King Charles III marches right past me, following a phalanx of Buckingham Place guards, a few Beefeaters, rows of sailors and a mournful army band. All follow the coffin of his mother, the Queen, heading away from Westminster Abbey after the funeral.
Everyone is silent, despite the pulsing drums and blaring brass band, but I almost can’t see them as dozens of hands holding phones snap a picture of the man mourning his mother in front of a global audience.
I’m standing close to Downing Street on Whitehall, the street that houses all the central offices of government, and it has been flooded with hundreds and hundreds of soldiers in various uniforms, some with sparkling armour astride their majestic horses.
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It’s an impressive display, carefully choreographed, and signed off by the woman whose coffin passes by with her crown sitting on top.
In the days before the funeral, the King has walked security barriers in various cities, shaking hundreds of hands, almost as though he fears he will never be as popular as his mother. But his new title has revived a call that hasn’t been heard in decades.
Five days before the funeral, I watched the coffin travelling in the opposite direction, to Westminster, to allow more than 750,000 people to file past and pay their respects.
It was the first time I saw the King walk behind his mother’s coffin. In front of me, about a dozen different men spontaneously yelled out “God Save the King!’. When one of them yelled out “hip-hip”, hundreds bellowed back, “Hooray!”
- Look back at how the world paid its respects to Queen Elizabeth II
- Read our full coverage on the death of the Queen
Every detail was planned
These rare spectacles don’t have the right backdrop just by chance.
No other nation does parades like this and Central London was designed with staging these events in mind.
It’s not just that the traffic lights had been removed, so as not to distract from the televised pomp and ceremony.
Every detail of this 10-day commemoration is immaculately planned. The coffin’s choreographed trip from Scotland to England, its precision-timed 38-minute military march from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall, and possibly the largest-ever collection of world leaders at Westminster Abbey.
From the Victorian-era renovations of Buckingham Palace — including the famous balcony from where the Royal family waves — to the Mall’s red-coloured tarmac, the ancient Westminster Abbey and the neo-Gothic Foreign Office we waited in front of for so many hours for a quick glimpse of the coffin.
All of these buildings are designed to impress those who come to the centre of ceremonial London.
The muted drums, the bells of Big Ben sounding out as the Royal party precisely measured out 65 steps per minute, are not ancient traditions. They were created at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign as the technology of photography became commonplace. You only notice the year is 2022 when you see the thousands of phones taking pictures.
Each time the King took the journey behind his mother’s coffin, he marched alongside his sister the Princess Royal, both wearing full military regalia. No woman had ever before marched behind the sovereign’s coffin: in the past, women had travelled behind in a horse and buggy.
More tellingly, in a concession to modern mores and reference to the biggest rift in The Firm, the only royals to have actually seen wartime military service, Prince Harry and Prince Andrew, were not allowed to wear their uniforms. Only working royals get to do that. However, both were allowed to wear uniforms when standing to attention by the Queen’s coffin as she lay in state.
So why is it like this? Famously, when a courtier suggested to Queen Elizabeth II that she was giving TV cameras too much access, she reportedly replied: “I have to be seen to be believed,”
At her funeral, she was seen all right.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world tuned in to watch hours of almost silent footage of her coffin lying in state, on a plane, in an especially-designed hearse and on a gun carriage along with hours of hushed commentary. Every minute has been relayed in detailed media coverage.
Hushed tones were demanded by a bloke who asked me in a harsh whisper: “Can you please commentate somewhere else?!” as I spoke to Australian listeners.
Not everyone is expressing reverence
TV broadcast schedules have been dropped and the weekend papers heave with articles updated over decades in preparation for this moment. But it’s not all reverence. These are the social forces the new King has to contend with.
A TikToker, Ameziane, with 1.9 million followers, asks why food banks are closed on the day of the funeral: “Are people just not going to eat food for a day, because a 96-year-old woman, who lived an above-average life, has died. What the hell? Why did that happen?”
On a Reddit site, pictures of the massive coffin queue are superimposed with mock signs, in official government font: “All those in favour of a republic please queue here.”
Young people on buses and in cafes show me some of these images as I wait for a coffee and ask them what’s on their phones. These are minority voices yet even they turn up to see the show.
Late at night outside the parliament, while I wait to talk to the ABC Insiders program, a young man approaches.
He shakes his head, disgusted by those surrounding us, as they come away from viewing the Queen’s coffin after waiting for 12 hours.
“This country has lost its mind,” he says, as he turns and walks away.
Which other figure in public life could attract so many global leaders and so many people from around Britain?
What happens next?
“A fundamental truth about the institution of monarchy is that it is a distraction,” says the lone, outspoken Labour MP Clive Lewis.
Keenly aware the Republican cause is a distinctly minority concern, he’s defied the Opposition edict ordering MPs from saying anything publicly that is critical of the Queen.
