From coronation to funeral: Bookends to the life of a Queen, and a generation

It has become a kind of badge of honor among baby boomers to recall how they watched on tiny black-and-white television sets on that day in June 1953, when Elizabeth II was crowned as postwar Britain’s first and thus far only queen.

It almost seemed as if an army had gathered around grainy screens set in walnut cabinets to follow the coronation, enthralled by the harnessing of old tradition to the miracle of new technology that became such a hallmark of the second Elizabethan era.

Then, on Monday, with lives fast-forwarded into a time of huge flat screens, and bright streaming images on smartphones and tablets, and with their numbers depleted by the years, they watched again, this time to follow her funeral. She had last been seen in public two days before her death on Sept. 8 at her Scottish castle, Balmoral, bowed and frail yet seeming still indomitable.

And it seemed, perhaps fancifully, that those two moments had become the bookends of a generation and of a nation’s frayed sense of equilibrium. With her death, a man of that same baby boomer generation, her eldest son, now King Charles III, has assumed the monarch’s role — if not, until his coronation, the crown and scepter — as the anchor of a nation’s identity in troubled times of change and flux.

For much of Britain, the queen’s accession to the throne offered a gleam of renascent hope after the depredations of World War II. Both her coronation and funeral unfolded at London’s Westminster Abbey, where, in 1947, she had married Prince Philip, who died in 2021. Her reign of more than 70 years set a record of longevity among British monarchs, reconfirming the notion that the monarchy provides the ballast of her subjects’ sense of continuity.

King Charles III and Camilla the Queen Consort depart Wellington Arch in London, en route to Windsor Castle, after the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II is transferred from a gun carriage to a waiting hearse. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

The new king’s rise, by contrast, is set against the tapestry of a pandemic and a new European war in Ukraine. Economies reel from inflation and the uncounted costs of Brexit. The question that has not really been asked in this time of national grief is whether the anchor will slip and a perilous drift will begin.

I saw the queen’s coronation at the home of a work-friend of my parents in blue-collar Salford, near Manchester, at one of those prefabricated bungalows that freckled Britain in the wake of the war. I was 6. The queen was 27. (King Charles was then 4.)

Of course, as a Briton, I am aware of the narrow line, often overstepped, between whimsy and mawkishness. But it was tempting, watching the state funeral and recalling the coronation, to marvel at the newness, the brightness of that moment in 1953, when even the possibilities of life had yet to be revealed to this British schoolboy.

Who would have known then that a life would — or could — unfold in such primary colors of achievement, advance and loss? And who knows now what the legacy of it all would turn out to be? On the radio Monday, someone quoted poet John Donne’s injunction to ask not for whom the bell tolls, because “it tolls for thee.” But what is the bell saying?

Watching the funeral, it seemed as if a pendulum was swinging between decline and renewal in the natural course of things. But it was hard to define where exactly Britain now stands in the cycle of national life.

A throng of people watches as Queen Elizabeth IIÕs coffin arrives at Windsor Castle in Windsor, England, about 25 miles west of London. (Mary Turner/The New York Times)

The event itself played out in choreographed near perfection. Not a soldier in the procession that accompanied the queen’s cortege put a wrong foot forward. Draped in her regal standard, her coffin provided a platform for priceless crown jewels adorning the symbols of monarchy — crown, orb and scepter. The brass shone. The boots glowed. The tunics provided a palette of color. Horses pranced. The coffin itself was mounted on a ceremonial gun carriage pulled along by 142 sailors of the Royal Navy, marching as if one to the solemn strains of a funeral march.

It was possible to forget that, as a constitutional monarchy, Britain’s Royal House of Windsor wields only ceremonial powers. In her last public act at Balmoral, the queen presided over the political transition from Boris Johnson to Liz Truss as prime minister. Routinely the monarch holds a private, weekly audience with the prime minister but has little say in the identity of the official, or in the maneuverings that suffused the switch of officeholder.

But there was a power on display in the solemnity of the service and the sheer spectacle of an event that brought Britons out in the thousands to line the streets, on occasion to cheer, at least to bear witness in reflective silence.

And another kind of soft power was on display in a guest list that included world leaders — U.S. President Joe Biden among them. Many of those who tried to analyze the event reached for anecdotes reflecting the queen’s less public role as a subtle force promoting the interests of her realm beyond the headline-seeking purview of politicians.

In 1957, the queen said in a Christmas broadcast, “It’s inevitable that I should seem a rather remote figure to many of you, a successor to the kings and queens of history.”

“I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice. But I can do something else. I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.” With her astonishing longevity — she was 96 when she died — the queen seemed to keep the promise.

In return, her subjects broadly offered their assent. It will be up to Charles now to renew or recast that covenant for an era when, with the queen’s death, Britons might expect a shift toward a newer kind of monarchy, less reliant on the mystique of regal aloofness, more streamlined, readier to wear some of that same heart on the regal sleeve.

For those who recalled the grainy screens of coronation day, there was something else in play. Stripped away from the overwhelming pomp and pageantry of the funeral, this was a spectacle of raw grief, of loss etched into the faces of her children and their descendants. Princes and princesses could feel pain, too.

For some, it conjured the sense of capricious bereavement that had been visited on those who lost relatives to COVID-19. Others reached for the memories of loved ones snatched away from them in other ways. The queen’s death turned Britons in on their own losses, evoking thoughts of hoped-for catharsis and closure.

Later on Monday, in a second part of the burial rites, held at Windsor Castle west of London — where Elizabeth buried Philip last year — the crown, orb and scepter were finally removed from the coffin, formally separating her from the emblems of earthly power. A high official snapped a symbolic wand and laid it on the coffin in advance of burial. If a transition was to take root, this was where its seed was planted.

Written by Alan Cowell

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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