TThe death of Queen Elizabeth II, at such an advanced age, after such a long reign, would always demand a unique solemnity and grandeur. So much was expected. Less expected, perhaps, was how many would rise so grand for the occasion.
There is, of course, the king, who within hours of his mother’s death was transformed almost before our very eyes into a more serious, authoritative, and also somehow more approachable figure than he ever appeared to be as a prince. There is Princess Anne, demure as always, who accompanied her mother’s coffin to London and told how happy she had been to share “the last 24 hours of my dearest mother’s life”, and of the “honor and privilege that it had been “to accompany her on her last travels”.
Then there are the two princes, who had to recreate for their grandmother the long walk they took as children behind their mother’s coffin. And, in the middle of it all, the dead queen in her lead-lined coffin, draped in the royal standard, with the wreath, crown, scepter and orb – the armor of power remains, silent, until buried on Windsor.
But in the past 10 days, another star has emerged, possibly shining brighter than the others. And that star is the people. From one day to the next the people have come out in increasing numbers, with more and more confidence; at times it almost seemed — such as when the King and Prince of Wales went to meet some of those queuing to pass the Queen’s coffin — on par with royalty. Along with the outstretched hands there was a self-assurance, a cheerfulness and an informality that seemed to speak of a new, less stuffy and more relaxed age.
We’ll see, of course. But those meetings on London’s South Bank didn’t come out of the blue. They were the culmination of small week-long episodes where monarchy and modernity seemed to meet. There the crowd waited for the Queen’s coffin at Buckingham Palace, which with their cell phones formed what looked like a makeshift guard of honor. There were the drivers who screeched to a stop in the fast lane of the A40, when they realized the Queen’s procession was approaching them along the opposite lane, and jumped out of their cars to salute from the median strip. (I know that road well and watched the video clips in amazement.)
There was the matter of Prince Harry’s military uniform. The king had apparently decided quite early on that disgraced Prince Andrew, a helicopter pilot in the Falklands War, could wear his ceremonial uniform – one last time? – keep watch at the recumbent. That left Prince Harry, the only other member of the royal family to have seen active duty, only because he had to wear civilian clothes.
Reportedly, the initial decision was based on Harry no longer being a “working royal”. It is also reported that he has not submitted a request himself. So how come the King decided Harry could still wear his uniform to guard the Queen in her lying state – albeit without the ER insignia? Could it be that he was heeding public rumblings about the perversity of a situation where the only senior royals not wearing military uniforms were those who had actually fought for Queen and Country in real wars? Maybe that’s not what happened, but maybe it is.
Last, but not least, was “The Queue”, which hugs the south bank of the Thames, sometimes all the way back to Bermondsey in the east. Even when authorities tried to shut it down for a spell, as Southwark Park was deemed to be full, it reinstated itself through informal queues that effectively gathered themselves.
Many have noted how much the line was beginning to resemble a pilgrimage, with the determination of the queues, their camaraderie along the way, and the charities and benefactors offering food and encouragement day and night. Southwark Cathedral also provided refuge and marked the halfway mark. All this is quite different, as I recall, from the Queen Mother’s state cleaning line. It snaked over two bridges, but the waiters were generally older, more formal in manner and dress, and more subdued throughout the distance. The difference is 20 years; a generation.
There is also the applause. The first time I can recall public applause at a royal funeral was when the crowd gathered outside Westminster Abbey clapped Earl Spencer’s tribute to his “hunted” sister, Princess Diana. It has now become a hallmark at funerals in general, but rousing applause from the public has followed the royal feast, including as they completed their stint on watch at the coffin.
It is probably also fair to say that the greater and more active role played by the public – the people – during the days of national mourning for the Queen is a reflection of the lessons the palace and authorities in general have learned from the mistakes that were created in the treatment of Diana’s death.
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The king’s very personal broadcast to the nation the day after his mother’s death can be seen as one step forward, as can the extensive engagement of the king and senior royals with the public across the UK. In practical terms, the walking routes and the gardens organized in the royal parks to lay flowers have offered an elegant way to avoid the mountains of flowers left for Diana, while the queue management certainly also reflects new technical possibilities, now that the most people have a cell phone.
But for me the most striking aspect of all that has happened in the last 10 days is the cheerfulness with which King Charles has been embraced by the people. Of course, early enthusiasm can fade. Missteps could lead to the monarch forfeiting the enthusiastic goodwill that—with as yet negligible public dissent—has passed so directly from mother to son.
What can also be seen, however, is to what extent the power of the monarch – as it exists in a constitutional monarchy – arises not only from the passive consent of the people, but from their recognition and commitment. Just imagine how much trouble not only Charles but also the institution of the monarchy would have had if no one had flocked to the gates of Balmoral or Buckingham Palace after the Queen died; if no one had tuned in to the king’s first broadcast; if no one, or only ministers and MPs, had wanted to walk past her coffin.
At a time when communication is 24/7 and flows in both directions, a modern monarch needs the people just as much as the monarch does; probably more. And the signs that the institution’s time is running out may be less about when rebellion creeps up on the land than when people lose the sense that the monarch is somehow theirs.
Charles III’s words and deeds since he became king suggest that he knows this, as his reign already has a different feel to that of his mother. But it’s a sharp twist that leaves open the question of whether he will be able to continue as he began. “Long live the king!” shouts the crowd. “Long live the people!” he must answer.