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The Death of a Monarch: A Thousand Years of Tradition

There is no doubt that September 19th, 2022, will forever be marked by one of the most momentous events in recent memory and current history. Reigning for over 70 years, Queen Elizabeth II had been a constant and consistent presence in this rapidly changing world for both young and old. She not only stood as a pillar of Britain’s cultural heritage, but for many her dignity, grace, and duty to the country was inspirational – especially for women. As such, her loss has been deeply felt by millions across the world. Testament to this can only be found in the 2,000 mourners that lined the streets around Westminster Abbey to pay tribute to our monarch. Nevertheless, whilst at home 27 million people across in Britain tuned in to the live broadcast to see the event which will likely become one of the most watched in history, audience viewership globally was said to have reached 4.1 billion. One of the most spectacular aspects of this solemn event was that, for the first time in history, many people were able to witness an event that was previously private to public audiences and only understood through contemporary sources. Thus, to the watchful historian, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II contained a plethora of traditions and allegories which can be found in the funerals of Monarchs dating back as far as the Medieval Era.

The royal funeral ceremony is marked by two predominant developments: symbolism of tradition, and articulation of the superhuman quality of monarchy. What will become clear from the analysis of King Edward III is that there are incredibly strong connections to Elizabeth’s funeral, not only in the ceremony itself but also in the way it was received by audiences. The choice to analyse Edward III arises from two main aspects. The first is that Edward’s funeral was arguably the first to establish explicit rituals of monarchical continuity, and the other is that a number of English sources survive which describe the funeral ceremony. Titled Litlyngton Missal and the Liber Regialis, the funeral ceremony as seen in today’s world arose from two Westminster manuscripts dating from 1383 and c.1390. Nevertheless, before understanding the funeral, it is worthwhile discussing the events of Edward’s death.

Edward III passed away at about 7pm on 21 June 1377 at a manor in Sheen, near Richmond in Surrey. Two contemporaries provide descriptions of the scene at his deathbed. In portraying him as a warrior-king, Jean Froissart portrayed him as being surrounded by his three surviving sons – John of Gaunt, Edmund of Cambridge, and Thomas of Woodstock; his son-in-law John, Duke of Brittany; Edmund, earl of March; and Isabella. This 14th-century scene is very similar to that which was reported by the BBC about the death of Queen Elizabeth, and the reception of this news was equally as comparable. Froissart writes that ‘the kingdom of England was utterly grief-stricken […] for he had no equal since the time of King Arthur.’ The emphasis on loyalty and family cohesion was a potent element of Edward’s image of kingship and one which Elizabeth also cultivated over her reign. Nevertheless, immediately after the death of the Queen, the government implemented a process whereby world leaders, the commonwealth, and the BBC were informed. Whilst this may seem like a modern strategy, the first action following Edward’s death was somewhat similar. The government immediately sent messengers to the ports on the south and east coasts of England to inform various members of the aristocracy and papacy about the death of the king, and also ensure that the affairs of the country were in order before an official announcement.

Whilst there is no surviving narrative of Edward’s funeral. There is, however, as noted, evidence from two royal funeral ordines. This manuscript showed that the royal household, alongside the chapel royal, was responsible for organising the funeral – a role which is still upheld today. Equally, the personal servants of the king were to be maintained for a while after the king’s death rather than being immediately dispersed, and I understand that a similar approach has been upheld within Buckingham Palace for the servants of the Queen. Like Charles, Richard immediately assumed authority over the kingdom following Edward’s death and it was doubtless that his council made major decisions concerning the funeral.

For almost two weeks after his death, the body of Edward lay in the chapel at Sheen which was draped in black cloth in the same way that Elizabeth lay at Westminster before her funeral. The Friday before the Queen’s funeral, the Archbishop of Canterbury celebrated a requiem mass at St Paul’s cathedral which began the train of public solemnities. This also happened in the 14th century before the funeral of Edward. His body was then washed and treated with oils and spices to preserve the body. Whilst no evidence currently exists for this ritual being undertaken for the Queen, given it is a ritual that each monarch has had since William the Conqueror then it may have occurred. Nevertheless, whilst this had a function to preserve the body, it was equally a ritual to purify the body and soul of the departed. The ordo then specifies the regalia which was to accompany the body of the monarch. The ‘crown or diadem’ was to be placed on the head, the hands were to be covered with gloves decorated with orphreys and a gold ring was to be placed on the middle finger; a ‘circular golden orb was to then be placed in the right hand and a sceptre in the left. This ritual has since developed from the 14th century and is closer to a 17th-century ritual whereby the royal regalia are placed on top of the coffin and then removed before burial to mark the end of the monarch’s reign. Then, ‘accompanied by the prelates and magnates of his realm, to the place which he shall have chosen for his burial’ the coffin is transported after a ceremony to the burial site. After the service, the royal household along with members of the kingdom, military services, and commonwealth, transported the Queen through London to her resting place at Windsor. Froissart writes that Edward’s body was also carried through the city of London, but unlike the queen 'his face was uncovered'. Records show that 550 members of the king’s household and administration followed the coffin along with 400 torchbearers and many others. In fact, the congregation following King Edward III’s coffin was almost equal in number to Elizabeth’s procession. Equally, in the same way that the children of the Queen closely followed the coffin, Froissart writes that the king’s body ‘was reverently and respectfully laid on a bier and carried through the city by 24 knights in black, with his three sons and the duke of Brittany and earl of March following behind.’ Following the funeral ceremony, the household along with magnates and other nobles then dined and had a customary banquet similar to the congregation of world leaders which met with the royal household at Westminster.

As such, whilst there were developments over the centuries, the essence of the funeral ceremony has largely remained the same. Despite personal politics and beliefs about the institution of monarchy, this aspect is incredible and a testament to the cultural heritage of Britain. Understanding that we are witnessing a series of events that were similarly undertaken seven centuries ago is spectacular and a tribute to the symbolic nature of the monarchy.

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