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A guide to royal funerals through history, by historian Tracy Borman

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II will take place on Monday 19 September and is expected to be watched by record-breaking numbers of people around the world. But what can we learn about royal funerals from history? Rhiannon Davies caught up with historian Tracy Borman to find out more…

Crowds line the streets to watch the funeral cortege of Queen Victoria in February 1901. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Published: September 18, 2022 at 10:02 am
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This interview is taken from an episode of HistoryExtra podcast episode and has been lightly edited for clarity

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Rhiannon Davies: What distinguishes a monarch's funeral from a funeral for another high-profile figure such as the prime minister, or another member of the royal family who isn't a monarch?

Tracy Borman: On the face of things, it can seem like ‘spot the difference’ because they are both quite similar great state occasions. But one of the key differences is who organises them. A ceremonial royal funeral is the responsibility of the Lord Chamberlain, the most senior official in the royal household, whereas a state funeral is organised by the Earl Marshal. Then there are more detailed differences; for example, the coffin is drawn by horses at a royal ceremonial funeral, as opposed to sailors from the Royal Navy at a state funeral.

Of course, there are also individual choices at play as well. One of my favourites is that for King Edward VII’s funeral – he stipulated that his beloved fox terrier, Caesar, took pride of place in the funeral procession.

Queen Elizabeth wearing a hat against a blue background

And to clarify, officially a monarch's funeral would typically be a state funeral, whereas a royal ceremonial funeral – confusingly – wouldn't be for a monarch?

That's absolutely right. Only a monarch or head of state can have a state funeral [although some individuals have been offered them if they have made a large contribution to the nation]. There can be very lavish ceremonial funerals for other members of the royal family – and we certainly saw that, for example, with the funeral of Princess Diana back in 1997. But that wasn't a state funeral.

Has anyone ever rejected a state funeral?

A number of interesting historical figures have rejected a state funeral. They include Florence Nightingale, the pioneering nurse. Her family opted for a private ceremony instead. And Charles Darwin was honoured by a major funeral in Westminster Abbey, but not a state funeral at the request of his family. More recently, before she died, Margaret Thatcher was offered – but apparently declined – a full state funeral and requested not to lie in state in the interests of economy.


Watch | How did Queen Victoria's funeral in 1901 set many of our modern precedents?


Who has traditionally paid for royal funerals in history?

Traditionally, royal funerals have been paid for by the state. Parliament grants the money for funerals; it involves the new monarch and their family applying for the funds. And ultimately, then it's picked up by the taxpayer.

What is the earliest funeral in the country that we know about?

It seems that for as long as we have records of kings, we have records of funerals. What we don't have are the details of those funerals. We usually have the place of burial. An example might be the king often cited as England's first: Ecgberht, who died in 839. He was the king of Wessex, but the kingdom was actually seven separate kingdoms, and he was acknowledged as the ‘lead’ king, if you like. Ecgberht was buried in Winchester, which was very much the capital of Wessex. And Winchester remained the favourite place of burial for the early kings of England until Æthelstan, who's another monarch who tends to be cited as the first king of England. He courted controversy 100 years later in 939 by choosing instead Malmesbury Abbey for his interment.

While details are scant for these early funerals, do we have a sense of how the ceremony surrounding royal funerals and state funerals has evolved over the centuries?

They have always been very elaborate occasions, but I think it's fair to say that – certainly from the reign of Queen Victoria – they have become more ostentatious, with the pomp and the pageantry writ large. One of the biggest differences in the early royal state funerals is the timing; much like many royal weddings, they tended to take place late at night, after sunset.

I think the reason for this change to day time, as with so many things, was the need to be more visible to their subjects. And this need became more urgent as the power of the monarchy waned.

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How has the dress code of a royal funeral changed?

Black generally was the colour throughout history. Those attending a royal funeral would be swathed in full-length black mourning cloaks and hoods – they would be barely recognisable, and you see that most clearly in the funeral procession of Elizabeth I in 1603. We’re very fortunate because a beautiful, detailed illustration of this still survives in the British Library. The only colour comes from the heralds, and they take their pride of place in the procession; they wore tabards over their mourning cloaks, and they carried the late monarch's achievements listed on a colourful banner during the procession.

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I wanted to ask you about two specific practices connected to royal funerals, with the first being carrying a wax effigy of the monarch near the coffin. Why was that so popular?

Wax effigies became popular from the 14th century onwards, and it became the custom for a lifelike wax effigy of the deceased monarch, fully dressed in their royal robes, to be carried either on or near the coffin. And previously, the embalmed body of the monarch would actually be displayed as well.

The last effigy of a monarch to be carried in procession was that of James VI and I, who died in 1625. Since the funeral of James’s grandson, Charles II, the effigy has been replaced by a crown.

A lot of effigies still survive and are kept at Westminster Abbey. They give us all sorts of interesting details about these long-deceased monarchs, not just what they look like, but in the case of Mary I, her distended stomach. We know she thought she was pregnant, but she likely had a tumour that may have been what killed her. Likewise, the effigy of Edward III – who died in 1372 – shows his face with a twisted expression; it's contorted, which suggests that he died of a stroke.

The other practice I wanted to ask you about is collecting royal relics. When did that fall out of favour?

Collecting royal relics is something that was very much an ancient tradition stretching back centuries. It is derived from this ancient belief that a king or queen is almost divine – and anybody who touches the monarch or items related to them will benefit from this. They believed that a king or queen could cure [the skin disease] scrofula – known as ‘the king’s evil’ – by touching. And likewise anything that touched a monarch, their clothing for example, was believed to have magical properties.

