One didn’t need to be a Royalist to be moved by images of the Queen sitting on her own, bowed with age, at the funeral of a husband to whom she had been married for 73 years, or to feel that the numerous accolades for the Duke of Edinburgh’s loyalty, dedication and public service through all those years were fully merited. The funeral service had by all accounts been meticulously planned by the Duke himself, and in terms of its relative brevity and lack of sermonising, as well as the beauty of the music, it would, one assumes, have met with his no doubt somewhat sardonic approval had he been around to watch it. The sound of the bagpipes playing ‘The Flowers of the Forest’, fading as the lone piper slow-marched out of the chapel while the Duke’s coffin was lowered into the vault, will live long in the memory.
We listened to the funeral service in the car on the way back to York after taking advantage of a perfect Spring day to meet with my daughter’s family for a released from lock-down picnic at Nostell Priory, a National Trust property near Pontefract, and then watched the televised broadcast in the evening. Where the music was concerned I was particularly struck by the beauty and appropriateness of the exquisitely sung ‘Russian Kontakion for the Departed’ which I hadn’t heard for the better part of sixty years, and which Prince Philip had presumably chosen in part as a nod towards his mixed European, including Russian, ancestry. It brought back memories of my time in the ‘Special Choir’ at boarding school in Cape Town where we were each paid 2/6 for singing at weddings and funerals in the school chapel, not caring particularly whether we were taking part in a ‘matching’ or ‘dispatching’ ceremony as long as we were able to double our weekly pocket-money on the strength of a couple of hours of practice, often of the Russian Kontakion, and the sacrifice of part of a Saturday afternoon – the only times I came anywhere close to being a professional singer.
The commentators made much of the ‘ordinariness’ of the Queen’s funeral experience under lockdown: the lonely widow, sitting by herself without the close support of her family, with attendance at the funeral restricted to the Covid regulation limit of 30, rather than the five to eight hundred who might have been expected at a funeral that hadn’t had to be ‘scaled-down.’ But this was, of course, no ‘ordinary’ funeral. The ‘chapel’ in which it was held is large enough to be a cathedral, even if the ‘choir’ only consisted of four singers. Ordinary funerals, ‘scaled-down’ or not, don’t feature 700 members of the armed services lined up in socially-distanced ranks awaiting the arrival of the funeral procession. Most people, for that matter, don’t get to design their own hearse. For somebody who, we were repeatedly told, ‘didn’t like a fuss’, there was quite a bit of fuss not to like, much of which the Duke had planned for himself – which is not to suggest that the fuss was not appropriate as a send-off for someone who had spent a life dedicated to public service of the highest order.
To the extent that Covid-19 necessitated the foregoing of the pomp and circumstance of a funeral with over 500 assorted guests, the Duke of Edinburgh might well have been pleased to have a pandemic-affected departure. There was certainly less fuss than there otherwise would have been. The Queen might well also not have been too unhappy to be obliged to endure the funeral without close family beside her if the upside was that she also didn’t have to survive the sight and sound of a repugnantly self-absorbed Prime Minister using the occasion for self-display. Of all the 14 Prime Ministers of the UK whom the Queen has seen come and go during her reign, Boris Johnson is the one whose total lack of principle or morality she is likely to have found most at odds with her own, and her husband’s, principled dedication to public service.
The funeral provided some interesting insights into the quirkiness of British ceremonial tradition. Three struck me in particular. The first was the way in which the decision not to allow the mourners to wear military uniform – which we were allowed to understand was to spare the blushes of Prince Harry who has been stripped of his – resulted in the rows of medals standing out much more prominently against the background of the dark suits and coats on which they were worn than they would have on uniforms. Rows and rows of medals, most of which, one could only assume from looking at the somewhat motley array of mourners, had been awarded in recognition of the great favour those sporting them had done to the world by having granted it the favour of allowing themselves to be born into it. The second was the Garter Principal King of Arms’s proclamation of ‘the styles and titles of HRH The Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh’, most of which the Prince had presumably acquired as a result of whom he had married, dressed in a tailored Royal Standard that made him look like the King (if not the Joker) from a pack of up-market playing cards. Lastly, the fact that the ‘Lady-in-waiting’ who supported the Queen by accompanying her in the car to the funeral, the only one of the 67 or so million population of the UK who was with her to offer that support at that exceptionally difficult moment in her life, wasn’t even allowed the dignity of a name in the commentary – she was a mere functionary. So, for that matter, was the Garter Principal King of Arms, but who needs a name when you can wear a fancy-dress costume like that?
The funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh also offered interesting insights into our society and culture more generally. One was the extent of the media obsession with the detail of the lives of the royal family: which of the ‘senior’ royals, for example, had allegedly snubbed Harry at the funeral, and why their cousin Philip had been placed between the two princes in the funeral procession, but then deferentially hung back about eighteen inches behind them. Why would anyone care? Another was the very many thousands of pounds that had been spent helping florists out of their Covid-induced financial slump by the laying of thousands of bouquets outside royal residences, only for them to be taken into the grounds, piled up and, presumably, composted, the majority of their messages of condolence unappreciated. Couldn’t the money have been better spent by one of the late Duke’s many charities? Perhaps most bizarre of all, the large numbers of royalists, crowded together in their maskless lack of herd immunity behind the barriers lining the roads along which the funeral procession had never been destined to process. Why were they there, adorned in their jingoistic accoutrements, unable to see anything whatever of what was going on, in spite of all the earnest requests from those to whom they were supposedly paying deferential homage to ‘stay away’? Because, they said, they ‘just had to be there’, they ‘couldn’t stay away’. The ‘herd’ bit came to mind, even if the lack of immunity only seems likely to become all too apparent in a week or two.