Ten days is a long time to be in mourning, and by Sunday in London the strain was starting to show. True, the brokers in Kensington still had black notes of condolence in place of real estate listings in their shop windows, and Pret a Manger had the Queen’s profile on a sandwich board. But notes of irreverence were creeping in. Social media was buzzing with tips for a night of “respectful” drinking to precede Monday’s Bank Holiday of Death. The Cow, a pub in Notting Hill, clocked its busiest day ever. The BBC had been running royal family slideshows set to violin music for nearly two weeks, in a display that one Fleet Street editor told me was “quite unctuous, especially as there’s a war in Europe.” Sample question, on Monday morning, posed on air to a senior British military leader in advance of the ceremony in Westminster Abbey: “For all the armed services that serve under your command, can you describe the pride you have for them?”
Still, 250,000 people participated in the queue to view Queen Elizabeth II’s casket and tens of thousands more came to London for the funeral on Monday. “Better than having children,” as one of the last women to complete the people’s pilgrimage told TV reporters, post-casket. Proof of the Queen’s famous public relations maxim: “I have to be seen to be believed.” Even in death.
By now you’ll be familiar with the affectionate vocabulary Britons use in connection to Her Majesty: dignity, stability, resolve, composure, duty. I couldn’t find anyone who had a bad word to say about her, only polite deferrals about the concept in general: “not my thing,” “not my cup of tea.” (Some people with more forceful things to say about the monarchy did get locked up.)
By 9 a.m. Monday morning, the mourners were 10 deep along the road west through Hyde Park, which the hearse wouldn’t reach for another five hours. Boys had combed their hair and girls wore jewelry. Women in black tights with lipstick marks on the lids of their Starbucks cups. Men with military medals and bowler hats and kilts. Plenty just wore jeans and parkas, toting backpacks and bike helmets and bouquets. It was a cool fall morning and families sat on blankets or newspapers in the grass, passing around thermoses of tea. The press huddled around tripods. There were red-faced Englishmen who looked like they had not put on a button-down shirt in years, and immigrant families who, here as in the United States, sometimes have a keener sense of patriotism than their native-born neighbors. Long before the official tribute began, British prudence and organization was on display in the endless phalanxes of Port-o-Potties, which must have been summoned from all the realm for Operation London Bridge.
On the grass of Hyde Park, giant television screens sat on different ends of a threadbare lawn like stages at the world’s most somber music festival. Beer was consumed, but respectfully so, in small plastic cups. The source of the fervor was not the monarchy itself, exactly, so much as the chance to get, between the perfume and the cigarette smoke, a little whiff of capital-H History. Thousands of people sat between this grass and the parade route, and the very distance from the cannons and marching sailors was proof of how much it mattered. They did not attend the ceremony because it was great; it was great because they were there.
Morgan Parker moved to England from Australia 10 days ago. He was sitting on the grass with his wife and his son, Knox. “The distinction between being here and watching on TV is, you share that intangible bond with millions of people who want to belong. It’s an opportunity to mark our lives with these days.” (The point stands, though we were, in fact, watching on a very large TV.) Knox, for his part, preferred Australia, where he said he had more toys.
The silent thousands raised their phones to capture the sounds of the choir as parakeets chirped overhead and jets silently floated down the Heathrow flight path. Hyde Park was never quieter than in the two minutes of silence, before the sun came out during the final fanfare and the mourners murmured “God Save the Queen,” probably for the last time in their lives.
To these American ears, the strangest thing was the emphasis on the Queen’s “service,” a feature of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s brief remarks during her funeral and a constant refrain in the U.K. press. Why a life of foreign tours, ribbon-cutting, and horse-breeding constitutes service any more than working your whole life in a convenience store may be a simply irreconcilable puzzle for Americans. The subjects may no longer serve the Queen, but it’s not necessary to insist the corollary has become true.
One of the many contradictions of Queen Elizabeth II was the way she melded the impossible distance of royal life with an easy sense of intimacy, anticipating the parasocial relationships with celebrities that developed through television and social media. She gave no hint of her true feelings about anything, and rather than make her seem cold and removed this posture made her a blank canvas for Britons’ own feelings.
Consider a story I heard from Jenna, who waited nine and a half hours to see the Queen lying in state, arriving at Westminster Hall at 5:30 in the morning. When I asked her for a memory of the Queen she did not hesitate: Her tea with Paddington Bear, “Brilliant, TV gold.” Like many Britons, Jenna had a run-in with the Queen, presenting her with a bouquet of flowers at one of the openings that, along with charity pep talks, define the life of a working royal. “I gave her some flowers and said, ‘Woo! Woo!’ I’m an Essex girl. I’m going ‘Woo! Woo!’ and Phillip said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ ” The Queen, of course, simply smiled and moved along. (Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say.)
