The world has watched transfixed – many in admiration, others in bemusement and some in irritation – the spectacle and fanfare around Queen Elizabeth’s death and funeral. However, we should remind ourselves that the ceremony and rituals, spanning 12 days, is of relatively recent vintage and arguably owes much to the expansion of the British empire and the resources and self-confidence that came with it.
Nearly two centuries ago, during the coronation in 1821 of George IV, prizefighters (or bouncers to use today’s parlance) had to maintain peace among the guests. In fact, the funerals of royals at the time hardly commanded nationwide attention in England. The funerals that did were of national heroes like Wellington or Nelson.
Even during the Victorian period, a member of the nobility noted in the Saturday Review in 1861 that unlike other European nations, England did not have a gift for the “ceremonial”, adding, “Something always breaks down, somebody contrives to escape doing his part, or some bye-motive is suffered to interfere and ruin it all.” Indeed, Victoria’s coronation in 1838 was an unrehearsed and lackadaisical affair.
The historian David Cannadine in his masterly study of the English monarchy notes that up to the first half of the 19th century ceremonials…