The large-scale public reactions that followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, on August 31, 1997, and that of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on March 30, 2002, illustrate the longstanding tendency of prominent British royal deaths to stir an emotional response from millions who had never personally been acquainted with the deceased. Royal deaths have also evoked important forms of ritual and symbolic commemoration that are significant both in the context of the evolution of British civil religion and national identity, and in shaping and representing wider social and cultural responses to death. Despite occasional subversive undertones, the expression of such collective grief usually provided a potent legitimation of the institution of the monarchy and the existing social and political order.
The deaths of Tudor monarchs such as Henry VIII in 1547 and Elizabeth I in 1603 were followed by elaborate ceremonies, combining religious and secular elements, and apparently reflecting genuine depth of public feeling. During the reign of James I from 1603 these rituals were developed further into a "theatre of death" through which the new Stuart dynasty sought to assert its prestige, but in so doing it began to outrun popular sentiment. At this period royal funeral ceremonies—like those of all members of the elite—were controlled by precise regulations from heralds designed to ensure that they reflected, sustained, and stabilized a social and political order that had been disrupted by the death.
A seeming low point in the fortunes of the monarchy came in January 1649 when, following its victory over King Charles I in the English Civil War, Parliament sentenced him to death "by the severing of his head from his body." When, however, the king was publicly executed on the balcony of Whitehall Palace, one observer recorded that the fall of the axe was greeted with "such a groan by the thousands then present as I never heard before" (Bland 1986, p. 54). Charles, who conducted himself at the last moments with great dignity, claimed that he died a martyr, and subsequent religious veneration for his memory and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 indicated that his enemies had indeed overreached themselves by committing regicide.
From the seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century royal funerals—in common with those of the nobility—took place at night. This custom was intended to lessen the burden of precise heraldic regulation, which was already beginning to seem anachronistic. It had the effect of giving enhanced drama to the occasions, lit by torchlight, but reduced the scope for public participation. In the meantime, few royal deaths inspired strong public emotions. Notable exceptions were the untimely demise of Mary II in 1694, a victim of smallpox at the age of thirty-two, and the death in childbirth in 1817 of Princess Charlotte, then the only legitimate grandchild of George III and second in line to the throne. In 1821 the funeral procession of George IV's estranged wife Queen Caroline was accompanied by demonstrations against the king and the government, who were held responsible for shabby treatment of the deceased. In general, however, the late Stuart and Hanoverian royal family inspired dutiful observance rather than intense feeling in an era that in its overall response to death tended to emphasize ritual rather than emotion.
There was a gradual change in attitudes during the long reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901). The funeral of the queen's husband, Prince Albert, in 1861 was a private one, but it was accompanied by strong expressions of collective public grief, and in the decades that followed his widow appeared to make continued mourning a way of life. In this period the royal family came to be seen increasingly as paradigmatic of the joys and sorrows of ordinary families, and hence there was a growing tendency for the public to view its bereavements in a quasi-personal way. This phenomenon was strikingly illustrated by sentiment following the early death of the queen's grandson, Prince Albert Victor, in 1892, and on Victoria's own demise in 1901. Meanwhile precedents for a more grandiose form of public mourning were set by two major non-royal funerals, those of Lord Nelson in 1806 and the Duke of Wellington in 1852. These trends combined to produce extensive popular engagement with large-scale funerals for Queen Victoria and, in 1910, Edward VII.
During the period since World War I there have only been two deaths of reigning monarchs, George V in 1936 and George VI in 1952. Both gave rise to strong and extensive public emotion, which was focused by repetition of essentially the same forms of ritual used in 1910. Until the end of the twentieth century, responses to the deaths of other members of the royal family were relatively low-key. In 1997, however, the tragic and untimely nature of Princess Diana's death following the very high profile nature of her life ensured that feelings would run high. The Queen Mother's death at the age of 101 in 2002 was, by contrast, hardly unexpected, but it evoked a widespread mood of sadness at her passing and of celebration of her life. Her funeral followed a broadly similar pattern to that of her husband George VI. Even here, though, there were innovations that reflected the social changes of the intervening half century, including the presence of the Princess Royal among the male mourners following the coffin, and the conveyance of the body to its final resting place at Windsor by road rather than railway.
