The Daily Telegraph
The true reasons why the whole world wants to come to our Queen’s funeral
She was the last truly imperial figure, and yet, as that dominion receded, no one was better able to bring a sense of wholeness and unity to the globe
IShe knew every braid and button of her Armed Forces and almost equivalent details of her kingdom. We loved her for it
n the queue in Westminster Hall on Thursday, I was immediately behind two tall, dignified Sikh gentlemen. At the catafalque, they stood still. Each man brought his hands together in silent prayer and then passed on.
There is a short story by Rudyard Kipling. Its narrator is a Sikh officer in India. He tells his men how he witnessed the vigil in Westminster Hall (“a certain Temple which is near the river”) over the coffin of King Edward VII.
Four elderly Gurkhas kept the vigil, he relates, as well as British Guards officers. Gurkhas were in short supply in England, so the four men insisted on standing for a full hour, whereas the Grenadiers in their “tall, grief declaring bearskins” did only halfhour shifts.
It was a point of honour for the Gurkhas to do this for a King who “knew every button and braid and hook of every uniform in all His armies”.
More tiring even than standing utterly still, they said, was that all they could see with their lowered eyes was “the unendurable procession of feet … that never – never – never stops”.
The story is called “In the Presence”. In this extraordinary week, hundreds of thousands of pilgrim feet, and hundreds of millions of people across the world, find themselves in the presence.
Before I reached Westminster Hall, I had visited Margaret King, formerly of Aquascutum, whom I know because she used to dress Mrs Thatcher. As a 15-year-old girl in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), Margaret danced the Dashing White Sergeant with Princess Elizabeth during the royal tour of southern Africa in 1947. During that visit, the future Queen made her famous vow of service on her 21st birthday.
Margaret and her fellow teenagers had practiced Scottish reels before the Young People’s Ball for the princesses in Salisbury; but on the night one young man in the party was “fumbling and stumbling” and could not manage it.
She recalls how Princess Elizabeth spotted the problem. Tactfully pretending that she was finding it hard to dance in her long Norman Hartnell dress, the Princess stopped proceedings and restarted the group under her co-ordination. In a voice which was almost a song, she called the time. Now the young man could follow the steps, and they all danced happily away. “He loved her for life,” says Margaret.
Margaret’s father, Patrick Fletcher, was a minister in the Rhodesian government. It fell to him to accompany King George VI, Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) and the two princesses to climb the Matopos, the hills sacred to the Ndebele people. Their destination was the tomb of Cecil Rhodes, after whom Rhodesia was named.
Ascending the steep granite slopes, the Queen tottered on her high heels and fell. The King was at a loss how to proceed until Princess Elizabeth lent her mother her more sensible shoes and elected to walk up the mountain in her stockinged feet.
When they reached the top, the Princess, as Fletcher recorded privately, “wandered away from the smooth precincts of the tomb”. She “stood against the dipping sun” and surveyed the vast prospect of the veldt, which is called World’s View.
Her father, the King, watched her. “There stands Lilibet all alone,” he said, “She will be lonely in her life.”
I retell Kipling’s Indian fiction and Margaret’s true story from Africa because they bring out the paradoxes in Elizabeth II’S story.
The late Queen was the world’s last truly imperial figure. Her famous vow included a lifelong commitment to the “great imperial family to which we all belong”. When she came to the throne, she was Queen of all British African territories, of Pakistan, Ceylon (Sri Lanka today) etc, with dominion over palm and pine.
She gave them up, but never publicly criticised that legacy. Today, Cecil Rhodes, to whose memory the young Princess accorded such respect, is often seen as an archvillain. Attempts have been made to bring down his statue in Oxford University.
Many royal-assisted efforts to ameliorate the imperial legacy came to nought. One of the purposes of the 1947 tour had been to boost the South African prime minister, General Smuts (who had fought Britain heroically in the Boer war), against the Afrikaner-led National Party, which was declaredly racist. Yet despite the huge éclat of the tour, Smuts lost the election the following year. Apartheid was then formally introduced in South Africa.
Although the Commonwealth which succeeded the Empire works as a “friendship” organisation, the democratic political institutions which the British prided themselves on bequeathing to former colonies have rarely flourished.
Idi Amin had been a sergeant in the British Army, but that did not stop him ruling Uganda as a murderous dictator. Zimbabwe itself, for whose multi-racial independence the Queen quietly laboured, had to endure the tyranny of Robert Mugabe for nearly 40 years.
Many, particularly in this country, would defend many aspects of the British Empire. Many also see the Commonwealth as an institution with a future; but these are highly contested areas. They cannot possibly be the reasons that almost every leader in the world wishes to come to the funeral on Monday.
No previous British monarch (as opposed to earlier English ones) has had a funeral in Westminster Abbey. Theirs have usually been at far-smaller Windsor instead. Yet for Elizabeth II, it turns out, the Abbey is not nearly big enough. The world is trying to squeeze in.
Nor, on the other hand, can it be solely because of the late Queen’s personal goodness, real and constant though it was, that the world is gripped. After all, there are many, many other virtuous people, thank God, and occasionally one or two of them lead their countries.
So what is it that – to quote Kipling’s Sikh again – makes “the child, the old man; mother, virgin, harlot, trader, priest; of all colours and faiths and customs under the firmament of God” want to enter that Westminster “Temple” in person or on screens?
Bagehot famously spoke of a royal marriage being “a princely edition of a universal fact”. He was right, but his point goes wider.
Elizabeth II’S 70 years on the throne were a queenly edition of an entire collection of universal facts about war and peace, love and loss, youth and age, prosperity and adversity – the spooling out over one long life of the great passage from Ecclesiastes which says: “To everything there is a season.”
I use the word “queenly” because I think the story is more conspicuous and more touching because it tells of a woman who moved, unsullied, in a world of power ordered by men.
Perhaps if she had not been born royal, Elizabeth Windsor would have led a contented life as a respected countrywoman, wife and mother, stalwart with the church flowers and at the local point-to-point.
But her calling was different, and she understood extraordinarily early and extraordinarily well what that meant. Like Edward VII in Kipling’s account, she knew every braid and button of her Armed Forces, and almost equivalent details of her kingdom. We loved her for it.
But she went beyond that. Perhaps, when the young Elizabeth stood, alone and shoeless, and gazed at the World’s View, she intuited the peace and wholeness which all the world seeks. In modern parlance, one might say that she devoted her entire reign to “channelling” this in her style of leadership. As she would more likely have put it, she did her bit.