Queen Mother: Kings, queens, princes and citizens unite in tribute

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The Independent Online

It was, in the end, an appropriate funeral. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was buried last night in a private service at Windsor, after a ceremony in Westminster Abbey in the presence of no fewer than 60 kings, queens and other royals, and a panoply of foreign, Commonwealth and domestic dignitaries.

Nor did the British public fail to play its part. Confounding speculation that far fewer people might turn out for the Queen Mother than flooded the streets on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, up to one million lined the streets outside the abbey and along the route to Windsor.

Much of the nation came to a standstill, gathering around television sets for the hour-long service. Others paid tribute with two minutes of silence at airports, shopping centres and schools and elsewhere.

It was an appropriate funeral also because the service, in style and content, spoke to the wide variety of constituencies touched by the Queen Mother in her long life.

It paid honour to the past, and to the mystical role which Edmund Burke observed the British monarchy to fulfil. The serried black of the abbey congregation was enlivened by the brilliant colours of ancient military dress uniforms.

And yet those who thronged the streets showed how such traditional splendour has resonance in a more contemporary Britain. There were a few old men in overcoats and bowler hats but the majority wore anoraks and woolly hats and, in the case of the younger spectators, short jackets with bare midriffs.

The funeral liturgy was traditional. The coffin, draped in the Queen Mother's standard and surmounted by her coronation crown, was taken from Westminster Hall, borne on the gun carriage used for her husband George VI's funeral 50 years ago. Nine senior members of the Royal Family – including the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, Prince William and Prince Harry – walked behind.

Yet if the lessons were taken from the King James version of the Bible, the prayers were more modern in their language and the Order of Service was prefaced with a folksy poem which began: "You can shed tears that she is gone or you can smile because she has lived ..." It was something the Queen Mother – who drew up the service before her death – would not have tried before Diana's funeral moved the boundaries of what protocol might permit.

And it was the personal side of the Queen Mother's character that was the focus of the sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey. He said: "We come here to mourn but also to give thanks, to celebrate the person and her life – both filled with such a rich sense of fun and joy and the music of laughter ..."

The death of the woman who was the last Empress of India had been widely described as the end of an era. And yet what this week's events have shown is that the Royal Family is far more flexible than many of its critics supposed. The nuanced shifts in the funeral obsequies reveal a monarchy that knows it is in transition, as did the decision to allow Prince Charles's companion, Camilla Parker Bowles, into the abbey, although sitting far apart from the royal party.

The tone in the church and on the streets was one of thanksgiving not sadness, as the Queen had requested. And it exposed the false polarity of the early reaction to the Queen Mother's death.

Commentators had suggested the public would either be engulfed in sadness or else would not care. The message from the abbey and the streets yesterday was that words such as dignity, duty, honour and respect may not today have the same resonance or meaning they did in a previous age. But they still mean something. And they remain part of what it means to be British – a sense which many people still feel the need to express collectively at certain moments of history.

There are still many changes to come. The service highlighted the difference between tradition and anachronism. The official ceremonial document listed the names of the generals and colonels who were the Queen Mother's pallbearers. But it gave no credit to the eight members of the regiment of the Irish Guards who carried the coffin. Other ranks, not officers, you see.

Then there was the closing proclamation by the Garter King of Arms, Peter Gwynn-Jones, of the "styles and titles" of the Queen Dowager who was, among other things, Lady of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle and Lady of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India.

Yet if that indicates a world which has little purchase on contemporary consciousness, there was far more about the Queen Mother which chimed still with something in the nation's soul.

Perhaps it was what the Archbishop of Canterbury described in his sermon as "that maternal strength – given across the generations to children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren". Perhaps it is in the shared memory of her morale-boosting role in the Second World War. "A shiver ran down my spine," said a 29-year-old spectator when two Spitfire fighters and a Lancaster bomber flew over Buckingham Palace in a final homage as the funeral cortège passed by.

Perhaps it was all that and more. The most telling moment yesterday was when, at the door of the abbey, as the coffin departed on its final journey, the Duke of Edinburgh led his children in a military salute.

The royal party was ragged in its execution of the gesture and yet, contrasted with the precision of the marching men all around them, it was both endearing and moving. It gave a hint of the curious amalgam of public and private qualities which makes the appeal of the monarchy so hard to define, and so risky to dismiss.