She was a head of state with divine right and the national grandmother with a pretty good sense of what mattered, like when, at the COVID lockdown funeral of her husband Prince Philip, she sat alone, a tiny woman in a large pew. Compare this to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s wine-soaked lockdown soirées, and you have to admit the monarchists have a point that the Queen showed superior judgment to some of the country’s elected leaders. A good sovereign could never be elected, because the act of running for such a position would be instantly disqualifying.
The monarchy as a whole, battered by the exile of the queen’s grandson and the disgrace of her son, is a different story. “The monarchy has done some dodgy stuff,” admitted Adi, a construction manager from East London who had come on Monday to see the procession. Adi’s parents immigrated from Nigeria. “Very dodgy stuff. But the Queen is a good one. To see Charlie on an English note…” he trailed off. “There’s a lot of Charlie on the note already.” (That’s a joke about drugs.)
Charlie has come a long way from the 1990s, when he was vilified as the unfaithful husband of the beloved Princess Diana. With his syrupy accent, he seems to be somehow older than his own, dead mother. But he has won admirers with his environmental activism and architectural projects, and even gotten the Queen and the people wholly behind his marriage with Camilla. More importantly, he has stepped up when it counts—walking London in the aftermath of the 2011 riots, and walking Meghan Markle down the aisle in 2018 in place of her absent father.
No one feels passionately about King Charles III, or particularly excited about his reign. One member of “the household” told me she felt “relief” when he aced his first public speech as sovereign. Brexit, COVID-19, inflation, and the war in Ukraine; four prime ministers in six years. This tumult underlies some of the monarchy’s appeal, however anachronous the institution. Some people think Elizabeth’s embodiment of power and stability enabled the risky Brexit vote; others think she exerted a calming influence on the polity as a kind of moral anchor. Charles may be filling those shoes: His approval rating doubled after his mother’s death.
So far the new king has scored some points with a graceful speech, and lost some, in his visible frustration with a pen. One woman in the queue, appalled with the prince’s viral pen mishap, told me: “In 70 years, the Queen never once did something like that.” But it’s not as if the country is about to turn republican overnight: Even if many people privately acknowledge the ancient family’s power over the elected government is a bit weird, there are few incentives for anyone with any power to mount the distraction of reform. As an American friend married to an Englishman put it: “It’s a big tradition and it would be a massive pain in the ass to get rid of and that’s about the size of it.”
Not so for the United Kingdom’s commonwealth territories, who may take this moment to reconsider their relationship with the House of Windsor, as Barbados did last year. Most Americans have been focused on the U.K.’s colonial legacy in the Global South, and the royal family’s culpability therein. But in England there are more proximate concerns: Scotland will hold another independence vote next year, and Northern Ireland is barely more secure after Brexit jeopardized its open border to the Irish Republic. Those aren’t problems for Charles so much as for the new Prime Minister Liz Truss, but there’s a widespread sense that an era of grandeur and stability has come to an end.
But not until Tuesday. On the weekend, Britain basked in a recaptured sense of the world-historical importance, one that the country considers its birthright but seems increasingly irrelevant by the day. They couldn’t get Joe Biden into a bus, but they did give him a worse seat for a public event than he will ever have again. Just for a moment on Monday morning, and perhaps for the last time, London was once again the center of the world, or at least the subject the world’s biggest live television event.
On Sunday morning, I’d ducked into Saint Bride’s Church for a Eucharist in honor of her majesty. The church, designed by Christopher Wren and rebuilt after the Blitz, is bright, simple, and small, and the morning sun warmed the nave as a 12-strong choir sang Fauré’s requiem, accompanied by a crunching organ. A pair of high schoolers read Bible verses that had been selected months in advance, Amos 8, First Timothy 2, and Luke 16, each of which concerned the behavior of the rich and powerful.
“I do find it eerie when the biblical readings set in advance turn out to be relevant to the concerns of the day,” Alison Joyce, the rector, began her sermon. “All those who hold positions of power will be held to account. There’s a message for a new prime minister and a new monarch.”
Joyce told the story of John Donne, the poet who is said to have posed as he was dying for a statue that still stands inside St. Paul’s Cathedral. For a man to unflinchingly face the reality of his own death, she said, was evidence of his contempt for death’s power and awareness of a life beyond. It was a Christian message, but also one with relevance to a hereditary monarchy and to the Queen, who with a similar mix of foresight and earned self-importance is said to have had a close hand in planning Monday’s tribute. The monarchy must be seen to be believed.
Saint Bride’s is known as the journalist’s church, because it’s a few steps from Fleet Street, where the London papers have had their offices for centuries. There’s a plaque dedicated by Charles in 2002 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the first daily newspaper. Sure enough, I found an English journalist there who had come to participate in the worship and the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II, not to report. “I know journalists are supposed to be cynical and disrespectful,” she confessed. “But I think there’s something to celebrate in her.”