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Fifty Years On
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Princess Margaret
Ann Lyon, Lecturer in Law at the University of Wales, has contributed this article on the ceremonial accompanying the funeral rites for members of the Royal House.
When on 6th February, the fiftieth anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth, I was asked for a contribution for this issue, my immediate thought was to write something about the relationship between the British monarchy and the Armed Forces. However, over the next few days, which saw the unexpected death of the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, I found myself thinking much more about the ceremonial which attends the death of one Sovereign and the accession of the next. For every accession has two elements. In the United States, the death of a President while in office, whether by natural causes or, too often, by assassination, is an aberration. In a monarchy the reverse is true. Only one British ruler has ever voluntarily abdicated; a handful have been deposed, the most recent of these being James II and VII (1685-88). All others have ended their reigns only by death. Though there may be excitement at the beginning of a new reign, and enthusiasm for the new ruler, there is at the same time grief for the dead monarch.

Never were these two elements more clearly seen than in 1952. King George VI came to the throne on 11th December 1936, under the peculiarly difficult circumstances of his elder brother’s abdication. Painfully shy and afflicted with a stammer, he himself doubted his capacity to reign, as did many others. As the astute American journalist John Gunther wrote shortly after his accession:

Of the Duke of York, who chose the title George VI, there is very little to be said. He is quite unambitious and dutiful and apparently he did not want the throne; the story is that he suggested a regency for his daughter Elizabeth but the Cabinet overruled him. So he began what everybody hopes will be a long and very dull reign. [1]

However, in the course of a fifteen-year reign, George VI became a respected and much-loved monarch, as much because of his apparent limitations as anything else. The glamorous and fast-living Edward VIII had given up the throne in order to marry a woman with two husbands living, thereby in the eyes of contemporaries deserting his post. George VI had hitherto been regarded as worthy but dull, best known for his Duke of York’s Camps, in which young men from privileged backgrounds joined others from the factory floor in an annual week of outdoor activities. He accepted the crown much against his personal inclinations, and from then applied himself to the responsibilities of kingship, not least the public appearances which he loathed and the speech-making which he dreaded. In further contrast to his brother, he was a devoted family man, married since 1923 and the father of two daughters. Above all, his dedication to duty and unpretentious habits and personality had a natural and very strong appeal to his subjects during the Second World War and its aftermath. In 1952 there was a strong sense that he had died before his time, and there is no better indication of the affection and respect in which he was held than the simple statistic that the queues to file past the catafalque during his lying-in-state in Westminster Hall at times stretched for more than four miles.

At the same time, there was immense enthusiasm for the new Queen. One of my correspondents tells me that, “Everyone fell in love with her, not least because she was by the standards of the day a beauty.” There was also the strong sense that, like her father, she was taking on a heavy burden of responsibility and giving up the family life she had been able to enjoy with her husband and young children.

There is no interregnum between the reigns of one British monarch and the next; the heir succeeds at the moment of his predecessor’s death. The King is dead, long live the King, symbolised in the tradition that the Royal Standard, flown to signify the presence of the monarch, never flies at half mast. Following Princess Margaret’s death, the Queen left Buckingham Palace for Windsor, and only then could a Union Flag be hoisted on the Palace roof and lowered to half mast.

Ironically perhaps, the precise moment when the sceptre passed to the Queen from her father will never be known. After spending 5th February shooting at Sandringham, King George VI was found dead when his valet brought him his early morning tea at 7.30 the following day. It was estimated that he had died in his sleep around 3am, apparently from a heart attack, though he had been in poor health for some time, and had had a lung removed the previous October because of cancer. The King’s death was announced at 10.45, after time had been allowed to inform the King’s mother, Queen Mary, living at Marlborough House in London, and then Winston Churchill, who had begun his second term as Prime Minister as recently as November 1951. The new Queen, on an official visit to Kenya, did not hear the news until some time later, something difficult to believe in today’s age of worldwide satellite communications, and getting her back to Britain a little over 24 hours later involved complex logistical arrangements.

6th February was a Wednesday, and so a normal working day. A doctor friend, then a third-year medical student, was in the midst of exams and heard the news on emerging from an anatomy paper. Still more on the medical theme, another friend was a patient in the RAF hospital at Ely and was informed of the King’s death while recovering from the anaesthetic after an operation on his ankle. My mother cannot remember precisely what she was doing when she heard the news, but does remember some people around her becoming impatient with the atmosphere of mourning which descended immediately, and lasted until after the King’s funeral on 15th February. Cinemas, theatres and other places of entertainment were closed. Television was then in its infancy, and the radio broadcast only news bulletins and solemn music. All race meetings were cancelled, and most other sporting fixtures postponed until after the funeral. The majority of men donned black ties, and many women also wore some emblem of mourning.

