The greatest valediction in world history writes ROBERT HARDMAN

As in life, so in death, she was incomparable. The sovereign whose reign and life and travels surpassed those of every other monarch has finally been laid to rest with unarguably the greatest valediction in British, if not world, history.

The odyssey of emotions that carried Elizabeth II from the forests of Aberdeenshire and on through two ancient capitals came to a spectacular journey’s end yesterday afternoon at Windsor Castle.

Had William the Conqueror’s fortress, at any point in its 1,000-year history, looked down upon scenes quite like this?

Here was the noblest avenue in the land – the Long Walk – filled to every ancient inch of its immense, oak and chestnut-crowned magnificence in honour of the Longest Reign.

Unspoken was the same heartfelt message from all: Welcome home, Ma’am. Thus ends the modern Elizabethan age.

Mourned by millions lining the roads through London, Surrey and Royal Berkshire, Elizabeth II went to her Maker via not one but two stupendous church services and three flawlessly step-perfect processions. Her congregations included the most exalted representatives of almost all humankind; her escorts included troops and riders from across her realms; her passing has conjured up pageantry the like of which we had never seen before.

Yet for yesterday’s global television audience, what will be the abiding image? I suspect, for many, it will be these epic scenes of a grieving Windsor bidding farewell to one of its own.

Here was the noblest avenue in the land – the Long Walk – filled to every ancient inch of its immense, oak and chestnut-crowned magnificence in honour of the Longest Reign

Here was the noblest avenue in the land – the Long Walk – filled to every ancient inch of its immense, oak and chestnut-crowned magnificence in honour of the Longest Reign

For others, it will be the sight of Her Late Majesty’s two corgis, Muick and Sandy, and Emma, the trusty Fell pony, that linger even longer in the memory than yesterday’s assembly of kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers, not to mention the world’s last tsar and its only remaining emperor.

Or perhaps it will be the enchanting image of Prince George and Princess Charlotte concentrating hard as they kept the pace in their very first procession; or the Mounties at the head of the funeral of a monarch who was just as proud to be Queen of Canada as Queen of the UK; or the carpet of floral tributes stretching all the way up Windsor’s Long Walk to the statue of George III, three miles distant; or the Lord Chamberlain breaking his wand of office over the late Queen’s mortal remains, accompanied by Garter King of Arms’s doleful proclamation of the styles and titles of ‘the late Most High, Most Mighty, and Most Excellent Monarch, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God’.

For others, it might simply be the inspirational choice of music (hers, of course), spanning the best that all her choirs and all her massed bands could muster.

What, in modern times, could possibly trump this day of days? With the possible exception of Coronation Day 1953, nothing at all.

What none outside the late Queen’s immediate family will have seen, though, was the final and most dramatic act of all.

At 7.30pm last night, in the crypt beneath Windsor Castle’s tiny George VI Memorial Chapel, she was finally reunited with the three people who shaped her life more than any other: her father, her mother and her ‘beloved’ Philip. Here, too, were the ashes of her sister, Princess Margaret. It is there, with them, that she will now spend eternity.

Her congregations included the most exalted representatives of almost all humankind; her escorts included troops and riders from across her realms; her passing has conjured up pageantry the like of which we had never seen before

Her congregations included the most exalted representatives of almost all humankind; her escorts included troops and riders from across her realms; her passing has conjured up pageantry the like of which we had never seen before

Not for her some boastful sarcophagus, let alone the sort of triumphal mausoleum that Queen Victoria erected for herself out on the Windsor estate. Elizabeth II had always been entirely content to follow Papa.

Modest and dutiful, to the last. But, at the same time, so very great indeed. That was the overarching sentiment among her former subjects throughout a day that began at breakfast time as the first of 2,000 guests started to arrive at Westminster Abbey.

No one could recall the last time so many heads of state and heads of government had gathered anywhere in honour of one individual.

When the Queen came to the throne, half the countries on Earth didn’t exist in their present form. Today, there are nearly 200 of them and almost all were there.

Even deranged North Korea was asked to send its ambassador. Just a dirty half-dozen, including Russia, Syria and Belarus, were not invited at all. This was not just a head-spinning protocol challenge of Herculean proportions. It meant such a heaving mass of VVIPs that the streets of Westminster could not possibly cope with the necessary motorcades.

So, they were all invited to take part in the grandest park-and-ride scheme ever attempted. Having congregated at the Royal Hospital Chelsea for tea and coffee, they were then shipped to the Abbey in a fleet of coaches.

After acceding to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 2019, emperor Naruhito of Japan had accepted an invitation to pay a state visit to Britain and ride in a carriage procession alongside the Queen. Covid put paid to that. Yesterday, he finally arrived in London SW1 with empress Masako and climbed aboard a private-hire coach instead.

