Royal Lying in State Rituals Endure despite Changing Times

September 18, 2022

LONDON — When Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather, King George V, died 86 years ago, many homes in Britain had little or no electricity and large parts of the population still lived in slums.

Life in 1936 is unrecognizable to Britons today. But despite almost a century of change, the images from the queen’s lying in state this week are almost exact copies of those from when George V lay in state.

Both used the same vast, medieval Westminster Hall with the coffin resting on a royal purple platform in the middle. A brass cross is at one end of the coffin, the royal standard is draped on top, and tall candlesticks and scarlet and gold-clad ceremonial guards are carefully placed around it.

Historians say maintaining such traditions consistently through time is crucial to preserving reverence for the monarchy.

“When you look at the photographs, it’s like spot the difference isn’t it?” said historian Tracy Borman, author of “Crown and Sceptre: 1000 years of Kings and Queens.”

“People want to see a crown and scepter, they like to see these ceremonies played out the same way,” she added. “People derive some sort of comfort and security from that unchanging nature. It seems to be what people value about the monarchy: nothing changing.”

The queen, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch who ruled for 70 years, was the constant rock of stability in British life before she died on Sept. 8 in Scotland. Even in death, the pomp and pageantry to mark her passing evokes elaborate mourning rituals that seem to be frozen in time.

Before the queen, five British kings and queens have lain in state at Westminster Hall, a 900-year-old building at the center of British politics and power for centuries. The hall hosted numerous medieval coronation banquets, as well as the trials of Guy Fawkes and Charles I in the 17th century.

FILE – The flag-drapped coffin of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Lies-in-State, as it is guarded at the four corners of the catafalque by her four grandsons: the Duke of York, left, the Earl of Wessex, right, Viscoount Linley, center, and the Prince of Wales, hidden – far side, in Westminster Hall London on the eve of her funeral, Monday, April 8, 2002. (John Stillwell, Pool photo via AP, File)

The tradition of lying in state stretches back to the time of the Stuarts — who reigned from 1603 to 1714 — when sovereigns lay in state for a number of days. But Edward VII was the monarch who set the modern tradition of lying in state in Westminster Hall in 1910. Archival footage showed that just like today, crowds formed huge lines snaking through central London for a chance to file past their sovereign’s coffin.

Historian Ed Owens believes it was a canny move by Edward VII to strengthen the bond between the crown and its subjects.

“He saw the lying in state as a key moment that would bring him as monarch into close contact with his subjects, a final opportunity for them to bid farewell,” said Owens, author of “The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-1953.”

“This was a moment that would be captured by the new technologies of photography and film,” Owens added. “And it was a way of saying to the wider country and the wider world, that monarch and people were in a kind of spiritual communion.”

FILE – British Naval Officers stand vigil by the coffin of Sir Winston Churchill at Westminster Hall, London, before the funeral. Sir Winston Churchill was buried with full state honors, Jan. 30, 1965. (AP Photo, File)

Other royals who lay in state at Westminster Hall were King George VI, Elizabeth’s father, in 1952, and Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s grandmother, in 1953. George VI’s wife Queen Elizabeth, known in later years as the Queen Mother after her daughter became monarch, was the last person to lie in state in Britain. Each time, the occasions drew tens of thousands of people.

Two former prime ministers — William Gladstone in 1898 and Winston Churchill in 1965 — also lay in state at Westminster Hall. Churchill also had a state funeral — the last one staged in Britain until Monday, when the state funeral for the queen takes place.

Such pageantry continues to fascinate because it seems to play into an enduring craving for ritual, Borman said.

The monarchy holds “a kind of magnetism” because “you’re staring history in the face, they represent that ancient line stretching back,” she said.

That appeal suits the royals just fine — and indeed, she pointed out that the royal household has been “absolutely dedicated” to upholding the unchanging nature of such ceremonies.

“That is very deliberate, I think,” Borman said. “I guess the heart of that is to stop people getting rid of the monarchy.”



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