A ceremonial royal funeral, like that of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, is not a state funeral – which is normally only accorded to monarchs – but it is still normally a grand occasion.
The Queen Mother’s funeral, held at Westminster Abbey in April 2002, began with the tenor bell sounding 101 times – once for every year of her life. Over the previous days, she had laid in state at Westminster Hall and some 200,000 members of the public had filed past to pay their respects. Her four grandsons held a vigil around her coffin.
The Abbey was full to capacity with 2,200 guests, including VIPs and heads of state, made up the congregation. The Queen Mother’s coffin, draped in her personal standard and topped with her crown and camellias from her gardens, travelled on a gun carriage to the Abbey and, after the funeral service, her coffin was driven along the Mall on its way to St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Huge crowds lined the route.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral was always intended to be more private and less ostentatious. He never wanted to lie in state. He intended his coffin to be carried on a specially-adapted Land Rover, painted military green, and he planned, with his customary wit, that his funeral should end with the Buglers of the Royal Marines sounding “Action Stations” – a naval warship announcement instructing all hands to return to their battle stations.
No one could foresee, however, that his funeral would be even more modest. Under the public health guidelines around Covid-19, only 30 people are allowed to attend funerals. This does not just rule out the attendance of heads of state, but members of the royal family: the Duchess of York, Prince Michael of Kent, and the children of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. It is rare indeed for the third in line to the throne not to attend a royal funeral. In its size, at least, it is very modern.
But it harks to the past. The guest list includes the Hereditary Prince of Baden, the Landgrave of Hesse, and the Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. These are the Duke’s great-nephews and cousins, and their presence remembers Philip’s sisters Margarita, Theodore, Cecilie, and Sophie, who all married German princes in 1930-31. Also on the guest list is Penelope Knatchbull, Countess Mountbatten of Burma. Not only one of Prince Philip’s closest friends, she is also wife to the grandson of his beloved uncle, Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, who was killed by the IRA in 1979.
The Duke of Edinburgh wanted something in the style of a military funeral, and the representatives from the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, and the Queen’s Royal Hussars, and all the others who will line the Quadrangle at Windsor Castle reflect that. Service Chiefs will process ahead of his coffin, his bearers will be drawn from The Queen’s Company, 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards and later the Royal Marines, and a Royal Naval Piping Party will play during the coffin’s entrance up the West Steps into St George’s Chapel.
Along with his regalia, his Field Marshal’s baton and Royal Air Force wings will be on display at the altar. But his family will not wear their military uniforms, as is usual at ceremonial royal funerals. Whether this is to save Prince Andrew or Prince Harry’s blushes is not clear.
And yet ultimately his funeral will also be intensely traditional. The Duke will be interred in a chapel dating from 1475, where kings and queens have been buried for centuries, and the whole thing will be carried out, as ever, with military precision – just as Philip would have wanted.
Suzannah Lipscomb is a British historian and professor emerita at the University of Roehampton