Eight guardsmen will carry Queen Elizabeth II's coffin into Westminster Abbey on Monday, bearing on their shoulders not only their monarch but the weight of a nation’s expectation of a fitting send-off for the ruler of 70 years.
Behind them will be hundreds of years of tradition, culminating in a ceremony of pomp and pageantry perhaps without equal worldwide, a golden thread over generations of British royal ritual.
With the eyes of the world on Britain, rehearsals have been intense to avoid any mishaps, something the organisers know from experience happen on the spur of the moment but can remain a talking point for a century or more.
Not all past state obsequies have gone without setbacks. During Queen Victoria’s state funeral in 1901, a splinter bar on the gun carriage snapped, causing a horse to bolt. Royal Navy ratings stepped in and dragged the coffin with ropes. The poignancy of that moment has meant a similar pulling of the gun carriage has been repeated in every state funeral since.
But worse misfortune fell on some mourners at Admiral Horatio Nelson’s state funeral in 1806, when a stand in St Paul’s Cathedral collapsed, injuring several people.
Now, so much attention is given to detail, with every drill rehearsed and rehearsed again, that the service should go smoothly, especially with the dedication of those men bearing the heavy lead and oak coffin, officers involved in the ceremony have told The National.
“The Sovereign’s Company of the Grenadiers have a very, very close relationship with the monarch,” said Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Foinette of the Coldstream Guards, who will be standing vigil over the queen’s coffin on Saturday and Sunday.
“All guardsmen feel a very close connection to the monarch and this is an opportunity to pay our final respects. It is a sacred duty, incredibly important to all of us, and will reflect the standards that the nation expects. It is a tremendous honour.”
So far, the long-planned 10-day period of events has appeared pitch-perfect. What does that say about Britain and its ability to mount faultless pageantry?
General Lord David Richards, who commanded the British armed forces from 2010 to 2013, believes it is the crown’s 1,000 years history has embedded pageantry “in our blood”.
“What we'll watch in the next few days has been established over hundreds and hundreds of years," he says. "It’s in our genes. That's one reason we can so seamlessly transition from one monarch to another, that we can say ‘the queen is dead, long live the king.’”
The queen's state funeral will be the biggest single event staged by Britain since the Second World War, bringing an intense focus on all involved.
“It’s a very important, soft-power element of British prowess and influence on the world stage,” said Gen Richards. “It actually reminds people that we have a great history and not to write us off in the future.”
Part of that history has been on display since the queen died at Balmoral Castle last Thursday.
To the fore have come such quirks as the Royal Company of Archers, formed in 1676, or The Company of Pikemen and Musketeers, from the same century, both part of the fabric of the king’s accession.
Other unusual sights have appeared. On Saturday, for instance, the guardsmen who removed their bearskin hats after the Privy Council’s formal accession of King Charles III, dropped to one knee, laid down their rifles then stood balancing bearskins on right shoulders and gave three cries of “God Save the King”.
In Parliament, a black sword kept for sovereign funerals has appeared at the waist of the Serjeant at Arms. On Monday evening the Lord Chamberlain, head of the royal household, will break his official staff over the queen’s grave in Windsor.
The attention to detail in the planning and conduct of the service would be well received by the queen, who attended countless ceremonies from Trooping the Colour to welcoming heads of state.
This gave her the authority to let it be known if she thought things were not quite up to the mark, former Blues and Royals officer Luke Chauveau told The National.
“We were doing a ceremony escorting Her Majesty from Buckingham Palace to Horse Guards and she was watching out of sight inspecting us from the top floor of the palace before she came out,” he said. “Her Majesty then picked up that the distance of divisions between our horses wasn't as good as it used to be and gave an amazingly sharp analysis of our performance that day. After that the distance was then shortened and worked well.”
The Household Cavalry will not be there merely for display. At an undisclosed location in England, realistic training goes into protecting the sovereign with troopers taught to use their swords and their horses to physically protect the monarch.
The Blues and Royals, the regiment in which Princes William and Harry both served as officers, also come with their own quirks. If by chance a cavalryman was to lose his helmet, he could still make a salute “without headdress” as it is the only regiment in the British army with this privilege. In 1743 at the Battle of Dettingen, its commanding officer conducted an exemplary action, then rode up to King George II to announce the French were on the run, losing his ceremonial wig in the process. The king was so impressed with the news and display of courage, that he granted the regiment its salute honour, which to this day causes consternation among sergeant majors unaware of its provenance.
Dettingen was the last time a British monarch led soldiers in combat, but the dedication of troops to their sovereign remains undiminished.
That will become clear on Monday morning when the 4,000 soldiers, sailors, marines and air force personnel parade one last time for their queen.
“I think you'll find every single soldier will be an inch taller on the day,” said Col Chauveau. “There's not a single one who will care if they say during rehearsals ‘let’s run that again’, even if they’ve done it 17 times. They'll want to get it absolutely right, they'll want to make sure it's fitting for Her Majesty and the Colonel-in Chief, we all served.”
That detail to preparation was reflected by Col Foinette, who during his interview with The National wore his bearskin hat to reshape it to his head and get used to its weight before his first six-hour vigil on Saturday.
He emphasised the importance of the military to Britain’s standing. “We might not be one of the biggest and most powerful of nations, but this is one of the areas that we do something that is a bit special,” he said. “This has evolved over 1,000 years and works remarkably well, personnel understand exactly the requirements of their roles and try to do them as well as they can. The national expectation is that this is how we should do things properly.
“It’s been a remarkable week in Britain, we've changed our prime minister and our sovereign and it's all happened as if it’s a matter of entirely routine.”
In the coming hours, the final tweaks will be made to preparations, with boots and buttons polished. Nerves will be strained and sleep difficult to come by as “you just desperately want to get it absolutely right”, said Col Foinette. “You wouldn't be human if you didn't imagine things that could go wrong, but everyone’s very well-trained and part of their ability is to recover when things do go awry.”
Ultimately, the state funeral will prove a fitting adieu to the monarch who did so much for her country during her 70-year reign.
“It will keep a Great Britain in the same high regard that our monarch was held,” said Col Chauveau. “Throughout the rest of the world people will see perfection in our ceremony and expect nothing less because that’s representative of exactly what Her Majesty stood for.”