Though the Queen succeeded at the moment of her father’s death, there were nevertheless formalities to be observed. By tradition, an Accession Council is called on the first day of a new reign, an echo of the days before a strict hereditary succession based on male primogeniture developed and on occasions a choice had to be made between rival candidates for the throne. The last disputed succession occurred in July 1553, on the death of Edward VI. In a Device executed on his deathbed the fifteen-year-old king named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his successor, rather than his Catholic half-sister, Mary, to a greater or lesser extent at the urging of Jane’s father-in-law, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and as a means of ensuring a Protestant succession. Jane Grey was duly proclaimed Queen on 10th July, but within a few days a popular uprising occurred in support of Mary, who was proclaimed as Mary I on 19th July. Jane was imprisoned in the Tower, and beheaded on 12th February 1554. (In 1685 James, Duke of Monmouth, eldest illegitimate son of Charles II, landed in Dorset and attempted to seize the throne from his uncle, James II, but his rising was easily put down and he followed Jane Grey to the block.)

In modern times the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, Privy Councillors, “with numbers of other principal gentlemen of quality, with the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Citizens of London”, assemble to settle the text of the Accession Proclamation, including the regnal name of the new Sovereign, though this was not an issue on this occasion. The Queen’s father had been baptised Albert Frederick Arthur George, and chose to reign under the fourth of his names; her great-grandfather, baptised Albert Edward, had preferred Edward VII, but by all accounts the Queen was somewhat surprised at the suggestion that she might reign as anything other than Elizabeth II. “What name? My own, of course!” Though there was no controversy over the Queen’s name, the Lord Rector of Glasgow University later brought an action in the Scottish courts (McCormick v Lord Advocate) claiming that the style of Elizabeth ‘II’ breached the terms of Acts of Union of 1707 between England and Scotland, no previous Queen Elizabeth having reigned over Scotland. The Inner House of Court of Session (equivalent to the Court of Appeal in England) dismissed the action, and it has since been announced that where a monarch’s regnal number potentially differs between England and Scotland, the higher number will be used. This will make no difference in the case of the present Prince of Wales, but has the effect that Prince William will eventually reign as William V, according to English numbering, rather than William IV, as he would be under Scottish numbering. In a similar fashion, any future King James will reign as James VIII, not as James III.

The Privy Councillors present at the Accession Council then make oath to preserve the security of the Church of Scotland (though not, interestingly enough, the Church of England), and swear allegiance to the new Sovereign, their existing allegiance as Privy Councillors having been given to his predecessor. The Accession Council met at 5pm on 6th February, most unusually in the absence of the new Queen [2], so that the swearing-in of the Privy Councillors was postponed to the first formal Privy Council meeting of her reign. Representatives of Commonwealth countries also took part in the Accession Council, including, Sir Arthur Fadden, Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, who was by chance in Paris when the King’s death was announced and chartered an aircraft to get to London. He arrived at Buckingham Palace just in time to add his signature to the Accession Proclamation. In both Houses of Parliament MPs and peers began taking their oaths of allegiance, a process which took several days. No new oaths of allegiance were required, however, from the Armed Forces, since the formula used for the swearing-in of recruits specifies the reigning monarch by name, and his or her ‘Heirs and Successors’.

In accordance with tradition, on the following day the Queen’s accession was publicly proclaimed by Garter King of Arms at St James’s Palace, by the Lord Mayor of London at the Royal Exchange and at Temple Bar in the City, and by the Lord Lyon King of Arms in Edinburgh, in the following terms:-

Whereas it has pleased Almighty God to call to His mercy our late Sovereign Lord King George VI, of blessed and glorious memory, by whose Decease the Crown is solely and rightfully come to the High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary:

We, therefore, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of this Realm, being here assisted with these His Late Majesty’s Privy Council, with representatives of the other Members of the Commonwealth, with other principal Gentlemen of quality, with the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Citizens of London, do now hereby with one Voice and Consent of Tongue and Heart publish and proclaim that the High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary is now, by the death of our late Sovereign of happy memory, become Queen Elizabeth II by the Grace of God, Queen of this Realm, and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, to Whom Her Lieges do acknowledge all Faith and constant Obedience with hearty and humble Affection, beseeching God by whom Kings and Queens do reign, to bless the Royal Princess, Elizabeth II, with long and happy years to reign over us.

God save the Queen.

An air of reverential awe attended the dead King. His body was initially placed in the parish church at Sandringham, and watched over by estate workers, then on 11th February taken first to the local railway station, two miles away, on a gun carriage, with the Duke of Edinburgh and Duke of Gloucester (the Queen’s uncle) on foot behind. Newsreel footage shows farm workers coming to attention in the fields as the Royal Train passed, and as it approached London all other trains were diverted from the route. Watched by the Queen, Queen Mother and Queen Mary, all in black and heavily veiled, and the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the coffin, draped in a Union Flag and surmounted by the Imperial State Crown, was carried from the train by a bearer party from the Brigade of Guards and placed on a second gun carriage for the journey to Westminster Hall. During the three-day lying-in-state, the coffin was guarded by officers of the two regiments of Household Cavalry and five regiments of Foot Guards, garbed in ceremonial dress and resting on reversed arms, and Yeomen of the Guard with their halberds.

