The Daily Telegraph
Gun carriage tradition was started by Victoria
Custom of Navy ratings hand-pulling carriage came about by chance at former monarch’s funeral
As the late Queen’s coffin was drawn from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall on Wednesday, it did so atop the George gun carriage of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery. It was the same carriage that took her father, George VI, from Sandringham Church to Wolferton Station in February 1952 on his way to London after his death in Norfolk and was also used for the funeral of her mother in 2002.
For Queen Elizabeth’s funeral on Monday, however, her coffin will sit atop a Royal Navy gun carriage of even greater ceremonial and traditional significance. The Ordnance BL 12-pounder 6cwt was manufactured in 1896 and never saw active service, but was drafted in for the funeral of Queen Victoria and would go on to carry the coffins of King Edward VII, King George V, King George VI, Sir Winston Churchill and Lord Mountbatten during their processions.
While royal funeral processions dated back centuries, the use of a gun
carriage for a monarch’s funeral was an innovation in 1901 when Victoria died.
She had seen such a carriage used for the funeral of her son, Prince Leopold, who had died aged 30 and had honorary links to Highlander regiments. Watching that military honour, Victoria, who planned her own obsequies, decided she would have it too.
The use of the Navy gun carriage comes with a unique tradition derived by chance from Victoria’s funeral: it is pulled by ratings – non-officers – of the Royal Navy, by hand.
The origin of this custom appears to have been unintentional. One version is that the horses that were due to pull the carriage shied and reared when the coffin was placed on the carriage, threatening to throw it to the ground.
One of Victoria’s grandchildren, Princess Alice, who witnessed the funeral, said, decades later, that the artillery horses had been waiting at Windsor station for hours in the cold and once the coffin was finally placed on the carriage “nothing in the world would make them start”.
Another version holds that an eyelet on the carriage that would have been used to tie the horses to the carriage shattered, perhaps spooking the animals or maybe making it impossible to correctly attach them.
Whatever the truth, the procession appeared on the brink of disaster. Prince Louis of Battenberg, an Austrian relative of Victoria, father of Lord Louis Mountbatten and future First Sea Lord, asked the Royal Navy representative if his men could pull the carriage.
They could and dozens of sailors “grounded arms and formed fours at the head of the cortege” before pulling Victoria through Windsor using improvised drag ropes.
“It was better, it looked beautiful,” said Princess Alice, “but, of course, the artillery were furious, you can imagine; humiliated beyond words.”
Further embarrassment was to come, with the Navy apparently refusing to return the carriage. In 1910, it was formally transferred by George V to the Navy.
Other traditions include the Vigil of the Princes. The Queen’s children, the King, the Princess Royal, the Duke of York and the Earl of Wessex will take part in a vigil this evening at 7.30pm. This is the second time they will have done so, after performing a vigil in St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh.
However, it will only be the fourthever Vigil of the Princes. The first came in 1936, when George V’s sons, Edward VIII, the Duke of York (later George VI), Henry, Duke of Gloucester, and George, Duke of Kent, stood guard in Westminster Hall.
In 1952, there was no vigil. George
VI’S daughters, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, did attend the lying-in-state and watched from a doorway but did not stand vigil.
The second came in 2002, at the lying-in-state of the Queen Mother, when her four grandsons, the future Charles III, the Duke of York, the Earl of Wessex and Viscount Linley, now the Earl of Snowdon, kept watch.
Before Victoria, monarchs spent the best part of 250 years being buried in the dark. The funeral procession for George IV, Queen Victoria’s uncle, began at 8.30pm. That of George III got underway at 9pm.
The Queen is to be buried in the King George VI memorial chapel at Windsor. This is a modern addition to the five-centuries-old church, built in the Sixties. The Duke of Edinburgh, whose remains have been held in the royal vault, will join Queen Elizabeth when she is placed in the chapel.