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The British royals were not always at the top of the league table when it came to pageantry.

In fact, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain was probably near the bottom.

The Guardian‘s 2017 article about Operation London Bridge, about which I wrote yesterday, says (emphases mine):

For a long time, the art of royal spectacle was for other, weaker peoples: Italians, Russians, and Habsburgs. British ritual occasions were a mess. At the funeral of Princess Charlotte, in 1817, the undertakers were drunk. Ten years later, St George’s Chapel was so cold during the burial of the Duke of York that George Canning, the foreign secretary, contracted rheumatic fever and the bishop of London died. “We never saw so motley, so rude, so ill-managed a body of persons,” reported the Times on the funeral of George IV, in 1830. Victoria’s coronation a few years later was nothing to write home about. The clergy got lost in the words; the singing was awful; and the royal jewellers made the coronation ring for the wrong finger. “Some nations have a gift for ceremonial,” the Marquess of Salisbury wrote in 1860. “In England the case is exactly the reverse.”

Near the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, courtiers and constitutionalists became concerned about the public perception of the monarchy during her latter years and death.

Something would have to be done:

Courtiers, politicians and constitutional theorists such as Walter Bagehot worried about the dismal sight of the Empress of India trooping around Windsor in her donkey cart. If the crown was going to give up its executive authority, it would have to inspire loyalty and awe by other means – and theatre was part of the answer. “The more democratic we get,” wrote Bagehot in 1867, “the more we shall get to like state and show.”

It was Edward VII — historians add his son George V here, too — who transformed embarrassing displays into sheer pageantry.

Victoria never trusted Edward VII to be a reliable heir. Many think she lived so long in an effort to prevent him from succeeding her. As I have mentioned before, there is a parallel between the two of them and the late Queen and Charles III.

Yet, Edward VII’s ten-year reign was considered to be a good one.

He is the one who started codifying and defining what royal pageantry should be, in life and in death:

Obsessed by death, Victoria planned her own funeral with some style. But it was her son, Edward VII, who is largely responsible for reviving royal display. One courtier praised his “curious power of visualising a pageant”. He turned the state opening of parliament and military drills, like the Trooping of the Colour, into full fancy-dress occasions, and at his own passing, resurrected the medieval ritual of lying in state. Hundreds of thousands of subjects filed past his coffin in Westminster Hall in 1910, granting a new sense of intimacy to the body of the sovereign.

That said, one German still did not think the Brits were up to scratch with military processions:

In 1909, Kaiser Wilhelm II boasted about the quality of German martial processions: “The English cannot come up to us in this sort of thing.” Now we all know that no one else quite does it like the British.

George V, whom the then-Princess Elizabeth referred to as Grandfather England, carried on his father’s vision of pageantry and brought the Royal Family closer to his subjects via the wireless:

By 1932, George V was a national father figure, giving the first royal Christmas speech to the nation – a tradition that persists today – in a radio address written for him by Rudyard Kipling.

In The Times‘s article, ‘Modern-day royal funerals trace their traditions to Victoria’, Valentine Low, the author of Courtiers, tells us about the funerals of Edward VII and George V.

Before going into her son’s and grandson’s deaths, he says that Victoria’s funeral broke two previous conventions:

For the previous 200 years the funerals of sovereigns had been held in the evening: hers was the first to be held in the daytime. It was also the first to be filmed.

Edward VII’s Highland terrier, Caesar, was the star of his funeral, much to the annoyance of those attending the service. They knew how ill-behaved the dog could be. Only the King had a fondness for him. Royal historians who spoke on GB News said that the dog was in the funeral procession in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

Low says:

Caesar immediately captured the public imagination, and became a cult figure. His “memoirs”, entitled “Where’s Master?” were a popular Christmas present that year.

Low also says that the King’s favourite horse was in the outdoor procession in London:

At the funeral of Edward VII — who had insisted his obsequies, unlike those of his mother, were planned well in advance — his favourite charger, Kildare, walked behind the coffin in the procession from Westminster to Paddington, her master’s boots reversed in the stirrups. Behind her, led by a Highlander, trotted Caesar, the late King’s rough-haired terrier.

From Paddington Station, the Royal train transported the King’s coffin to Windsor.

George V’s death in 1936 was the first occurrence of the Vigil of the Princes at Westminster Hall. It was private:

When George V lay in state in Westminster Hall, on the evening of the fourth day King Edward VIII and his three brothers decided to pay a last tribute to their father by standing around the coffin in full-dress uniform, stationing themselves between the officers already on vigil.

