The overwhelming silence in the ancient building was what the little girl noticed first. It was as if, she said, “the king were asleep”. It was January 1936. The king was George V, the little girl his granddaughter, Princess Elizabeth of York, afterwards Elizabeth II.
The Queen was only nine when, for the first time, she experienced the sombre magnificence of a royal lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. Her mother’s lady-in-waiting wrote that Elizabeth “adored” her gruff, plain-spoken grandfather, who had died at the age of 70: they shared a love of horses, stamp collecting and the Highlands.
But it was not Elizabeth’s choice to participate in the dead king’s obsequies. That decision was taken on her behalf by her formidable grandmother, Queen Mary. Elizabeth was present in Westminster Hall at Queen Mary’s “special wish”, wrote The Times. For the first time in her life, the future queen was dressed from head to foot in inky black. For the widowed Mary, the ceremonies surrounding her husband’s death represented history in the making, and she was determined that Elizabeth, her favourite grandchild, experience them first hand.
Outside in the wintry streets, claimed British Movietone newsreel, “mourning crowds” of the king’s devoted subjects stretched “for hundreds of yards”. The end of the queue “lay far away, by Lambeth bridge” — a considerably shorter distance from the St Stephen’s Gate entrance to Westminster Hall than mourners this week are likely to experience.
Men, women and children wore black armbands, their sorrow “reverent”. Inside, every sound was muffled. Four Guards officers, four Yeomen of the Guard and four Gentlemen-at-Arms kept silent watch over the coffin.
Draped in the old king’s royal standard, lit by towering candles, it stood on a raised bier in the otherwise empty space beneath the shadow-filled hammerbeam roof. Just as we will see this week, on top of the coffin glittered the Imperial State Crown, the coronation orb made for Charles II and the gold sceptre. Two decades earlier, at the start of George V’s reign, the sceptre had been remodelled to incorporate one of the largest jewels in the world, the 530-carat Cullinan I diamond.
What did Princess Elizabeth think of her first encounter with the stately ceremonies of royal death, a business as public as every facet of royal life? Certainly, she did not enjoy herself, holding her grandmother’s black-gloved hand, awed by the silent vaulted spaces, the soldiers’ heads respectfully bowed, the unearthly glister of the Crown Jewels.
Her governess remembered her small face drained of colour, quivering. She described Elizabeth’s determination to “go through with it, making no fuss”, an impulse that, with hindsight, sounds entirely characteristic. One newspaper described the gravity of her gaze as she stared uncertainly around her. In 1936, the king’s coffin lay at rest in Westminster Hall for four days, as his granddaughter’s will this week. Princess Elizabeth’s visit took place before the public was admitted, after dark and in the company of many members of her family. Nevertheless, it was a disquieting spectacle for a little girl whose life so far had been filled with sunshine.
The king’s coffin was a disquieting spectacle for a little girl whose life so far had been filled with sunshine
But it was impressive, too. In 1936, a royal lying-in-state in Westminster Hall — an honour previously accorded to Victorian statesman and prime minister William Gladstone — was a relatively new tradition, introduced at the end of the last reign, when, in 1910, mourners had filed past the coffin of Edward VII. Both the solemnity and the ancient-seeming appearance of this saddest spectacle, however, belied this relative novelty. And there were further novelties when Princess Elizabeth paid her respects to her grandfather. The little girl witnessed a changing of the guards flanking the coffin, the replacement of Guards officers by the dead king’s four sons. Alongside the new king, Edward VIII, were Albert, Duke of York, Princess Elizabeth’s father, and his younger brothers Henry, Duke of Gloucester and George, Duke of Kent.
The public was deeply moved by this “Vigil of the Princes” — it was a reminder that the king’s death was not simply the close of a chapter in royal history but a family bereavement. A similar family vigil was repeated at the lying-in-state of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2002, when all four grandsons of the former queen consort stood sentinel around her coffin. Earlier this week, in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, the Queen’s four children re-enacted this moving tableau. The inclusion of the Princess Royal was the first occasion on which a daughter or granddaughter has participated in a lying-in-state in this way.
Queen Mary had her own reasons for insisting on Princess Elizabeth’s presence in Westminster Hall in 1936. George V had more than once expressed uncertainty that his eldest son would ever occupy the throne, a prophecy fulfilled in the abdication of December 1936.
In January 1936, standing watch over his father’s coffin, the new king, Edward VIII, was still unmarried: Princess Elizabeth was his heir in the next generation. Since her birth in April 1926, journalists and many who met the lively, golden-haired princess, described by a friend of her parents as “bright as an atom of radium”, had wondered if she would one day be queen. For Queen Mary, Princess Elizabeth was no ordinary granddaughter.
Newspapers described the little girl’s presence at her grandmother’s side in Westminster Hall as a sign of the old queen’s fondness. But Queen Mary’s careful explanations of the significance of the lying-in-state and details of the royal regalia on display were prompted by more than affection. For her, Elizabeth was already a possible queen-in-waiting. George V’s lying-in-state offered his subjects the opportunity to pay their respects to a much-loved monarch, who had safeguarded his throne through the cataclysm of the First World War and repeatedly shown his sympathy for the poor and unemployed during the economic slump of the Twenties.
For those who grieved, it also offered closure. English common law insists that the crown never dies: the sovereign is succeeded by his or her heir immediately. For those not yet ready to celebrate the accession of the new king, the lying-in-state provided a focus for thoughts of his predecessor.
This week’s lying-in-state will serve a similar purpose. Many of those who queue to file past the Queen’s coffin will do so as a means of expressing their thanks for a life and reign of exemplary public service.
As formalities surrounding the accession of Charles III continue, the lying-in-state gives Elizabeth’s former subjects the chance to reflect on her life and reign, before embracing the new reign that began last Thursday. In appearance the Queen’s lying-in-state will almost exactly resemble that of her grandfather in 1936 and her father, George VI. In 1952, the queues of mourners smartly dressed in hats, scarves and, in many cases, fur coats, stretched three miles along the banks of the Thames, served by newspaper sellers and cigarette vendors, with cups of tea available against the February chill in a pre-Starbucks capital.
Only in one detail did the appearance of the king’s coffin on its differ from that of Elizabeth II. The Imperial State Crown itself was different. It was remodelled for the Queen’s coronation in 1953, its diamond-encrusted arches made lower in a redesign thought to give the crown a more feminine appearance.
Just as then, the lying-in-state provides a sombre preliminary to the state funeral. It is an almost wordless spectacle, impressive in its silent grandeur and the weight of ages tangible in venerable Westminster Hall, a building that traces its origins to Norman England.
As in 1936 and 1952, the royal family will go there before the public is admitted. For them, as for us, it is an opportunity to offer thanks, and to come to terms with the enormity of our national loss.
Matthew Dennison is the author of The Queen (Head of Zeus)