Queen Elizabeth II's coffin carried on 123-year-old gun carriage

Royal Navy sailors pulled the coffin in a tradition dating back to Queen Victoria's funeral

The State Gun Carriage carries the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II during her funeral on Monday. AFP
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Queen Elizabeth II's coffin was carried on a gun carriage pulled by 98 sailors at her state funeral on Monday.

The team of Royal Navy sailors are known as the Sovereign’s Guard. Forty sailors marched behind the carriage to act as a brake, in a tradition dating back to the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901.

A bearer party of Grenadier Guards then carried it on their shoulders into Westminster Abbey for the service, then returned it to the carriage around an hour later at the end of the service.

The short procession from Westminster Hall, to the sound of bagpipes and with Big Ben tolling, took around eight minutes. It reformed after the service, with King Charles III leading his family walking behind as the procession made its way across central London.

The bearer party transfer Queen Elizabeth II's coffin from Westminster Hall to the State Gun Carriage, which was pulled by 142 Naval Ratings to Westminster Abbey. Reuters

The wreath which adorns the queen’s coffin includes flowers requested by King Charles.

Cut from the gardens of Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Highgrove House, the flowers and foliage have been chosen for their symbolism.

They include rosemary, for remembrance, and myrtle cut from a plant which was grown from a sprig of myrtle in the queen’s wedding bouquet. Myrtle is often seen as a symbol of a happy marriage.

Also included are English oak to symbolise the strength of love, pelargoniums, garden roses, autumnal hydrangea, sedum, dahlias and scabious.

These are in shades of gold, pink and deep burgundy, with touches of white, to reflect the Royal Standard, which was draped around the coffin.

Laced with tradition

As with much of the proceedings surrounding the death of the queen, and the accession of King Charles, tradition played a huge part in the funeral.

In 1901, Queen Victoria’s coffin was to be carried on the gun carriage through the streets of Windsor. However, in the bitter cold of that February day, the horses which were going to pull it panicked and reared up, threatening to topple the coffin off the carriage.

Capt Prince Louis of Battenberg — who would become First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy — intervened and suggested to the new monarch, King Edward VII, that the senior service step in.

Once this was agreed to, the horses were unharnessed and improvised ropes were attached to the gun carriage, which weighs 3,000 kilograms (2.5 tonnes). The team of sailors was brought in to ensure the coffin was carried safely for the rest of the route.

Only nine years later, at the funeral of King Edward VII, the new routine became enshrined as a tradition which has been followed at all state funerals since. They include those of King George V and VI, Sir Winston Churchill and the ceremonial funeral of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the son of Capt Prince Louis of Battenberg.

Nowadays, the gun carriage is kept under environmentally controlled conditions at a temperature of between 16°C and 20°C and at humidity of between 40 per cent and 70 per cent. This is to prevent it becoming dry and brittle and to stop fungal growth.

It was built at the Royal Gun Factory at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, London, to carry the standard light field gun of the army at the time, the breech-loaded 12-Pounder. However, it was converted into a ceremonial gun carriage by fitting a catafalque — a raised platform with horizontal rollers for moving the coffin.

The gun carriage is stored at HMS Excellent on Whale Island in Portsmouth, on England's south coast, where its upkeep is the responsibility of custodian Lt Cdr Paul “Ronnie” Barker.

“We try to keep it at a constant temperature and weekly I go in and turn the wheels a quarter turn to stop them from going egg-shaped with gravity and lots and lots of polishing," he told the PA news agency.

“In preparation for this event, we have increased that polishing 10-fold — if you look at the gun carriage, the barrel itself hasn’t been chromed, that’s years and years of polishing and lots and lots of elbow grease.

“I tend to get upset if I see a new scratch, so I have probably crawled over every single part of it in the past four or five years.”

Cdr Steve Elliott, a staff weapon engineer officer, who was part of the gun carriage contingent, said before the service: “I will have the sombre honour of marching in front of the gun carriage carrying her majesty’s body on her final journey.

“Something perhaps a little more poignant for me is it will be my last action in uniform after 32 years’ service before I actually leave the Royal Navy.”

Updated: September 19, 2022, 11:43 AM