Little of the ornate rituals of mourning and funeral we are seeing are traditional or even old. It was Queen Victoria’s death that ushered in these levels of display and reverence. The medieval trappings of costume, rods struck on stone, solemn incantations, roles (such as The Ravenmaster) and so on are merely borrowings, appropriations of history. As such, they ought to look incongruous, since they have little true connection with the long history they appear to claim. Yes, medieval monarchs employed Yeomen of the Guard (guards to the Tower of London), but on occasions they were just as likely to be a threat to the new monarch as his or her bodyguards.
But here we are, with an unprecedented 10 days of mourning, processions around the United Kingdom, the ‘Royal Family’ (a concept introduced by Elisabeth II herself) in full flourish and repeated affirmations of the new king. Why? Operation London Bridge, all of these arrangements, have been 10 years in the planning with Elisabeth herself at the helm.
What is on display is the philosophy of monarchy of Elisabeth herself. It is a conservative, even atavistic philosophy based on divine authority, moral paternalism, elitism and a rejection of social change – above all, the idea of the royal figurehead as a legitimising authority for our elite institutions. Elisabeth’s otherwise inexplicable denial of the crown to her son until his years of decline was a stubborn assertion of these outdated values and an obstinate resistance towards modernisation. We saw this viscerally exposed in Elisabeth’s treatment to Lady Diana and her death. Diana was a true threat to the Queen’s values as she celebrated immersion in modern life, felt another human being’s touch without a white glove, engaged with contemporary issues in society, and shared intimacy with a ‘dark-skinned man’.
There is no merit in referring to the publication of Elisabeth’s home movies, her concession to paying income tax, and the introduction of the royal walk-about as examples of modernisation. These and other marginal efforts are better characterised by the eponymous French aristocrat on the eve of the French Revolution in 1789: “if we want things to stay the same we had better start changing”.
And it would be missing the point to stand back from her inciting an orderly and extended national hysteria to say that it speaks of an overweening self-regard. She was too professional to give in to that, too committed to her role and her vision of the United Kingdom, too dogged in her self-denial as an individual and a mother. No, it is better understood as a final throw of the dice, a final, flamboyant act of defiance against modernisation and a defence of proto-medieval values. For the moment it seems to have worked. Republican dissent is suppressed, streets are saturated with gushing sentiment, and even the new King Charles III appears to be so cowed by this pre-emptive putsch as to make gritted-teeth statements of loyalty and continuity – something he firmly does not believe in. What we have been witnessing is a Head of State mounting their own revolution against the relentless forces of change.