The state funeral for Queen Elizabeth II is being held Monday at Westminster Abbey. It will mark the first time a British monarch’s funeral has been held at the abbey since 1760 for that of King George II, who died at 76, having lived longer than any of his predecessors. And while there have been many royal funerals in past years, most recently for the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, in April 2021, the last funeral for a British sovereign was held 70 years ago for George VI at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
The funeral of a sovereign is certainly a state affair, although state funerals (those that publicly honor individuals of national significance) need not be held exclusively for monarchs. One example is the funeral for Winston Churchill on Jan. 30, 1965, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Yet royal funerals specifically are a matter of great importance to the nation and its people, as evidenced by the crowds that have already paid their respects to the queen.
Monday’s funeral marks the culmination of numerous royal funerary and mourning rites that have taken place over the last 10 days all over the United Kingdom, from Queen Elizabeth’s lengthy coffin procession from Scotland to her lying in state at Westminster Hall. Indeed, the rituals around royal funerals are inherently ceremonial and very visual affairs that date to the medieval period. Originally a social and political necessity, the royal funeral has evolved into a highly orchestrated event rich with symbolism for royals and non-royals alike.
Royal funerals were only ever possible when the succession to the throne was firmly established before the death of the monarch. In medieval Britain, the succession was typically less secure, so possible claimants to the throne might be too busy gathering support or preparing their own coronation. For example, after the death of William the Conqueror in 1087, there was no time for a grand funeral, as the late king’s second son rushed from Normandy to claim the crown. In the ensuing chaos, William’s body was left naked on the floor for a time as his servants ran off with the royal silver.
The line of succession became clearer by the 16th century with the Tudor dynasty, although anxiety and infighting continued well into the next century. But it was critical for the new dynasty to legitimize its right to rule. The funeral of a British sovereign provided the perfect opportunity for these new monarchs to assert their royal authority. As the incoming king or queen, it was their exclusive right to plan the ceremonies for their predecessor — the bigger and more expensive, the better.