Organizing and Performing Rituals
Overall responsibility for the funerals of sovereigns rests with the Earl Marshal, an office of state held on a hereditary basis by the dukes of Norfolk, who are assisted by the heralds of the College of Arms. The funerals of other members of the royal family are organized by Lord Chamberlain's office, which is part of the permanent royal secretariat. Numerous other agencies are involved in more complex and large-scale rituals. These have included the Office of Works (for temporary additions to buildings), the church, the armed services, the police, and the railways.
Until the beginning of the nineteenth century royal funerals were usually held in London with interments in Westminster Abbey. George III, however, moved the royal burial place to St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, thus focusing ceremonially on what was then a relatively small country town, several hours journey from the capital in pre-railway days. Scope for public participation was therefore limited. Only following the death of Queen Victoria was there a decisive move back to a more public and large-scale ceremonial. Her funeral, which included a spectacular naval review and a military procession through central London, represented a return to a "theatre of death" on a scale not seen since the early seventeenth century. The trend was confirmed upon the death of her son Edward VII when a further ritual of a public lying-in-state in Westminster Hall was added and proved enormously popular.
Major royal funerals, especially those of sovereigns, were made up of a series of ceremonies extending over several days, public and private, religious and secular, and presenting different aspects of the deceased. For example, Edward VII's body initially lay privately in his bedroom at Buckingham Palace, before being moved ceremonially to the Throne Room, and then in a street procession to Westminster Hall. After the three days of the public lying-in-state, there was a further street procession to Paddington Station, a train journey to Windsor, a procession from the station to the Castle, and a culminating religious service in St. George's Chapel.
The apparent seamlessness of such events conceals a reality of extensive improvisation and last-minute decision making. Royal funerals—unlike coronations, jubilees, and weddings—need to be arranged in a timescale measured in days rather than months. Although Queen Victoria was eighty-one at the time of her death, no developed plans for her funeral were in place and the ten days between her death and funeral were marked, according to one participant, by the most "extraordinary hurly burly of confusion" (Wolffe 2000, p. 235). Although some discreet advance planning can be made, the exact circumstances of a death are unforseeable and, in particular, the unexpected death of a relatively young person, as in the case of Princess Diana, is likely to catch the authorities almost wholly unprepared.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the days of royal funerals were increasingly marked by parallel processions and church services in provincial towns and cities. By this means many people remote from London or Windsor were able to achieve a sense of participation in a national ritual. Solidarity in grief was expressed by the wearing of mourning clothes and emblems such as black armbands. In this period instructions for the general wearing of mourning for periods of several weeks drew general compliance, giving a somber atmosphere to the streets. From the mid–twentieth century onward, the advent of radio and, eventually, television intensified this sense of involvement while shifting it from the communal public religiosity of streets and places of worship to the individualistic and domestic environment of people's homes. Film and television have increased consciousness of royal funerals as mass spectacles, as manifested in the unprecedented size of the worldwide television audience that watched Princess Diana's funeral.
Functions and Effects
As in the aftermath of death in private life, responses to royal deaths have been shaped by contingent circumstances and emotions, which were often fluid and fast moving. Explicit social, cultural, and political agendas were seldom articulated. Nevertheless, a number of strong implicit functions
First, there was the need to reaffirm the social and political hierarchy that had been disrupted by the death. This function was especially strong in the early modern era of close heraldic regulation, but persisted in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with processions and other rituals being designed to display order and stability. At the same time, from the early twentieth century onward, public lyings-in-state, and large crowds—whether present in person or participating at a distance through radio and television—constituted a democratic element. Conversely, however, on some occasions responses to royal deaths have had a subversive dimension. Public reactions to the deaths of Princess Charlotte in 1817 and Queen Caroline in 1821 were colored by hostility to the Tory government of the day and to the Prince Regent, who succeeded to the throne as George IV in 1820. Such a tendency to question rather than sustain the existing order recurred in the hostility expressed toward the surviving royal family following Princess Diana's death.
