The crown, the catafalque and the symbols

Queen Elizabeth II's coffin lies in state supported by a catafalque. The act of lying in state is a centuries-old European tradition. - Peter Tarry/Times Newspapers Ltd
Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin lies in state supported by a catafalque. The act of lying in state is a centuries-old European tradition. – Peter Tarry/Times Newspapers Ltd

The procession to the lying in state on Wednesday was another moment laced heavily with symbolism that placed it within England and Scotland’s ancient traditions.

It is, though, an event that has evolved through the centuries. Sometimes because of the personal whims of monarchs, at others in reaction to unfortunate mishaps.

From the very act of lying in state to the accompanying physical symbols, every element carries with it some facet of history.

The coffin

The late Queen’s coffin was fashioned nearly four decades ago. It is lead-lined and therefore immensely heavy.

It has special fitments which allow the Imperial State Crown, orb and sceptre from the Crown Jewels to be clipped in place. The crown rested on the coffin throughout the procession and was joined by the orb and sceptre once the coffin was in Westminster Hall.

In 1936, during the procession of King George V to his lying in state, the cross atop the imperial crown fell off and landed in the gutter, which Edward VIII interpreted as a bad omen.

The lying in state

Edward VII, Victoria’s son was the first British monarch to lie in state in Westminster Hall. The move, decided by his son George V, was inspired by the same honour granted to William Gladstone, the late prime minister in 1898.

The act itself is a centuries-old European tradition, although mass public participation is a more modern development. Members of the ancient Roman elite might lie in state for a few days.

During the high medieval period, it was often done with a wax effigy of the dead monarch ahead of or atop the coffin. This changed in England after the death of James I in 1625, likely because using an effigy was associated with idolatry and Catholicism at a time of rising Protestantism.

When Elizabeth I died in 1603 she lay in Richmond and then in Westminster. According to Lady Elizabeth Southwell, a lady-in-waiting, she ordered that her body not be embalmed. It eventually “burst with such a crack that it splitted the wood, lead, and cere-cloth; whereupon, the next day she was fain to be new trimmed up.”

Queen Victoria, who planned her own funeral, opted against a public lying-in-state, but her coffin spent two days at the Albert Memorial Chapel in Windsor before her funeral and later interment on the Isle of Wight.

The vigil and Silver Stick-in-Waiting

Throughout the lying in state, there will be four members of the Body Guard of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms on guard, occasionally assisted by the King’s Body Guard for Scotland (The Royal Company of Archers), The King’s Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard, Beefeaters from the Tower of London, and units of the Household Division.

The first vigil will be led by the Silver Stick-in-Waiting, a colonel who is Commander of the Household Cavalry and is in charge of all ceremonial duties. The role is deputy to the Gold Stick-in-Waiting (currently Princess Anne in her role as Colonel of the Blues and Royals).

The name comes from the gold- and silver-topped ebony staffs of office that the office holders wield. While its origins stem from Tudor times, the post was created in its current form in 1678. The original holders of the roles would have personally guarded the monarch throughout the day.

The current Silver Stick-in-Waiting is Colonel Mark Berry, who took up the role in July.

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