ROBERT HARDMAN: A determination to get it right for their Sovereign

ROBERT HARDMAN: A determination to get it right for their Sovereign

September 15, 2022

A tungsten determination to get it right for their Sovereign: Escorted by her children and her closest staff, the Queen was on her way to receive the love and affection of her people, writes ROBERT HARDMAN

Beneath the balcony upon which she greeted us at all the happiest moments of her long life, she set out on this saddest of days.

Elizabeth II could always make an entrance like no one else on Earth. Yesterday, she was making the most glorious of exits through the gates of Buckingham Palace for the last time.

Escorted by her children, her closest staff and the regiment she had first commanded on her 16th birthday, she was on her way to receive the love and affection of her people.

She did so in a procession that came as close to perfect as any in her lifetime. Such was the tungsten determination of all involved to get this absolutely right for their great late Sovereign.

Elizabeth II could always make an entrance like no one else on Earth. Yesterday, she was making the most glorious of exits through the gates of Buckingham Palace for the last time

It was by no means the biggest parade she had known. Indeed, by the standards of Elizabeth II, it was rather modest in size, just 320 members of her Armed Forces. On her last appearance at the Palace – at the end of her Platinum Jubilee Pageant – there were 1,700 of them.

There was hardly a horse to be seen; all her Household Cavalry were marching on foot – for good reason. The only horses were those of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery pulling the gun carriage upon which her coffin sat in properly imperial splendour. For on top, on a cushion of imperial velvet, rested the Imperial State Crown, the ultimate symbol of her authority.

This was the same carriage which carried her mother to her lying-in-state 20 years ago and her father to his half a century before that.

Alongside her marched the Grenadier Guards. Her beloved father had made her their colonel on her 16th birthday, the first in a lifetime of more than 50 military appointments. Yet this was a special bond that never faded. Behind her came the King, dressed in his Marshal of the Royal Air Force uniform, and his siblings.

By tradition, royal ladies do not march behind royal coffins but the Princess Royal was not going to abide by that any more than she did in 2002 when the Queen Mother made this same journey.

She and the Earl of Wessex were in uniform, as working members of the family. The Duke of York, once again, was not.

There was hardly a horse to be seen; all her Household Cavalry were marching on foot – for good reason. The only horses were those of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery pulling the gun carriage upon which her coffin sat in properly imperial splendour

The second row brought the new Prince of Wales (in RAF dress) and the Duke of Sussex (in morning coat) marching next to one another – with the Queen’s eldest grandson, Peter Phillips, on the left.

Behind them, alongside the Princess’s husband, Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence, and the Duke of Gloucester, was the Queen’s nephew, the Earl of Snowdon. He was marching on behalf of Princess Margaret, the younger sister for whom the Queen’s love and indulgence was lifelong and total.

A final journey which first began on the lanes of Aberdeenshire on Sunday morning now set off up the grandest thoroughfare in the land.

The Mall looked more than magnificent in the sunshine, every yard of it lined with so many people that the police had decided to seal off the approaches with two hours still to go. 

Late-comers were ordered to Hyde Park to watch proceedings on giant video screens. A muffled drum beat the pace laid down with time-honoured military precision – 75 paces per minute. Big Ben sounded each of those minutes in tandem with the guns of the King’s Troop. 

The synchronicity was not just faultless. It also added to the emotional charge of this electric moment. Music from the bands of the Scots Guards and Grenadier Guards added to the gravity. Beethoven’s mournful funeral marches, played at Prince Philip’s funeral in April last year, brought home the deep sense of loss. Ahead of the coffin marched the late monarch’s closest officials.

Here was her senior adviser, her Private Secretary, Sir Edward Young, and also Vice Admiral Sir Tony Johnstone-Burt, Master of the Household. The latter had organised the ‘HMS Bubble’ system of staff rotation which got the Queen through the pandemic in such good spirits. Here, too, were her two pages, including ‘Tall Paul’ Whybrew, the trusted confidant who appeared with her in that immortal cameo with James Bond to open the 2012 Olympics.

Her beloved father had made her their colonel on her 16th birthday, the first in a lifetime of more than 50 military appointments. Yet this was a special bond that never faded. Behind her came the King, dressed in his Marshal of the Royal Air Force uniform, and his siblings. By tradition, royal ladies do not march behind royal coffins but the Princess Royal was not going to abide by that any more than she did in 2002 when the Queen Mother made this same journey

Marching parallel to the Grenadier Guards were the ‘Pall-Bearers’, a dozen of the Queen’s former equerries. An equerry would be a rising star of one of the Services who would take three years away from his unit to serve as a multi-purpose right-hand-man at the Palace, tasked with everything from ushering prime ministers to organising walkabouts to playing charades at Christmas. It was a posting like no other and they all loved it.

Others had different connections. Captain Tom Muir, for example, who was leading the detachment of Life Guards at the very front of the parade, is the grandson of Lady Rosemary Spencer-Churchill, one of the Queen’s Maids of Honour at her Coronation in 1953. 

Thus a family which played a part at the very start of her record-breaking reign was now taking part at the very end. Her Majesty loved those sorts of personal connections.

There were so many moments that had us swallowing hard, blinking back a non-existent speck of dust in the eye. One was the moment the coffin passed the smiling, waving statue of the Queen Mother off the Mall, the one the Queen unveiled herself in 2009. Above it stands George VI, the father by whose example she swore to reign in her own tearful Accession Council 70 years ago. A profoundly touching moment.

Another was the sight of the coffin processing beneath the arch of Horse Guards. It was one of the defining images of the funeral processions of both Diana and the Queen Mother. How haunting this moment must have felt for Princes William and Harry as they marched that Via Dolorosa for a third time.

It was a fourth time for the King who also did the same for his beloved uncle, Lord Mountbatten back in 1979. On Whitehall, the cortege was greeted by the Women At War Memorial. Those women were always extremely proud to boast the Queen among their number.

Then came the Cenotaph, the holiest of holies where the Queen had marked Remembrance Sunday more than anyone at all.

By now, the solemnity of the earlier part of the procession had cracked. People started clapping.

In New Palace Yard, Westminster, sawdust and sand ensured that the gun carriage could come to a perfect halt on the cobbles.

The Queen could now be delivered in to the hands of the state. Another phase of this great valedictory journey was over.

Back at Buckingham Palace, it seemed strange, if not incredible, that the little girl who led her Girl Guides troop in its garden; who celebrated her wedding here; who gave birth to a King in its private quarters and entertained Churchill, de Gaulle, Mandela and Obama in its grandest apartments has finally gone for good.

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