Sat alone, amid the vast emptiness of St George’s Chapel on what was the longest of days for her, the sorrowful photo of Her Majesty saying farewell to her ‘strength and stay’ of 73 years was simply heartbreaking – never before has the Queen appeared so vulnerable in public or like any other grandparent at such times of family bereavement.
And as she, too, faced one of the many inhuman cruelties that the Covid pandemic has inflicted on the newly-widowed, she will have sought solace in the hauntingly beautiful and mesmerising words that she spoke nearly 20 years ago in the aftermath of the devastating 9/11 terror attacks in the United States.
“Nothing that can be said can begin to take away the anguish and the pain of these moments,” she told the grieving families of the British victims killed in the tragedy. “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
Elegant and eloquent then, they’re just as poignant – and bittersweet – now as the Queen, who turns 95 on Wednesday, faces the onerous, even daunting, task of balancing the resumption of her public duties, at a time of national and international tragedy over Covid, while mourning the man who became the true love of her life; a guiding presence in good times and bad.
This was personified by the touching handwritten message attached to the wreath of white lilies, small white roses, white freesia and other flowers chosen by Her Majesty to adorn the Duke of Edinburgh’s coffin as it was carried from Windsor Castle to the 99-year-old’s final resting place.
The card simply said ‘In loving memory, Lilibet’ – the same heartfelt words Her Majesty wrote in 2002 for the Queen Mother’s funeral with Lilibet being an endearing family reference to her own childhood when she struggled to say Elizabeth before being courted by her future husband and consort.
Accompanied by her loyal lady-in-waiting Lady Susan Hussey, this most of sombre afternoons also represented an ashen-faced Queen’s first public appearance since Philip’s death eight days previously at the age of 99.
The Queen made her way from the Sovereign’s Entrance of Windsor Castle in a State Bentley, as the national anthem was played, to join part of the solemn funeral procession which had been preceded by a parade of over 700 members of the Armed Forces; stirring military music and the arrival of the dark bronze green Land Rover Defender hearse that the Duke designed for this occasion.
Philip’s coffin, draped in his striking 12ft personal standard and decorated with the Queen’s wreath, his very well-worn Admiral of the Fleet Naval Cap and a sword given to him on his wedding day by King George VI, had, moments earlier, been lifted into place for its final journey by members of the Armed Forces.
The footsteps of the bearer party, which included the son of Falklands War hero Colonel H Jones, were the only sound at this point in an eerily quiet Windsor quadrangle that, just last summer, witnessed Philip’s final public duty and an outpouring of happiness as the Queen knighted the 100-year-old NHS fundraiser Captain Sir Tom Moore, another icon to already have departed us this year.
Walking behind the coffin, with their medals gleaming in the spring sun, were a teary-eyed Prince of Wales and dutiful-looking Princess Royal followed by their younger siblings, the Earl of Wessex and Duke of York, and other members of the Royal party, while the Queen – for one of the few times in her 69-year reign – was to the rear in the privacy of her Bentley.
As the Royals tried to keep their emotions in check on a private and personal that also had to be very public because of the Duke’s status and standing, they will have been touched by the sight of Prince Philip’s two carriage driving ponies Balmoral Nevis and Notlaw Storm being reassuringly patted by a devoted groom.
Fittingly their master’s carriage was empty – other than his tweed cap, brown gloves, blanket and container holding the sugar lumps that Philip fed these faithful animals.
It was one of the many touches personally planned by His Royal Highness, a man famed for his ‘no fuss’ approach to life, that made this state ceremonial funeral so touching as different aspects of this send-off – made even more unique by the lockdown – reflected Philip’s great passions for the military, outdoors and then his family and deep religious faith.
The first proper glimpse of the Queen came when she emerged from her Bentley to enter St George’s Chapel. Momentarily hesitant on her feet, she appeared to look behind – perhaps out of habit from seven decades when she was always one pace ahead of Prince Philip – before being led to her pew and its solitude where, perhaps, the closest comfort at this time was the knowledge that the country, and Commonwealth, shared her pain.
There was then a heartfelt wait as the coffin was carried with military precision up the steps of St George’s Chapel before the national minute’s silence and procession to the chapel where just 30 guests were present for a deeply-moving 50-minute service.
The Queen looked deeply moved as the Dean of Windsor, the Rt Rev David Conner, cited Philip’s “unwavering loyalty” to her and also his “kindness, humour and humanity” as he prayed that “God will give us grace to follow his example”.
Covid restrictions meant all mourners in the chapel wore face masks and were sat socially distanced with partners or by themselves. The Queen’s nearest family member was Prince Andrew, while Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were directly opposite her.
A small choir of four sung the chosen hymns, including Eternal Father, Strong To Save in tribute to Philip’s naval service, while the Duke of Sussex, just like his grandmother, sat alone, pensively, after flying to Britain from Los Angeles for a family reunion made even more difficult by recent controversies.
Great works of heraldry in tribute to Philip’s long life provided the backdrop to the commendation, presided over by the Dean of Windsor, before Thomas Woodcock, the Garter Principal King of Arms listed the late Duke’s many illustrious titles in a chapel that looked so unfamiliar from the Royal weddings – far happier family occasions – that it has become accustomed to hosting in recent times.
As he did so with aplomb, the coffin began to be gently lowered from the chapel’s catafalque by electric motor as the Queen and Royal family said a tearful final farewell to a remarkable man who, for them, wasn’t a Prince or a Duke. Instead, they grieved for a husband, loyal consort, devoted father, much-loved grandfather, great grandfather, uncle, confidante and so much more.
This last act was completed to the haunting sound of a Royal Marine bugler before the playing of the Last Post, rarely has it been performed with so much meaning, and then Action Stations – the latter being a Naval tribute, Philip’s final wish and, perhaps, a signal of his desire for his family to return to duty.
A service made more poignant by its simplicity, the Dean of Windsor bowed his head before leading a stoic and sombre Queen out of St George’s Chapel – and the lonely journey back to Windsor Castle as both a monarch and widow even more painfully aware of her own maxim that “grief is the price we pay for love”.
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