The following week Addresses were moved in both Houses expressing the sorrow of Parliament on the death of the King and confidence in the new Queen. Parliament then adjourned until after the King’s funeral, which took place at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, on 15th February. In medieval times it was customary for a king to be crowned very shortly after his accession, since the coronation acted as proof that the new king was a lawful ruler in the eyes of God. Harold II, killed at Hastings in 1066, holds the record for haste, having been crowned on the day of his predecessor’s death. However, since the mid-eighteenth century it has been the custom for a year of official mourning to precede the coronation, and for the coronation to take place in the summer in the hope of good weather, so that Elizabeth II was not crowned until 2nd June 1953, when the hoped-for good weather emphatically did not materialise, since it rained all day.

The solemnities which followed the death of George VI were traditional and reverent, in an atmosphere a world away from that which surrounded that of Diana Princess of Wales in 1997. The atmosphere which has attended the death of Princess Margaret has elements of both old and new. Though the Princess’s coffin rested prior to her funeral in the Queen’s Chapel of St James’s Palace, built for the Spanish Infanta who was expected to marry Charles I but never did, and the funeral itself took place in the medieval magnificence of St George’s Chapel, built by Edward IV as the Chapel of the Order of the Garter, and according to the liturgy of the seventeenth century Book of Common Prayer, she was in accordance with her own wishes cremated in strict privacy at Slough Crematorium. Not only were conventional Books of Condolence opened in various parts of the country, another appeared on the Queen’s website.

Princess Margaret has a reputation as a somewhat wayward member of the Royal Family, perhaps something of a square peg in a round hole, and best known for her unhappy private life rather than her performance of public duties. Since her death there have been the inevitable comparisons with Diana, and suggestions that the relatively muted public reaction to her death exemplifies post-Diana attitudes to the monarchy ~ that the monarchy is no longer relevant to the bulk of the populace. But the latter view neglects the simple fact that because of her poor health Princess Margaret had rarely been seen in public for a number of years ~ only at the wedding of the Earl and Countess of Wessex, and the hundredth birthday celebrations of the Queen Mother in August 2000, and of her aunt Princess Alice Duchess of Gloucester in December 2001 ~ and that with all the Queen’s children adult and taking centre stage in the “royal soap opera” created by the tabloid press, media focus had shifted decisively away from her. Where in the 1970s, with the Prince of Wales a bachelor, his younger brothers still at school and Princess Anne apparently happily married to Captain Mark Phillips, Princess Margaret’s marriage breakdown and liaison with Roddy Llewelyn had filled the newspapers, by the mid-1980s the Princess, now single and engaged in conscientious performance of public duties, was no longer of much interest to the media.

Military trappings are a prominent feature of royal funerals; for me the enduring image of Diana’s funeral is of the bearer party from the Welsh Guards slow-marching down the steps from the choir with the coffin on their shoulders and the notes of John Taverner’s Song for Athene soaring above. The gun carriage [3] bearing George VI’s coffin was hauled to St George’s Chapel by 150 men of the Royal Navy, as has been the tradition for Sovereigns since Queen Victoria died in 1901. [4] Princess Margaret’s was borne by eight sergeants of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, one of the three regiments of which she was Colonel-in-Chief, an hour before the service, and in that hour guarded by two of the sixteen Military Knights of Windsor, who are chosen from retired army officers of modest means and attend day-to-day services in St George’s Chapel on behalf of the Knights of the Garter under statutes drawn up by Edward III in 1348. Two pipers of the Royal Highland Fusiliers played a lament, and in the final stages of the service trumpeters sounded the Last Post and Reveille, just as their predecessors had done for the Princess’s father fifty years ago to the day.

1. John Gunther: Inside Europe, 4th edition, February 1940, p.309.

2. The only other recent monarch to have been outside the realm at the time of his accession was George I, already reigning as Elector of Hanover and so in his Hanoverian domains at the time his predecessor, Queen Anne, died on 1st August 1714. Since there was a very real danger of a rising in favour of the Jacobite Pretender, James Francis Edward Stuart, son of the deposed James II and VII and father of Bonnie Prince Charlie, elaborate arrangements had been put into place for the government of the country in the interval before the new king could arrive from Hanover, a period of some six weeks.

3. The gun carriage was provided by the King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, who had been given their title a few years earlier by George VI himself. While attending a display by the then Riding Troop, he had crossed out “Riding” in the programme and written “King’s”.

4. One of the horses originally harnessed to the gun carriage put a leg over the traces, and the officer commanding the naval guard of honour substituted drag ropes and his own men.

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© 2002 Ann Lyon