It’s not how most people feel. I’ve approached more than 100 people this week. Overwhelmingly, their response to the Queen is reverential, deep, personal and almost visceral. Many tear up trying to say how they feel.
Standing at the back of a 7-kilometre-long queue, and facing the prospect of a 12-hour wait, are two sisters in their 50s who are in London after taking a day off work.
Sally tells me the Queen, “made the effort over all those years, so it’s the least we can do”.
Diane surprises herself with the word, love. “It’s not just respect, it’s love,” she tells me, “It’s a strange one that, isn’t it? I didn’t think I would have put it in those terms, but yes, she was very special, she was like a matriarchal, maternal head of the country.”
Diane is not the only one surprised by how she feels.
A ‘weird’ week
Many Britons told me how weird this week has been. Many republicans may feel the country has missed its chance to discuss its future, but they also cried when she died, and cried again when they saw her coffin on TV.
They were overtaken by a sense of loss for a woman most of them never met but feel they know intimately.
So that is the sentiment republicans have to counter.
Many people find the logic of an hereditary monarchy unacceptable. But the overflow of emotion is recognition of the Queen’s significant and singular achievement.
The Queen both preserved and entrenched the monarchy. It is one of the public relations triumphs of the 20th century. And it is not just spin. There were millions of letters, conversations, charity events and hospital openings, with hundreds of thousands of people over decades. By all accounts, the Queen was always interested and genuine, both curious and concerned.
The 70-year Elizabethan age of this monarchy is a triumph, despite a history and inherent inequality that could have threatened it.
A controversial history
Before the Queen’s reign, there were any number of bloody episodes.
The Indian famine that killed millions when Winston Churchill deliberately diverted food to Europe, the torture of rebellious Kenyans just as she ascended to the throne, to the low point of Princess Diana’s death.
Even now, just 1 per cent of people own half the land in Britain, most of whom are aristocrats and given their land by the Queen’s ancestors. The estate she died in, at Balmoral, encompasses 50,000 acres, and the new King inherits massive land titles without paying the inheritance tax most others would face.
However, the arcane claim that only one bloodline can wear the Crown has endured, despite the most rapid social change in the 1,000 years this family has been on the throne. That it did endure was because of the Queen’s hard work, even amid a life of privilege.
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She learned to strip down the engines of Land Rovers in World War II, despite never having a driver’s licence. She had meetings with prime ministers and presidents despite never receiving a formal education.
Crucially, despite being an eyewitness at the centre stage of history, she rarely expressed a controversial opinion. As author Tina Brown quipped, “we are really going to miss, not knowing what she thinks”.
But the calls for change will come. And you can see the fault lines in the details of her funeral.
The crown that sat on her coffin, upon a purple silk cushion, will be worn by the King as it was worn by her. Its largest jewel is the Cullinan II, cut from the largest gem-quality uncut diamond ever found in South Africa early last century.
The decline of an empire — and the damage left behind
For centuries, British monarchs — including Queen Elizabeth II — ruled over vast swathes of the globe with the most powerful empire in history.
The Queen Consort, Camilla, will wear a crown containing the 105.6-carat Kohinoor diamond, mined in India hundreds of years ago. It is also one of the largest cut diamonds in the world. Africa has been dominated by its complicated reaction to the news of the Queen’s death. The calls to return the gem from India will grow louder.
“This country has been really reluctant to deal with the evils of empire, and the diamond really provides cover for a lot of those crimes,” commentator Sauav Dutt told me. “The diamond signifies that wealth and that plunder, so stop trying to hide the ills of empire. Those apologists for empire would like our memories to be short and would like those dark episodes to be forgotten about.”
If you’re Scottish or Welsh or from Northern Ireland, you come from one of the four nations of the United Kingdom – it is state that unites them. And nothing united them like the Queen. But now she’s gone. And whatever divisions she helped paper over will likely grow. The King knows this applies to countries like Australia as well.
Royal protocol is a powerful yet subtle way to engage with the tensions. The Queen’s coffin was taken from Westminster Hall across the road for her funeral at Westminster Abbey, led by pipers from the Scottish and Irish regiments. Yet Scotland and Belfast present the British government with some of their most thorny problems, of looming independence and a tortuous new border with the EU.
For the first time ever, last week, a British sovereign shook hands with the President of Ireland, while in Belfast. That happened within days of the death of King Charles’s mother, and despite the Queen’s personal bloody history with that conflict, shows how an apparently minor piece of royal protocol can intersect with the sharpest and most delicate political problem.
As her coffin left the Abbey it was accompanied by military members from Australia and New Zealand. The military band that led the coffin past Buckingham Palace for the last time was led by the “Mounties”, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. All three nations right now are keeping a lid on any debate about a republic.
The Queen did nothing and everything. She made it look as though the monarchy was unchanging, at a time when the society her family ruled over changed more rapidly in her seven decades than it ever had in 1,000 years. It’s a remarkable achievement.
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