Second, the aftermath of royal deaths has provided an opportunity for affirming or reshaping the image of the deceased. In life Prince Albert was liable to be seen as a meddling foreigner exercising an inappropriate influence over the government, but in death he became a symbol of ideal English manhood. Queen Victoria was celebrated as an ideal of motherhood, but the reality of her relationships with her children and grandchildren was much more ambivalent. Princess Diana, perceived in life as sometimes wayward and manipulative, became a quasi-saint in death.
Third, collective mourning for royalty has been a focus for common identity within the multinational United Kingdom state and, in the past, the diverse and scattered territories of the British Empire. Royalty are perceived to transcend social and political divisions to a degree that has only been matched by exceptional non-royal figures (i.e., Sir Winston Churchill, who died in 1965). The psychological constraints imposed by a sense of decency in the face of death made open dissent very rare, even in countries such as India and Ireland where British rule was otherwise strongly contested.
Fourth, royal deaths have served as a communal representation of private fears and griefs. Thus Princess Charlotte was identified with the numerous early-nineteenth-century young women who died in childbirth, just as Princess Diana's car crash painfully reminded the public of this characteristic form of death for late-twentieth-century young women. Prince Albert's early death was a focus for the personal bereavements of other widows and young children, while in responding to the deaths of Queen Victoria and subsequent monarchs, members of the public showed themselves to be recalling or anticipating losses of their own parents and grandparents.
Finally, royal deaths have marked the passage of time. Many people recall their own exact circumstances when they heard of the death of Princess Diana, or among an older generation, George VI. Monarchs who reigned for a long period, such as George III (1760–1820), seemed to symbolize a whole era, and their passing therefore stirred a sense of discontinuity and new beginnings. This phenomenon was especially pronounced in the case of Queen Victoria, whose death coincided closely with the beginning of the twentieth century, and has recurred in relation to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, whose long life spanned the whole of that same century.
Overall, responses to British royal deaths can be set within a broadly Durkheimian theoretical perspective. In other words they serve as a ritual expression of social solidarities and a means for regenerating and sustaining the fabric of national life. They are also a significant component of a British form of civil religion, being an occasion for the affirmation both in rituals and in speeches and sermons of the perceived fundamental spiritual values focused upon the institution of the monarchy. For example, at the lying-in-state of Edward VII, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of a renewing of a sense of national mission. Upon the death of George VI the February 15, 1952, edition of the Times affirmed that "the sentiments evoked by the death and accession of monarchs have a quality that it is no impiety to call religious." By the time of Princess Diana's death the explicitly Christian content of such religiosity had become significantly more attenuated, but the sense of a spiritual dimension to national grief remained.
The British experience invites comparison with other countries that have remained monarchies in the contemporary era. The deaths of King Olaf V of Norway in 1991 and of King Baudouin of Belgium in 1993 were followed by widespread public grief, which gave occasion for significant reaffirmations of national unity and identity. Further afield the elaborate rituals that follow the deaths of Thai monarchs constitute politically significant affirmations of continuity and royal prestige, while the assassination of King Birendra of Nepal in 2001 evoked intense and emotionally charged reactions. Monarchs, in contrast to most presidents and prime ministers, normally hold office for life, and accordingly become for their generation seemingly permanent carriers and symbols of national identity. Their deaths, inevitable as they are in the course of nature, are therefore particularly psychologically disorienting for their people. Study of the ways in which nations react to this disruption of the fabric of seeming normality both adds to understanding of attitudes to death itself, and illuminates wider historical and social processes.
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