On her favourite kind of day - bright blue Spring with blossoms bursting out everywhere - almost half a million people crammed into the available spaces along the short processional route. These were no aged monarchists come to bury their figurehead. This was a perfect cross-section of decent Britain who wanted to acknowledge the goodness, the bravery and stubborn sense of duty of the woman who was the Grand Matriarch of modern Great Britain. Their number was unexpected and the space available woefully inadequate. Inevitably, many did not get to see the coffin as it passed but they were determined to show their respect...
In a London bright with Spring sunshine and bursting blossoms they came. In their hundred of thousands they came. In respect and admiration and thanks they came. Almost half a million people crammed onto the pavements, stood on window-sills, clambered lampposts and railings along the half-mile journey of the Queen Mother's last grand ceremonial procession. It was a crowd of all ages, all occupations, all backgrounds and from all parts of the country that had come to pay their respects to a woman whom many regarded not only as the Grand Matriarch of Britain's Monarchy but as the Grand Matriarch of Britain itself. By eleven o'clock the crowd was fifteen to twenty deep along the Mall and Whitehall and surged to fifty deep and more in Parliament Square and Bridge Street.
The procession began at the Queen's Chapel at St James's Palace, a short walk from the Queen Mother's residence at Clarence House. Shortly before half-past eleven, the coffin, draped in her personal standard and surmounted by her diamond-encrusted crown, was carried from the Chapel and placed on a horse-drawn gun carriage. This was the same carriage that carried the coffin of her husband George VI in 1952 from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall. It was a gun carriage that first saw service during the First World War. The fourteen members of the Royal Family assembled behind the coffin and waited in silence for the signal to move off.
The Crowd began to gather in the hazy morning sunshine
Those Members of the Royal Family holding military rank wore their dress uniforms:
- The Duke of Edinburgh wore the uniform of Admiral of the Fleet
- The Prince of Wales: Rear-Admiral
- The Duke of York: Commander, Royal Navy
- The Princess Royal: Chief Commandant for Women in the Royal Navy
- Timothy Laurence: Commodore, Royal Navy
- The Duke of Gloucester: Air Marshal
- The Duke of Kent: Field Marshal
- Prince Michael of Kent: Honorary Commandant, Royal Naval Reserve
The other members, the Princes William and Henry, the Earl of Wessex, Viscount Linley, Peter Phillips and Daniel Chatto wore black morning suits. The Royal Family assembled in four ranks immediately behind the coffin. Behind them came members of the Queen Mother's personal staff, including her loyal page William Tallon, known affectionately to Her Majesty as "Backstairs Billy".
The dark green gun carriage was drawn by six black horses with a crew from the King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery. The horses were hand-picked by Queen Mother herself who, we are told today, rejected one horse because he was "too skittish". As they assembled, the 1,700 members of the Services provided the honour guard, formed by members of what se always referred to as
my regiments, were a riot of colour in the warm London sunshine. There were the the scarlet tunics of the Scots Guards, the white solar topees of the Royal Marines, the unfamiliar tartans of the Toronto Scottish, the Cape Town Highlanders, and other overseas regimental representatives. Emphasising these colours was the sombre black of the muffled drums and the bearskins of the Household Guards.
At precisely 11:30 the Bands began Beethoven's Funeral March and the first of 28 rounds of a 28-gun royal salute was fired in nearby Green Park. There was one round for every minute of the procession and the soft Boom could be heard above the muffled roar of the distant, ceaseless, London traffic as the Queen Mother's stately cortege began its journey to lie-in-state at the historic Westminster Hall. The assembled crowd broke into a small, respectful burst of applause as the cortege moved off to turn into the Mall. Behind the coffin, the heir to the throne, Prince Charles was visibly stricken at the loss of his "adored Grandmama". His sons, William and Harry behind him, walked with raised heads, set expressions and lowered eyes. The Princess Royal, breaking now an old tradition, was sadly grim as she marched beside her eighty-year old father, The Duke of Edinburgh.
As the Beethoven Funeral March gave way to those of Mendelssohn and Chopin, the cortege made its way along the Mall and into Horse Guard's Parade. At every step, as it came in view, the command "Reverse arms" was passed to the troops lining either side of the route. It was a beautiful demonstration of coordination and precision to see the continuous silent movement as young servicemen snapped their rifles into a position they will never have been called on to adopt before at a public ceremonial. It was like the wave that passes through a field of golden ripening grain as a gentle breeze flows over it.
