In John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga there is a description of the funeral procession in February 1901 of Queen Victoria – until the death of Queen Elizabeth, Britain's longest-reigning monarch. Soames Forsyte reflects on the 'the surging, great, dark-coated crowd, with perhaps a simple sadness here and there deep in hearts beneath black clothes put on by regulation. After all, more than a Queen was going to her rest, a woman who had braved sorrow, lived well and wisely according to her lights.'
But as the coffin passes, the mood changes. 'As it went by there came a murmuring groan from all the long line of those who watched, a sound such as Soames had never heard, so unconscious, primitive, deep and wild, that neither he nor any knew whether they had joined in uttering it ... It moved on with the bier, that travelling groan, as a fire moves on over grass in a thin line; it kept step, and marched alongside down the dense crowds, mile after mile.'
And: 'That which had seemed eternal was gone! The Queen – God bless her!'
Our own farewell to our own queen was a little different, but in its essentials, not much. There was a ripple of applause as the coffin passed down the Mall on its way to Wellington Arch. As well as the pomp and circumstance of high military ceremony, she was saluted by thousands of phone cameras. Perhaps it was the slow, dignified and hypnotically moving procession of the hundreds of thousands who filed past her coffin in Westminster Hall that was most like the experience Galsworthy described. But again, many of us were ambushed by the strength of our emotion. Perhaps one of the reasons for this was that for us too, it was not just a woman who had died, it was a whole age.
Queen Elizabeth came to the throne too young, equipped with little apart from an iron sense of duty and a husband who was absolutely perfect for her. Her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, famously fretted: 'I do not know her and she is only a child.' He came to be devoted to her, commenting on a photograph in 1953: 'Lovely. She is a pet. I fear they may ask her to do too much. She is doing so well.'
She was to continue to do well. No failure in her private or public life ever compromised her. Prince Philip's well-publicised gaffes – often seized on unfairly and magnified by the press – only served as a foil to her own unfailing courtesy. She offered wise counsel to presidents and prime ministers the world over.
She was devoted to her family and could be fiercely protective of them, braving public criticism after the death of Princess Diana to look after her two bereaved grandsons.
She was very much a queen, expecting loyal and efficient service, but she had a quick sense of humour, too. Her reaction when Labour politician Clare Short's phone rang during a Privy Council meeting – the ultimate faux pas – was lightning-fast and hilarious: 'Oh dear, I hope it wasn't anyone important.'
Like Queen Victoria, she had braved sorrow and lived well. She lost a beloved cousin, Lord Mountbatten, to IRA violence. The 'Annus Horribilis' of 1992 saw the devastating Windsor Castle fire as well as the very public breakdown of three of her children's marriages.
But she continued to see herself as the servant of her people, in accordance with her coronation oath. In a unique sense, she represented us. She was there at moments of tragedy, meeting the crowds, taking the weight of other people's pain, and almost always saying the right words in the right way.
She was there in joyful times as well, focusing the exuberance of the Olympics or the Platinum Jubilee. And she unflinchingly did what her governments required of her when they asked her to shake the hands of terrorists and war criminals for the greater good.
Where did she find the strength of character to see her through so many decades? It is not a hard question to answer. She had an uncomplicated but deep Christian faith that was increasingly expressed in her Christmas messages to the nation and Commonwealth.
'I know just how much I rely on my own faith to guide me through the good times and the bad,' she said in 2002. 'Each day is a new beginning, I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God.'
And in 2015 she recalled the terrorist atrocities in Paris and elsewhere, saying: 'It is true that the world has had to confront moments of darkness this year, but the Gospel of John contains a verse of great hope, often read at Christmas carol services: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it"... Despite being displaced and persecuted throughout his short life, Christ's unchanging message was not one of revenge or violence but simply that we should love one another.'
Only the old remember life before the Queen began her reign. As this long presence in our lives is ended, the faith that strengthened her and kept her faithful to her vows should be remembered too. We do not know what lies ahead, and whether Britain's monarchy will continue to embody the faith as Elizabeth II did. As this part of our long story ends, though, the prevailing note is simple gratitude for what we have been given.
The first Elizabeth, at the end of her reign, said in her 'Golden Speech' to Parliament: 'Though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my Crown, that I have reigned with your loves.'
The second Elizabeth has reigned with ours.
Mark Woods is Head of Communications for Bible Society. Queen Elizabeth II was a patron of Bible Society from 1952, when she acceded to the throne, until the time of her passing in 2022.
Republished from Christian Today UK.