The Daily Telegraph
Britons treasure the traditions that helped us honour a beloved Queen
As we pass on our rituals and customs, their survival becomes a tribute to the perseverance of life itself
Britain since Queen Elizabeth’s death has witnessed the validation of custom and ritual – one in the eye for the bores who think we’re better off without them. Today’s funeral will prove that tradition, far from the curation of dead things, is the breath of life itself.
Last year, I published a book arguing that we need tradition (out in paperback next month!), so imagine my joy to discover that people actually want tradition. Not everyone, of course. Labour MP Clive Lewis wrote that he watched the lying-in-state and felt “bemusement” followed by “despair”. How can Britons who have so little worship a monarchy so dripping in wealth?
But the problem with clever people like Mr Lewis is that they can’t understand simple things. Nor can they intuit the deeper meaning.
The modern lying-in-state was invented in 1910, for the funeral of Edward VII. No tickets were issued; rich and poor queued in torrential rain. As the doors opened at Westminster Hall, a work girl was heard to cry, “They’re givin’ ’im back to us!”
When the ceremony was repeated for George V in 1936, cynics sneered at its elitist “pomp”. The writer GK Chesterton advised them to open a history book. In aiming to modernise royalty by bringing George’s body closer to the people, he said, the court turned the clock back to the Middle Ages, to when kingship was more personal and tangible. The coffin of a medieval sovereign was generally topped with a waxwork effigy, so that even the lowliest subject could see what he looked like.
The body of a monarch was, in a sense, sacred, transformed by coronation into an instrument of God. But, like Doubting Thomas, we need to see to believe. Hence even as monarchy became more absolutist over time, better convinced of its divine rights, the principal actors still felt the need to put on a show.
Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, rose every morning, washed, shaved and dressed in front of an audience of around 100 people. Anyone could come to see him at Versailles; all you needed to get in was a hat and a sword, and the concierge did a nice sideline in selling both. Tourists could watch the royal family going to chapel, eating, even playing cards – you could say Versailles was the Center Parcs of its day, though reviews were scathing about the pickpocketing and the smell. The palace did not benefit from modern plumbing. People relieved themselves in the corridors. There’s a story that Marie Antoinette once stepped out for a walk and a woman in the window above emptied a chamberpot over her head.
Monarchy is thoroughly, messily human. When pundits speculate that it’ll never survive the latest scandal, one has to laugh because it has endured far worse than Harry and Meghan, and soap opera has always been a selling point – offering archetypes of good and bad behaviour, or giving us characters with which we colour our own history. Seeing Queen Elizabeth’s heirs standing around the catafalque, it occurred to me that every generation has its royal to identify with: the boomers, Charles, the youngsters, Harry. I am stuck in the middle with William, born only a month before me. He got married and had kids at the same age as many of my friends did; they lost their hair around the same time, too.
As for the Queen, she was grandma: and I’ve lost both of mine, so I know what Harry and William feel. A cab driver wept and said the Queen “was the one constant in our lives”. In the queue, people told journalists: “One day of queuing is a small price for 70 years of what she did for us.”
In response to this, we now have Queue Truthers: republicans who suspect the establishment engineered a gargantuan line, without a proper booking system, to make the Queen look popular, a perspective so elevated by sheer intellect that it overlooks the simpler explanation that people were queuing because they wanted to. Or even that the agony of 24 hours on your feet, the grim toilets and being harassed by journalists was part of the experience.
Let’s call it what it is: a pilgrimage. The body has been returned to the people; the people have come to see it, drawn by belief, by spectacle or raw instinct. When I entered Westminster Hall, I saw at once that it was a shrine, marked by candles and shrouded in silence. Phones were banned.
Alone at the coffin, some bowed, some curtsied, some crossed themselves. These ritual gestures, observed Chesterton back in 1936, are “not only more serious but more spontaneous” than the
Today’s funeral will prove that tradition, far from the curation of dead things, is the breath of life itself
“ghastly mummery of saying a few words”. Imagine if we gave the Queen the same send-off we seem to think her subjects want: plastic chairs in a civic building and a photomontage to Simply the Best by Tina Turner. The poverty of the 21st-century imagination betrays the dead and the living. Tradition honours with awe, and it provides those left behind with the language and actions to articulate the inexpressible.
The person who willingly submits to the ritual of the lying-in-state, argued Chesterton, “may not be an exceptional person but at least he understands what is meant by an exceptional occasion.” By contrast, the bright spark who stands above it all forfeits the wisdom of the crowd, and by rejecting history, discards a part of themselves, too – so that they are ignorant even of their own identity. Worse, they are without hope. If you believe, as we are encouraged to believe today, that death is it, the funeral is a “goodbye” that can’t even be heard by the deceased. But if you believe, as the late Queen did, that there is a life after this one, then the rite is a demonstration of faith that things will continue.
To inhabit a tradition means not only to participate in it but to pass it on. Its survival is a tribute to the perseverance of life itself. We will be told that all we’ve seen is old hat; we’ll be told that even if it was grand, Queen Elizabeth was its last shout. Well, they’ve said that a million times before, and yet here we are lining the streets, or crowding around the television, bearing witness to an ancient institution that has the audacity to claim its origin from King Solomon.
Bemusement? It renders clarity. Despair? It offers hope.