He wrote later: “I doubt whether many recognised the King’s four sons among the motionless uniformed figures bent over swords reversed. We stood there for 20 minutes in the dim candlelight and the great silence. I felt close to my father and all that he stood for.”

On the day of his funeral, radio listeners were able to hear the funeral procession as it happened:

For all the expressions of public grief, and the growing involvement of the media — the funeral of George V was the first to have radio microphones placed along the processional route so that the world could listen to the tramp of feet and the thump of muffled drums — it should not be forgotten that royal funerals are also moments of private grief for the families themselves.

George VI never expected to become king. However, his older brother Edward VIII abdicated, and he had to step up. Continuing his father’s Christmas broadcasts proved to be difficult, and he had to get the help of a speech therapist, the Australian Lionel Logue, in order to overcome his stammer. The film, The King’s Speech, is a moving account of that story.

George VI and the Queen Mother never left England, even at the height of the Second World War. The princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, lived in Windsor Castle for much of the war.

When he died in 1952, the whole country mourned:

Immense crowds lined the streets for the funeral procession of George VI, the shy, simple, devoted king who had seen the country through the Second World War. As two minutes’ silence was observed around the country, miners in South Wales knelt at the coalface, heads bowed, their helmets on their knees.

Not many Britons had television sets at that time, yet his funeral was the first to be televised, setting a new marker for the visibility of the Royal Family:

Of all the modern royal funerals it was that of George VI that saw one of the most poignant moments of private royal grief. His funeral was the first to be televised, but what the cameras were unable to capture was how, too frail to attend the funeral of her son, Queen Mary watched the procession from the window of Marlborough House.

Her friend and lady-in-waiting Lady Airlie, who sat with her, wrote: “As the cortège wound slowly along the Queen whispered in a broken voice, ‘Here he is,’ and I knew that her dry eyes were seeing beyond the coffin a little boy in a sailor suit. She was past weeping, wrapped in the effable solitude of grief. I could not speak to comfort her. My tears choked me.

“The words I wanted to say would not come. We held each other’s hand in silence.”

Another relatively recent development in monarchs’ deaths is the known role of their personal physicians in their final hours.

In the case of George V, his doctor’s role was revealed long after his death:

Half a century after George V’s death it emerged that his life had been ended prematurely by his doctor, Lord Dawson, who hastened his journey to the next world so that it could meet the deadlines of the respectable morning newspapers, in particular The Times.

“The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close,” was the final notice issued by Dawson at 9.30pm on the night of January 20, 1936. Not long afterwards he injected the king with 750mg of morphine and a gram of cocaine — enough to kill him twice over — in order to ease the monarch’s suffering. However he had another motive, too, as revealed in a 1986 biography by the historian Francis Watson. Dawson wrote in his notes: “The determination of the time of death of the King’s body had another object in view, viz, of the importance of the death receiving its first announcement in the morning papers rather than the less appropriate field of the evening journals.”

In the case of Elizabeth II, we knew that her physician was Professor Sir Huw Thomas, 64, and read of her final hours.

The Guardian‘s 2017 article stated:

In these last hours, the Queen’s senior doctor, a gastroenterologist named Professor Huw Thomas, will be in charge. He will look after his patient, control access to her room and consider what information should be made public.

On Friday, September 9, 2022, the day after her death, The Times reported:

The doctor overseeing the Queen’s medical care had been in charge of her health for the past eight years, during which time she became increasingly frail but insisted on continuing with her royal duties.

Professor Sir Huw Thomas, 64, is head of the medical household and was physician to the Queen. He was appointed a physician to the royal household in 2005 and promoted to the most senior role in July 2014.

The details about the Queen’s health provided by Buckingham Palace yesterday were sparse, but the language hinted at the severity of the situation. Doctors were “concerned” and the Queen remained “under medical supervision”. The latter phrase was likely to mean that her health problems were serious enough that they required active monitoring by doctors.

Thomas oversaw the Queen’s care during the coronavirus pandemic and advised her to reduce her workload after she underwent preliminary tests and spent a night at King Edward VII’s Hospital in west London last October.

He said during an interview about being knighted for his royal duties: “It’s been a busy couple of years in this role . . . You very much become part of that organisation and become the personal doctor to the principal people in it, who are patients just like other patients.”

The royal doctors at Balmoral might have needed to be involved in anything from interpreting vital signs to prescribing medication that could ensure, as the palace statement added, that the Queen “remained comfortable”.

Those of us who admire the  British royals have much for which to thank Edward VII and George V. They gave us the transparency and majesty we have come to expect today.

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