SUFFICIENT time has elapsed since the death of King George VI for us to look upon
the event with the appraising eyes of contemporary history; yet it is also recent enough for us still to feel the emotional impact. While these memories are fresh we should try to understand the meaning and the reason for the reaction not only of the people of the Commonwealth but of people throughout the civilized world.
A few months earlier we had faced the probability of the King’s death. The operation for cancer of the lung was a scientific gamble in which the odds were heavily against the patient. As the anxious days passed the newspapers had their pages of obituary all ready for the presses that is a gruesome necessity which no one can criticize.
Then there was what seemed a remarkable recovery on the King’s part and, although many of us suspected that it could only be an Indian summer to be followed inevitably by the cold winter of death, we hoped that the respite might last three or four years. In fact, with the easy belief in miracles and luck
that characterizes the human race, we even hoped that science might be confounded and that the King’s life would be prolonged close to the normal span.
Then there came his Christmas broadcast and there was consternation. We had grown accustomed to the strong musical baritone quality of his voice -for in conquering his stammering he had learned to sustain tone like a singer—but his words at Christmas were spoken as if only his courage had kept the flickering candle of life from going out. I was in America at the time and on every hand there was the deepest anxiety and even distress over the broadcast. We know now he was urged by his family not to make the effort and, since it was recorded, the King was fully aware of its disturbing quality. Princess Elizabeth offered to do the broadcast instead, but he answered: “I have done this every year and I am going to do it now. Perhaps next year it will be your turn.”
The King was living on borrowed time procured for him by the skill of his doctors, and he resolved he would live his usual life until the hour came
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when the debt would have to be paid. On the eve of the departure of Elizabeth and Philip for Africa and the Pacific he went to the theatre with them and the Queen. When he said good-by at the aerodrome he talked only of their visit, although he may well have believed it was good-by for the last time.
He spent the day before his death shooting in the woods and he strode along like a strong man. The nation was no longer worried about him. In fact the people were engrossed with the new turns of the thumbscrew which Tory Chancellor Butler was preparing for them.
In parliament we had ended the first half of a furious two days’ foreignaffairs debate and were preparing for a bitter last round when the news came that the King had died. When we met in the Commons later that day it was only to learn the news officially and to prepare for the reception of the body at Westminster Hall by the Lords and Commons.
11 have described these events to you, not because they add new facts, but to give the background to the amazing response which greeted the sad announcement.]
The Bloody Bolero of Feet
The nation could not have been more shocked if the King had been a man in good health, for the people had believed that the operation had removed the immediate threat to his life. '1’hey were stunned, they were hurt, and from their lips came the words that will be his epitaph: “He was a good man.”
But something was happening in the world, something which was not confined to the scattered nations of the British Empire. The mystique of royalty which defies logic was exerting its spell upon nations which have never had a king or have long since discarded monarchy as an archaic survival. They saw in the life of the dead monarch a man who never wanted power but had answered the call of duty, a man above political strife, a man who was the father of his people, a man who came to the throne when it had been terribly weakened by abdication and left it stronger than it had ever been.
Yet look at the period in which he reigned. Even while the trumpets rang out at his coronation there was in Europe the bolero of marching feet in Italy and Germany as the dictators screamed and postured. They were founding a new order based on fear and cruelty and their shadow was darkening the whole of Europe.
War, the devastation of London, the years of sacrifice, the troubled peace, the political upheaval of socialism, the endless austerity, an empire crumbling, war in Korea and Malaya, the Persian grab, the defiance of Egypt . . . Queen Victoria’s reign had seen Britain rise to an unchallenged might, and the reign of Edward VII had maintained the Victorian prestige in spite of the growing menace of imperialist Germany. George V saw the defeat of his enemies and the continuance of an empire which had survived the war which was strangely called Great.
What had George VI to set against all this? If there is such a thing as logic in the human mind why should his death have moved the nation so deeply, not only the nation but the empire, and not only the empire but the world? And why should the Throne stand like a rock against the wind and the waves of circumstance?
The truth is that no real substitute has been found for monarchy, just as in human nature there is no real substitute for character. Therefore when a king brings character to his task the institution of monarchy itself is strengthened.
