After the funeral, the big question: was this queen bigger than the monarchy itself?


Marina Hyde

Mon, 19 September 2022 at 2:53 pm

<img src="https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/0tGoa0WHPVYOYwVwPJrb5Q–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3NjtjZj13ZWJw/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/CSmUN5YfJJHGV_Jd8s732Q–~B/aD02MDA7dz0xMDAwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/da830031f046e37c3e3470b6b34e627c&quot; alt="<span>Photograph: Reuters
Photograph: Reuters

Thousands of words may have been spoken and sung at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, but the most intensely eloquent moment of all was a silence. It came after the mournful last post had sounded, and before the rousing, cheery notes of the reveille, itself followed by God Save the King. That’s quite a key change. In that silence hung the scale of what is being orchestrated, and the eternal fragility of it, too. For all the tears shed, all the moving personal respects paid, all the pilgrimages to London, all the uncomplaining hours queued, all the streets lined, all the flowers reverentially laid, these things are not allowed – cannot be allowed – to overwhelm the essential premise of royalty: the idea that no one is bigger than the club.

Every royal rite of passage is choreographed to create a sense of renewal. From births to weddings, the populace is encouraged not simply to celebrate, but to take the sense that the institution of the crown is being revitalised and strengthened. Even funerals are not allowed to be any different. We can never quite work out whether we want royals to be just like us or nothing like us, but in this they are wholly other. Among ordinary people, a funeral is a funeral, and doesn’t end with the apotheosis of the living.

In part, the nine-year-old Prince George and his seven-year-old sister, Charlotte, joined the procession behind the Queen’s coffin as it entered Westminster Abbey today to show love for a great-grandmother. But courtiers also welcome the children’s high-profile presence as a reminder to the people that the Windsors are long and strong in heirs. It’s a family show, and sons and daughters have to be put on the stage. A handwritten card on the Queen’s coffin today bore the inscription “In loving and devoted memory. Charles R”. Twenty-five years ago, at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, an envelope on the coffin had read simply “Mummy”.

But those at the palaces who coordinate these stunningly beautiful, matchless spectacles – who spend years and even decades rehearsing for them – know there is always jeopardy. The magic sometimes doesn’t work. Barely four years ago, you couldn’t move for knowing commentators explaining that the marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle had dazzlingly renewed the House of Windsor, as part of a brilliant strategic modernisation by the crown. Those takes were soon retired, either quietly, or loudly and viciously. Meanwhile, the Abbey today contained plenty of representatives of former royal families for whom the ineffable trick at some point stopped working. Fit your own air quotes, but the funeral guest list included people who style themselves as the Prince of Venice, the Custodian of the Crown of Romania, and Tsar Simeon II of Bulgaria. Underpinning much of our crown’s bravura pageantry is the painstaking sense that nothing, ever, can be taken for granted.

In this abiding enterprise, silence often remains golden. US politicians, a Disneyfied White Rabbit, the mindfulness coaches of today – at different times, all these have uttered a line the Queen never spoke but seemed to spend her life of service embodying: “Don’t just do something – stand there.” The mourning period and funeral have seen the institution giving a masterclass in enduring and mostly wordless spectacle. Big guns have been brought out, figuratively and literally. Ordinary people who revered her sense of duty have felt it their own duty to pay her their respects. Many have surprised themselves by feeling far more emotional than they’d imagined (though without question this is not universal). They were not ready for a 96-year-old sovereign to go.

At the funeral of his agent in 1999, the actor Bill Murray fixed the Hollywood audience with a deadpan stare. “There are so many people here today,” he began, “that I would so much rather be eulogising.” He then moved to looking directly into the eyes of certain members of the audience. “Like you. And you. And you. And you. And you.” You can’t do this at a state funeral, of course, despite today’s congregation boasting several candidates for getting “the look”. Fortunately, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman seems to have discovered a diary clash at the last minute, while 13th fairy Vladimir Putin was never on the list. But the Chinese vice-president, Wang Qishan, made the cut, as did Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and the authoritarian Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Spare a thought/laugh for the many puffed-up presidents and prime ministers and global bigwigs present in the Abbey imagining their own future send-offs, and realising that compared to this, those would tend toward the low-key.

But still they pay obeisance, with even the Japanese emperor submitting to the supposed indignity of park-and-ride coaches to the Abbey. For all her celebrated lack of vanity, one can’t imagine those image-conscious courtiers would ever have let the Queen herself be just another figure emerging from an international dignitary bus. So there remains something undeniably unique about her final event, in a church whose building was begun by Edward the Confessor almost a thousand years ago. All flags on public buildings in the United States have flown at half-mast for a full 10 days. Landmarks around the world shone red, white and blue, or went dark. It is difficult to imagine another figure for whom all these things would have been done.

Was she, then, bigger than the club? After initial scepticism about her youth on accession, Winston Churchill very quickly came to believe that the Queen was something more than merely special. “All the film people in the world, if they had scoured the globe, could not have found someone so suited to the part.” For 70 years, Elizabeth II created a version of the monarchy that many of her supporters came to worry would work only with her at the centre. For the past 10 or 20 years of her life, this was something that could be said, and was. Over the past 10 days, the hush has descended. As her son ascends to the throne at the age of 73, all manner of people hold their breath to see if her youth policy will be borne out.

For, unprecedented in most living memory, the period of national mourning since the Queen’s death has been tinged with a sense that it could never be this way again. There is something in the sheer longevity of reign and the breadth of historical upheaval in which she nonetheless remained an iconic constant that feels simply unrepeatable. Do they make them like they used to? To many, today felt not just like watching a moment in history, but watching the embodiment of a now-vanished past pass finally into history. From David Beckham to non-famous mourners to foreign politicians to local mayors, it’s striking that so many different people found themselves in front of cameras over the past 10 days producing exactly the same phrase: “We’ll never see her like again.”

  • Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist
  • Marina Hyde will join Guardian Live for events in Manchester (4 October) and London (10 October) to discuss her new book, What Just Happened?! For details visit

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