The King’s coffin remained inside the Royal Sandringham Estate until the arrival of the new Queen, on the 8th February, after her proclamation, so that Her Majesty was allowed to pay her respects to her father privately. Following the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’s arrival, the coffin, draped in the Royal Standard and with a bunch of white flowers above it, was moved to St. Mary Magdalene’s Church, where the Estate workers kept vigil through day and night. On 11th February, a small cortege was organized to the station where the Royal Train was waiting to carry the coffin and the Royal Family to London. The Estate workers followed the coffin as locals lined the streets to watch the small procession.
In London, thousands of people were out in the streets to watch the King’s coffin pass by, from the Victoria Station to Westminster Hall, in the historic Palace of Westminster. The mood in London, despite the fact that several days had been gone since the King’s death, was of deep and pure mourning. There was a feeling of unbearable loss, of loneliness, of profound sadness. The crowds were silent. At Victoria Station, a gun carriage waited to take the King’s coffin. The scene was sombre when the eight officers left the funerary carriage of the Train carrying the coffin, draped in the Royal Standard and crowned with the Imperial State Crown standing on a cushion, alongside the bunch of white flowers from Queen Elizabeth, the new Queen Mother.
On the arrival of the gun carriage to Westminster Hall, the coffin was taken off the carriage and brought inside, as members of the Royal Family and the Royal Household entered to be the first to pay their respects. Her Majesty Queen Mary, the Queen Dowager, the King’s mother, was also there. It was not the first but actually the third time she was burying a son: her son Prince John had died when he was very young; HRH the Duke of Kent had been killed in a plane accident; and now her beloved Albert, King George VI, had died. It was surely the most painful loss for the frail Queen Dowager after the one of her own husband, King George V, sixteen years before.
As the coffin was being taken inside, an historic picture was captured as three Queens, three different generations of Britain were pictured mourning the same King: her son, her husband, her father, their King. After the Royal Family had paid their respects, it was the time for the King’s subjects, no matter their wealth or position, to pay their tribute to the monarch who reigned in Britain during the most difficult years of recent history, the years of the Second World War. Nearly 300.000 people passed in front of the King’s coffin during three days of lying in state.
The scene inside Westminster Hall was somehow unique, incredibly royal and incredibly sad. Upon the dais, the Royal Standard in its various vivid colours covered the King’s coffin. Above it over a cushion, the magnificent Imperial State Crown, set with diamonds and other precious stones, including the Second Star of Africa, the Black Prince’s Ruby and King Edward the Confessor’s Sapphire. Alongside it rested the King’s Orb and the Royal Sceptre, the ensign of kingly power and justice, with the stunning First Star of Africa, the biggest existing diamond, mounted on it. Day and night, eight guards kept vigil over the coffin.
Preparations for the King’s funeral were meanwhile underway, in London and in Windsor. The BBC placed its cameras to broadcast the funeral live. They would have a very special spectator: Her Majesty the Queen Dowager would not attend the funeral giving her frailty, preferring to watch it at her official residence of Marlborough House. Heads of state from all over the world flocked to London to pay their tributes to one of the heroes of World War II. A special friend was representing a country deeply affected by King George’s death: the French President represented a nation in mourning too.
Flags were half-masted all over the world on the day of the funeral of King George VI, the last Emperor of India. It was a genuine sense of loss felt for a friend, an ally. In London, though, it was more than a friend that was being buried: it was a father. That was the main reason why well over 2 million people came into the streets of the British capital, once the capital of the biggest Empire the world has ever seen. It were silent, sombre crowds. Queen Elizabeth II arrived with her mother and sister at Westminster Hall, dressed and veiled in black. Soldiers from the three services of the army lined the streets from the Palace of Westminster until Paddington Station, where a platform had been prepared for the final farewell of George VI to London, the city in front of which he stood up during the Blitz, braving the bombs.
The silence reigned over London. At 9.30 am exactly, a gun blast, the first of 56 marking each year of the late King’s life, exactly at the same time than the Big Ben marked the half hour, announced the beginning of the ceremonies: eight officers carrying the King’s coffin emerged out of Westminster Hall and placed it in the gun carriage. The long, grand cortege began its way through London. Regiments from the Commonwealth and those that had a special link to King George VI headed the sorrowfully magnificent procession. Bands played sombre and slow marches, like the sublime Nimrod by Elgar. It was a frightening feeling of loss mixed with the one of being witness to a uniquely grand and historic event, full of mourning pageantry. Ninety-eight marines mechanically pulled the gun carriage while forty others went behind it, acting as breaks for it.
The long, slow cortege was to last almost three hours, arriving 25 minutes late at Paddington Station, at around 12.30 am. A moment was perhaps the most solemn of the whole journey: as the cortege passed in front of Marlborough House – the official residence of Queen Mary – one of the white curtains, which had all been closed during the whole morning, opened and the Queen appeared behind the window. Apparently she whispered: “Here he is.”
In Windsor, the mood was quite the same. Thousands had flocked to the streets to see the cortege from the Station though High Street, Park Street and the last part of the magnificent Long Walk to the grounds of the Castle, the ancient and historic home of the Royal Family. Soldiers lined the streets and a similar procession was organized, being the gun carriage that took the King’s coffin also pulled by ninety-eight marines and followed by forty others who acted as the breaks of the carriage. The Queen, the Queen Mother, the Princess Royal and the Princess Margaret followed in one of the Windsor landaus, closed. Behind them came the same long line of royalty and statesmen, up the hill, and down the castle precincts towards the royal shrine of St. George’s Chapel.
As the cortege entered the Castle gate the first of another 56-gun salute was heard in Windsor: it were 2 pm. At the same time, in Britain and all over Commonwealth, a two-minute silence was observed. Half of the world stopped in those two minutes, homage to a man who did so much to save the world. The gun carriage stopped in front of St. George’s staircase and the coffin was taken out and taken inside, followed by the mourners who had followed the cortege. Inside, sombre music was played, as the coffin, still having the crown jewels above it, entered the beautiful chapel. A catafalque had been placed above an elevator that would dramatically take the King’s coffin to the Royal Vault at the end of the service, which was conducted by the Dean of Windsor and lasted for 25 minutes. Nine hundred people were invited to the ceremony.
At the end of the ceremony, the Imperial State Crown, the King’s Orb and the Royal Sceptre were removed from the coffin and so was the Royal Standard. They were the symbols of continuity, the unbreakable chain of sovereignty, and they now had a new holder. Only the flowers from the “beloved Elizabeth” remained above it. And so the end came: the coffin, the King, slowly disappeared from everyone’s sight and was taken into the Royal Vault. As this happened, the clearest indication of the new era came as the Garter King of Arms looked straight to Her Majesty the Queen and loudly cried: “God Save the Queen!”