Mourned by millions lining the roads through London, Surrey and Royal Berkshire, Elizabeth II went to her Maker via not one but two stupendous church services and three flawlessly step-perfect processions

Mourned by millions lining the roads through London, Surrey and Royal Berkshire, Elizabeth II went to her Maker via not one but two stupendous church services and three flawlessly step-perfect processions

A rare exception was the US President Joe Biden who travelled in ‘The Beast’. The only person who could ever prise a US President out of this nuke-proof tank-cum-limo, of course, was the Queen. When Barack and Michelle Obama flew in to Windsor by helicopter in 2016, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh insisted on driving them from the park to the castle in the duke’s Land Rover.

The entire, extended Royal Family filled a large part of the south transept, alongside a diaspora of global royalty.

Here sat Queen Margrethe of Denmark. Following the death of dear Cousin Lilibet, she now becomes the world’s only queen regnant.

Celebrating her own golden jubilee earlier this year, she spoke of how much she had learned from her British counterpart.

Here, too, was another distant cousin, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the only Second World War head of state still alive. As a boy, he had been crowned, Simeon II, Tsar of the Bulgarians. He was toppled by the Soviets three years later and escaped to exile. Fast forward to 2001, though, and he was back as his country’s democratically-elected prime minister. As far as the Queen was concerned, he was still a king. After all, he had never abdicated.

Some of those who had done so could be spotted yesterday. The former Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands was here. So, too, was the former King Juan Carlos, who had always been grateful for the good advice the Queen gave him when he took on the Spanish throne in 1975.

Both their successors, the Dutch King Willem-Alexander, and King Felipe of Spain, were there in the Abbey, too. Was this the greatest royal head-count on British soil? Buckingham Palace has refused to issue a confirmation.

At 10.44, the Queen’s coffin was finally lifted from the purple catafalque where it had just finished 107 hours of incessant homage from the longest queue in British history.

Behind her came the first – and shortest – royal procession of the day, following the coffin around Parliament Square to the Abbey. It was pulled by 142 ratings from the Royal Navy, in keeping with a relatively recent tradition born of urgent necessity at the funeral of Queen Victoria (where the horses had bolted).

There on top sat a brilliantly vivid wreath of pinks, reds and burgundies chosen by the King himself; roses, hydrangea, sedum, and uxorious myrtle (from the same specimen which produced Princess Elizabeth’s own wedding bouquet in 1947).

At 7.30pm last night, in the crypt beneath Windsor Castle’s tiny George VI Memorial Chapel, she was finally reunited with the three people who shaped her life more than any other: her father, her mother and her ‘beloved’ Philip

At 7.30pm last night, in the crypt beneath Windsor Castle’s tiny George VI Memorial Chapel, she was finally reunited with the three people who shaped her life more than any other: her father, her mother and her ‘beloved’ Philip

How curious to think that this was the first funeral of a monarch at the Abbey in more than 250 years. Although the country bid farewell to both Diana, Princess of Wales and the Queen Mother here, the last sovereign to be granted a full state funeral at the Abbey had been George II in 1760.

Thereafter, monarchs had wanted their funerals to be at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. However, Edward the Confessor’s 1,000-year-old church had hosted the two great events of the Queen’s earlier life: her wedding and her coronation. Why should it not complete the trinity of modern Elizabethan landmarks?

What’s more, there had been so many people who she wanted to include that they could never all squeeze inside St George’s.

Windsor can manage 800 at a pinch. So, the plan was agreed: friends, retainers, estate workers and chums from the racing world would be asked to Windsor. The great and good and the world would be asked to Westminster. A lucky few – the royal cousinhood and lifelong royal allies – would be asked to both.

Once they had got over the heart-stopping sight of the coffin laid at rest before them, beneath the lantern, they were blinking and gulping hard again moments later.

The first hymn was The Day Thou Gavest Lord Has Ended, the centrepiece of the ‘sunset ceremony’ which the Queen always loved aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Similarly, she had always felt there was no church service that could not be improved by Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. Once again, we also had the Crimond variation of The Lord’s My Shepherd.

How curious to think that this was the first funeral of a monarch at Westminster Abbey in more than 250 years

How curious to think that this was the first funeral of a monarch at Westminster Abbey in more than 250 years

It was also played at last Monday’s farewell to the Queen in Edinburgh. She had it played at her wedding in 1947, she had loved it ever since and who cared if we all heard it twice in a week?

Less than a fortnight earlier, Liz Truss had been discussing the state of the nation with Queen Elizabeth II. Yesterday morning, the Prime Minister found herself gazing down on the late monarch’s coffin as she read from John 14: ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions… I go to prepare a place for you.’

How to distill the essence of this monumental epoch into a few minutes? With nods to both that immortal 21st birthday speech and the Queen’s Covid oration, The Archbishop of Canterbury boiled it down to selflessness.

