It was a perfect English day, with skies of forget-me-not blue, as HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was laid to rest in his ninety-ninth year. But the weather was not the only note of perfection in the faultlessly choreographed ceremony that played out in the grounds of Windsor Castle and in St. George’s Chapel, named for England’s patron saint.The military procession proceeds through the grounds of Windsor Castle ahead of the funeral. Photo: Getty Images
Construction on Windsor Castle was initiated by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, and the sprawling complex—citadel, repository of treasures, home—is the longest-occupied palace in Europe. The duke’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, a great-grandchild of Queen Victoria, was born here in 1885 and it was surely the pluperfect backdrop to the spirit of immemorial tradition and pageantry that informed a day that was also threaded through with the sense of a remarkable man—and husband—who embraced innovation as well as conservation.
The event might have been in the planning for decades, but in these times of COVID had to be reimagined as a socially distanced gathering of 30 mourners. Representing the royal couple’s closest family members, they were also joined by the prince’s close friend, Countess Mountbatten of Burma. (Even prime minister Boris Johnson did not attend, apparently so that another member of the royal family could take his place).
It was, as a result, more intimate, elegant, and perhaps ultimately more touching—throwing as it did the focus on a family’s private grief, as so many others have grieved in this past year. While the congregation was appropriately socially distanced, the widowed Queen herself, who celebrates her 95th birthday on April 21st, was seated entirely alone in a section of the pews.
The Duke of Edinburgh had planned his own funeral down to the smallest detail, and although he evidently stipulated that there was to be no traditional eulogy during the service itself, the choice of readings and music, and the symbolism of every aspect of the day, were a powerful evocation of a remarkable man. The duke was the Admiral of the Fleet, and the oldest Knight of the Order of the Garter—founded in 1348 by King Edward III—in its history. The Garter was just one of the panoply of orders and chains of service and office the duke earned, including his Field Marshal’s baton and Royal Air Force wings, as well as decorations from orders of chivalry of the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Greece, laid out on the altar on crimson velvet cushions.
He was also the man who commissioned the distinguished British composer Benjamin Britten’s 1961 Jubilate Deo, setting Psalm 100—with its powerful message to “Serve the Lord with gladness,” and “enter into His gates with thanksgiving”—to music. The Queen and Prince Philip had attended the 1953 premiere of Britten’s Gloriana at the Royal Opera House in 1953, Coronation Year, along with many of the crowned heads of Europe and leaders of the Commonwealth, and dined with the composer that evening; the duke approached him with the commission five years later.The bearer party carries the coffin of Prince Philip to the purpose-built Land Rover Hearse during the funeral.Photo: Getty Images
There was music before the service itself began, played on the manicured lawn of the castle’s quadrangle, beneath the doughty Round Tower where the Royal Standard flew atop a hill thickly planted with daffodils. The music was performed by the Tri-Service Band, composed of bands from the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy, and the British Army. Even the drums were in mourning, swathed in black cloth covers that slightly muffled the sound. The duke’s selection included William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem,” powerfully orchestrated by Sir Edward Elgar in 1916; the singularly apt 1921 hymn “I Vow to Thee My Country,” with lyrics by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice set to music by Gustav Holst; and Elgar’s sublime “Nimrod.”
The athletic duke, who was President of the International Equestrian Federation, took up the dangerous sport of carriage driving at the age of 50, and the carriage that he designed, driven by two Fell Ponies, Balmoral Nevis, and Notlaw Storm, stood sentinel nearby, with the prince’s cap, gloves, and whip on the seat. Since 2003, the duke had taken a particular interest in his final transport, too: specifically, the Land Rover Defender TD5 130 that had been modified as a hearse. (Among other things, the duke changed the color to a dark bronze-green, an allusion to his distinguished military service in Britain’s Royal Navy during World War II.) This was driven by the Royal Engineers, and it was members of the Grenadier Guards, which the Duke served as a colonel for 40 years, who placed his coffin on it.
The coffin, draped with his quartered standard representing the duke’s Danish roots, his Greek background, his Mountbatten family surname (an Anglicisation of the German Battenberg, introduced in 1917 when Britain and Germany were at war), and the arms of the city of Edinburgh, was laid with his Royal Navy Officer’s cap and sword, alongside an arrangement of white sweetpeas and roses that bore a handwritten note from the Queen.
The Royal Family arrived in a fleet of Rolls-Royce Phantoms, the men dressed in morning suits (apparently to avoid the embarrassment of Prince Harry no longer being entitled to wear his former uniforms, having been stripped of his honorary military titles when he stepped back from royal duties, and Prince Andrew’s not having been promoted to the rank of admiral in this, his 60th year, for reasons also apparent).
The duke’s children and grandchildren walked behind the hearse, Princes Harry and William diplomatically separated by Princess Anne’s son, Peter Phillips. (Princess Anne declined titles for her own children.) The duke’s eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, led the procession. In her ankle-length black coat and a striking broad-brimmed hat, the princess might have been a figure from 1910. The sense of grief and loss was unusually palpable in a family that traditionally presents an image of unemotional stoicism—something the late duke himself perfected.
“God Save the Queen” of course heralded the arrival of Her Majesty in her state Bentley. The Queen was dressed in widow’s black, enlivened only by the eye-catching Richmond brooch, formerly in the collection of the Queen’s grandmother Queen Mary. (Made by Hunt & Roskell, it was presented to the future Queen Mary as a wedding gift by the town of Richmond in 1893.) This is a favorite jewel that the Queen wore often in the early years of her marriage, worn this time without the detachable pearl drop. There was no mourning veil, as those are traditionally reserved for the funeral of a sovereign.
The steps of St. George’s Chapel were lined with members of the Household Cavalry, breastplates polished to a mirrored sheen over their scarlet tunics. (The household staff stood discreetly to one side, the chefs wearing black mourning armbands over their white working uniforms.)The royal family follows Prince Philip’s coffin during the ceremonial procession at Windsor Castle.Photo: Getty Images
The music choices and readings for the service itself all had special resonance. The guests did not sing, but the four singers, socially distanced themselves, performed William Whiting’s 1860 hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” with its pertinent prayer “for those in peril on the sea,” as well as a musical arrangement of Psalm 104 by William Lovelady—another special commission of the duke himself—and the Russian Kontakion, sung in English. (The duke was born into the Greek Orthodox faith.)
The Dean of Windsor, the Right Reverend David Conner, in a cope of black and gold brocade, noted that the duke “left us a fair pattern of valiant and true knighthood” and read from Ecclesiasticus, (“look at the rainbow and praise its maker, it shines with a supreme beauty”), whilst the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, read from Saint John’s Gospel and praised the duke’s “kindness, humor, and humanity.”
Cannon fire signaled a national silence. “Today, on his final journey,” noted the BBC’s Huw Edwards, “the duke takes precedence for the first and the last time.”
A lone bagpiper evoked the royal couple’s beloved home of Balmoral. Sergeant Bugler Jamie Ritchie led four other buglers from the Royal Marines in the Last Post, signaling the end of a soldier’s day, followed by Action Stations, the call to battle positions on a warship. Finally, the duke’s coffin was lowered into the Royal Vault.
Through it all, the duke’s widow struck a particularly poignant figure: The Queen, stooped in grief and prayer, contemplating the life of the man she had idolized as a 13-year-old girl and been married to for 73 years.Queen Elizabeth II arrives for the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.Photo: Getty Images