As the police horses which led the procession emerged from Horse Guards Arch, a silence descended on the gathered thousands. This was a silence of respect and gratitude for the woman who most epitomised English motherhood and protection throughout the long tumultuous twentieth century. It was mingled with the knowledge that, before their eyes, history's cloak was being drawn across an era and the last tangible link with the Victorian age was passing them now for the last time. The distant sound of the 28 gun salutes were clearly audible here on Whitehall as the gun carriage emerged again into the sunlight. The six-foot carriage wheels wobbled on the parade ground and her magnificent crown, on its purple cushion, sparkled and flashed in the Spring sunshine. Made for her 1937 Coronation and containing the Koh-i-noor diamond, once the property of Ancient Afghan kings, the crown had until today lain unworn in the Tower of London since the death of her husband. Behind it was a single wreath of white roses and fresias from the Queen with the simple message "In loving memory, Lilibet" given an added poignancy today by the fact that the Queen's family pet name had its origin in the infant Princess Margaret's struggles to pronounce her sister's name.
Almost every metre of the processional route carried a memory of the life of the Queen Mother. Most especially poignant was the moment her coffin passed by the statue of George VI that looks down on The Mall from a set of steps leading to Carlton Gardens. In life she said that she never passed it without thinking of her beloved "Bertie". But it was at the Cenotaph, the empty tomb representing he countless dead of the two great and terrible wars through which the Queen Mother lived, that the public was most aware of the poignancy. To the very end of her life, the Queen Mother came here on Remembrance Sunday, watching from the first-floor balcony of the Foreign Office as her equerry placed her wreath alongside that of the Queen. Nobody can dissociate remembrance Sunday from the twin images of the Queen Mother and the Cenotaph. Yesterday, the atmosphere here was very still and silent.
The Queen Mother's coffin at the Cenotaph
As the head of the procession arrived at 11.52am, sixty three standard-bearers of the Royal British Legion solemnly lowered their standards in tribute. The many Veterans in the crowd stood and smartly saluted. They were honouring a woman who, a Queen when they saw their comrades fall in battle, never deserted them and repaid their duty done with her own act of remembrance and respect every year of her life. There were many tears in the crowd here as her coffin moved slowly on to Parliament Square. At the square it was greeted an honour guard salute and a short burst of applause from the crowd which was now close to 100 deep on Bridge Street. Big Ben struck noon as the coffin was unloaded at the north door of Westminster Hall. Eight pall bearers from the Irish Guards, their heads uncovered, lifted it from the gun-carriage and carried it slowly inside to the 7ft-high catafalque covered in Braemar-purple pleated velvet, gold braid and garnet felt.
Young and old crane to see the procession enter Parliament Square
The Queen and Prince Philip headed the royal procession into the hall. They were followed in precedence and protocol by:
- Prince Charles with Princes William and Harry.
- The Duke of York with his daughters Princess Beatrice, 13, and 12-year-old Princess Eugenie.
- The Earl and Countess of Wessex
- The Princess Royal with her husband, Commodore Laurence
- Her children, Peter and Zara Phillips
- Viscount and Viscountess Linley
- Lady Sarah and Daniel Chatto
- The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester
- The Duke and Duchess of Kent
- Princess Alexandra (Sir Angus Ogilvy was too ill to attend)
- Prince and Princess Michael of Kent
The coffin was received by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, and the Dean of Westminster, Dr Wesley Carr. A 13-strong joint choir from Westminster Abbey and the Chapels Royal sang a short psalm as the coffin was carried into the hall. The Archbishop said two prayers, giving thanks for the Queen Mother's "faithful duty and unwearied service" and asking God to "Deal graciously with those who mourn".
At the railings above New Palace Yard
Watching was a sombre gathering of courtiers and senior politicians. The latter included Baroness Thatcher who was the longest serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century and much admired by the Queen Mother. Also present were the current Prime Minister,Tony Blair, the Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith, and the Liberal Democrat Leader, Charles Kennedy together with members of the cabinet and opposition front benches.
During the short ceremony the crowds waited outside, many of them pinned against the Bridge Street railings above New Palace Yard. In a sign of the good nature of this huge crowd many relinquished their prime vantage points to allow others to glimpse the royal limousines, the empty gun carriage and bright light that shone from the north door. Only after they had seen the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh leave Parliament Square did the crowd begin to disperse. The spontaneous applause that greeted the royal limousine visibly moved the Queen who briefly waved back to the crowd as she left London to return to Windsor Castle.
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Waiting to see Her Majesty the Queen leave