumes.
None is more traditional than that of the Earl Marshal, held by the Duke of Norfolk. He organises state ceremonials, such as the funerals of monarchs, and is at the head of the College of Arms.
Garter King of Arms, in his goldembroidered tabard with lions and harp, has the task of proclaiming the new King from the Proclamation Gallery at St James’s Palace.
It is the crenellated first-floor balcony visible to the public from Marlborough Road, at the far side of the open-ended Friary Court at the palace.
In normal times, the heralds of the College of Arms are close to the border of absurdity. Even a century and a half ago, they were portrayed as playing card characters in Tenniel’s illustrations to Alice in Wonderland.
But, having reappeared after the sterile years of the Cromwellian Commonwealth, it is a good thing that these Gilbertian figures have remained. Few know their names. (Since last year, Garter Principal King of Arms has been David White.)
This is the triumph of ceremony over celebrity. The words read by Garter at the proclamation of the King do not say: “The Queen is dead. God save the King.” But that is what they mean.
What could be more solemn? Without the gun carriages, the Imperial State Crown on its cushion, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of Westminster in their copes, the Yeomen of the Guard in Tudor uniforms bearing long partizans, and the men and women of the Armed Forces at the lying in state – all this before the state funeral – Britain would still mourn, but the language for its doing so would be shrivelled and commonplace.
All this is no denial of modernity. After all, George VI’S funeral was televised. But the old customs hit the heart hardest, none more than that tolling bell. We know for whom it tolls.
“Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” John Donne said truly enough. Every man, woman and child is part of the kingdom; none are excluded, whatever their opinions.
When the bell tolls for the Queen it tolls for us all.