It follows that funeral processions were fair game for relic hunters. Whether it was banners carried by heralds, the cloth of state over the coffin, or even the clothes worn by the funeral effigy – all of these would have been absolute gold dust for any relic hunters.

Thinking about the funeral procession in more detail, when the coffin was being conveyed to its resting place throughout history, who would typically walk in this procession? Were women always allowed to take part?

Throughout history the funeral procession tended to comprise members of the late monarch's household, usually privy councillors as well peers, the judiciary, other sort of office holders, etc. In terms of women, it's actually been quite rare to see them in attendance at funerals and certainly the funerals of monarchs. However there are some exceptions: the women of Queen Anne's household walked in her funeral procession in 1714. And women were very much in evidence during the funeral procession of Queen Elizabeth I. They had accompanied her body from Richmond Palace, where she died, to Whitehall, where she lay in state. It was said that as Elizabeth's coffin passed by the crowds, diverse of the beholders fell weeping, especially the women.

What role would a new heir typically play in a state funeral?

The new monarch historically played no role in the funeral of their predecessor. In fact, there was almost a superstitious fear about the new monarch being associated too closely with death – so they wouldn't attend. This belief really endured until the 20th century, with the exception of William IV. Not only did he attend his brother George IV's funeral, but he published a personal message of thanks in The Gazette for all who had participated.

Before the invention of TV and radio, how would the public be made aware of royal funerals?

The subjects of the deceased monarch would be made aware of the death in a number of different ways. First and foremost: messengers from the court. There was a network of messengers across England – and then across Britain – that had been well established even by the 12th century. I'm always struck by how efficient these networks were. You tend to think it must've taken weeks and that the funeral would have been and gone before anybody knew about it. But in a matter of hours these networks kicked into action – and so it was a much swifter system of communication than is often believed.

As well as messengers, priests in local churches would use their sermons to convey news. Many people, if they heard about it in time, would actually make their way to line the processional route. Although throughout much of history, certainly in an age of fairly slow transport, most of those lining the processional route would be living in London.

And on the flip side, are any parts of the funeral traditionally private?

I think funerals were, until the advent of television, very private affairs. This is something obviously very new, and that we've seen increasingly even up to the Accession Council of King Charles III, televised for the very first time.

Do we have any examples of how the funerals of Scottish or Welsh Kings and queens were conducted?

We have many examples of how the funerals of Scottish and Welsh monarchs were conducted, and one that really stands out is that of the funeral of Robert the Bruce of Scotland in 1329, who was venerated across Scotland for his brave achievements. His body was embalmed ­– this was very traditional. His heart was given to one of his faithful knights, a gentleman called Sir James Douglas, who placed it in a silver casket and wore it on a chain around his neck for the rest of his life.

Most of his remains were interred in the funeral, which took place in Dunfermline Abbey. He was buried in a wooden coffin, but interred within a stone vault beneath the floor, underneath this lavish tomb of white Italian marble that had been purchased all the way in Paris.

For a Welsh example there is Owain Glyndŵr, who led a long-running war of independence to end English rule in Wales and formed the first Welsh Parliament, among many other achievements. You might imagine that when he died, in about 1415, they went to town with the funeral. But it wasn't without mishaps, because he had been in hiding for a number of years. He had to be reburied, as they thought his enemies would plunder his remains. But we still don't know where this took place, and lots of historians have different theories as to where Glyndŵr actually ended up.

Are any monarchs buried outside of the UK?

There are a couple of British monarchs buried outside of the UK, for very good reason. James II, who was ousted from his throne, sought exile in France, and while there were Jacobite revolts in his name they never succeeded in placing him back on the throne. He actually died in France and was buried close to the centre of Paris. Another example is George I, our first Hanoverian king. As his reign progressed in the early 18th century, he spent more and more time in Hanover. He actually much preferred it to Britain and was on a visit to Hanover when he died in 1727.

What input did Queen Elizabeth II have in planning her own funeral?

The queen, in common with every monarch in recent times, was said to have had quite a detailed input into the planning of her own funeral. Quite what that's like, I can't imagine. But we do know she was involved. Now, given that Elizabeth II was a bastion of tradition, we can imagine that she approved much of the pomp and pageantry associated with royal funerals. But what really struck me from researching this area is that plans for her funeral were first drawn up in the 1960s. They must have gone through quite a few iterations until 2022.

Is Elizabeth II’s funeral expected to break any established historic traditions or to set any new precedents?

Elizabeth II’s funeral is not predicted to stray too far from the royal state funerals that we've seen, certainly in the last hundred or so years; we know that royal tradition was close to her heart. But I think that new precedents are going to be set in terms of sheer numbers of people who turn out in person to watch the procession and to tune in globally, to watch on their television sets and on social media. This, I think, will undoubtedly be record breaking. And I think that's entirely fitting for a monarch who broke all sorts of records herself.

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Tracy Borman was talking to BBC History Magazine section editor Rhiannon Davies. Listen to the full interview on the HistoryExtra podcast

Authors

Tracy Borman
Tracy BormanAuthor, historian, joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces

Tracy Borman is a best-selling author and historian, specialising in the Tudor period. She works part-time as joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and as Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust.

Rhiannon DaviesSection editor, BBC History Magazine

Rhiannon Davies is section editor for BBC History Magazine and our Tudor ambassador, writing a fortnightly newsletter in which she shares the latest Tudor news, anniversaries and content with her audience. She also regularly appears on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast.

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