‘People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer,’ he said. ‘But in all cases those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are forgotten.’

Food for thought, certainly, among some of the less cuddly world leaders lurking in the north transept.

A soaring brass-and-organ double-versed national anthem gave way to a lone piper playing Sleep, Dearie, Sleep.

With which, the coffin was borne out into the sunshine and the great procession set sail. More than a mile from end to end, comprising some 3,000 members of the Armed Forces, it was led by the Mounties.

Yet for yesterday’s global television audience, what will be the abiding image? Perhaps it will be the enchanting image of Prince George and Princess Charlotte concentrating hard as they kept the pace in their very first procession

Yet for yesterday’s global television audience, what will be the abiding image? Perhaps it will be the enchanting image of Prince George and Princess Charlotte concentrating hard as they kept the pace in their very first procession

It had been the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who gave the Queen the horse she loved riding more than any other – dear, dependable Burmese (like rider, like horse).

They were followed by detachments from across her realms, the Calgary Highlanders, the Royal Australian Navy, the Royal New Zealand Armoured Corps and so on. All had owed her the same allegiance.

The royal men, plus the Princess Royal, walked all the way to Hyde Park Corner, processing behind the coffin once again. The royal ladies, plus young George and Charlotte, came behind in cars.

How would the great cortege squeeze through the narrow arch at Horse Guards? Without missing a step, the Royal Navy ratings went from eight abreast to six, rubbing shoulders with the stonework, and then spread out on the other side.

Back at the Abbey, the world leaders were still emerging as Elizabeth II passed Buckingham Palace for the very last time. Lined up in front of the railings, all the housekeeping and liveried staff – the footmen, underbutlers and cleaners – bowed or bobbed. At Wellington Arch, the ‘processional’ route reached its end and the coffin was transferred to the state hearse.

On top of her coffin sat a brilliantly vivid wreath of pinks, reds and burgundies chosen by the King himself; roses, hydrangea, sedum, and uxorious myrtle (from the same specimen which produced Princess Elizabeth’s own wedding bouquet in 1947)

On top of her coffin sat a brilliantly vivid wreath of pinks, reds and burgundies chosen by the King himself; roses, hydrangea, sedum, and uxorious myrtle (from the same specimen which produced Princess Elizabeth’s own wedding bouquet in 1947)

Whereas the earlier crowd numbers around Westminster had been restricted by the police, to maintain both order and decorum, there were no restraints now.

The crowds at Hyde Park were as much as 80 deep either side of Rotten Row all the way to a gleaming Albert Memorial, Victorian Britain’s tribute to her great-great grandfather. He looked down proudly from his gold-leafed perch, as well he might.

Out through west London, familiar arteries like the great, grim A4 gave way to suburbs, all of their inhabitants pouring out on to the kerb to say adieu. Past the perimeters of Heathrow (where flights had been paused in her honour); around leafy Egham and Staines; alongside sacred Runnymede; and so to glorious Windsor.

As Her Late Majesty turned up the grandest of driveways to her grandest of homes, the sight was simply astonishing. This was where she had loved to ride, from childhood until close to the end.

Only a few months ago, she was still enjoying a quiet stroll through the grounds astride Emma, the gentle Fell pony who had been such a blessed companion in later years, not least all through lockdown.

The Queen’s long-serving groom, Terry Pendry, a loyal member of her inner inner-circle, stood holding the Cumbria-born 11-year-old mare.

As the cortege reached the castle, out came Sandy and Muick, surely the last of multiple generations of corgis to rule these ramparts

As the cortege reached the castle, out came Sandy and Muick, surely the last of multiple generations of corgis to rule these ramparts

Here was a scene echoing last year’s stunning farewell to the Duke of Edinburgh, watched by almost no one at all save for his two carriage-driving ponies.

As the cortege reached the castle, out came Sandy and Muick, surely the last of multiple generations of corgis to rule these ramparts.

The new reign leans toward the Jack Russell. And so, finally, into St George’s Chapel for the committal.

No less grand than the Abbey, this was a ceremony blessed with majesty and intimacy in equal measure.

Here were those who had known her best, like former crew members from Britannia, trainers and horse breeders; old friends and allies like her former private secretaries and former Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Airlie.

No one alive has known her longer than he. A month apart in age, the two of them had grown up together. He had helped her modernise her monarchy, weather the worst storms of the reign and emerge all the stronger.

And so, with dusk approaching, with the instruments of state – orb, crown and sceptre – laid upon the chapel altar, this great among greats was slowly, almost imperceptibly, lowered into the vault to join the ancestors, the last lament of the lone piper gently receding into the distance.

Now let that ethereal queue begin on high, with St Peter at the front, no doubt. It’s probably already stretching from the Pearly Gates half way back to Purgatory.

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