Another thing that monarchy supplies is the instantaneous successorship. “The King is dead, long live the Queen!” That was the decree which needed no act of parliament. At one moment Princess Elizabeth was a young wife and mother enjoying the first hours of her tour, and in another moment she was Queen of the British peoples. There were no intrigues, no machinations, no manoeuvring for position. From early childhood Elizabeth had been trained for the heavy lonely task of monarchy. As a human being she has her mother and grandmother, her husband and children— but as a queen she becomes the mother of her people.
Compare the passing of George VI with the sudden death of say Franco, or Stalin, or any president of a republic.
In the case of the United States the vice-president automatically becomes president when death intervenes, but ' it is a weakening of authority and a period of political upheaval. In other i countries it may mean rebellions and j civil war.
Again the logical mind could say j that Queen Elizabeth is only a girl like ] thousands of others, no wiser or more gifted than other girls given the advantages of travel and education and contact with first-rate minds. But j if logic is to be our master then why | should not Roman Catholics say that the Pope is only a man like other men, j warmed by the same sun and chilled by the same winter as Protestants, Catholics and agnostics?
If I may repeat the word it is the mystique of royalty that gives it such enduring strength and seizes the imagination. The first Queen Elizabeth would have been a dominating force in any walk of life but with the aura of royalty upon her she inflamed the genius of her country, and with her womanhood called forth the courage and gallantry of the men of England until they dominated not only the territories of the world but the territories of the mind and the spirit.
Seven Women in Veils
I shall not forget the scene when they brought the body of the dead King to Westminster Hall. I cannot explain the English genius for pageantry —it is just a paradox which must be accepted. But in that wondrous hall which William Rufus built nine hundred years ago, where Richard II gave up his crown and Charles I was tried for his life, where Gladstone’s body lay in state and Warren Hastings was impeached, where less than two years ago King George VI spoke from the historic steps on the opening of the new House of Commons, there was such a setting as could not be equalled by the greatest production of a Shakespearian tragedy.
We of the House of Commons lined
one side with Mr. Speaker in his ceremonial robes flanked by Churchill and Attlee. Opposite were the peers, including the bishops in their cassocks. Down the steps came the heralds, pursuivants, and kings-of-arms pacing in slow step and perfect unison and giving color to the sombre scene. With the same slow rhythm the yeomen of the guard took their position at the head of the stairs.
Then came the clergy of the abbey carrying the cross, and behind them the choir moved with the same precision to their place halfway down the steps. From outside came the hoarse command to the waiting troops, but all was silence in the hall. Against the pageantry of color there was the bleak drama of seven women, relatives of the Royal Family, clothed and veiled in such black severity that their faces were completely hidden.
And in all this movement there was not a single direction given from anyone. 11 was a mosaic which took form by some alchemy hidden from normal u n d ersta nding.
Then at the end of the hall the doors opened. We heard the clop clop of horses’ hooves and the shouted commands to the troops rang out more loudly in the rain-soaked air. With silent footsteps on the carpeted stone floor the Earl Marshal and the Lord Chamberlain in scarlet uniform, the Dean of Westminster and the Archbishop of York in their robes, the Minister of Works in morning dress, the heralds and high officers of state moved in wide formation to receive the body of the King.
The Chains of Tradition
With slow military step a detachment of Grenadier Guards carried the coffin on their shoulders. There was not a sound and not a movement anywhere except the advancing soldiers. Following behind them came the three queens —Elizabeth, the reigning monarch, Elizabeth her mother, and Mary her grandmother. Behind them were the tall figures of the Duke of Edinburgh and the Duke of Gloucester. The heavy veils hid the women’s faces but the mute tragedy could not be concealed. It must have been a terrible ordeal for them but kings and queens are prisoners of tradition.
There were brief prayers and then from the steps came the soft notes of the choir as they sang Abide with Me. A final prayer and the Lord Chamberlain led the mourners from the hall. An hour later I looked at the scene just before going home. Everyone had gone except the four yeomen of the guard standing at attention by the coffin. That was the beginning of the
vigil before Londoners in their thousands came to pay a last tribute.
You might ask what all this pageantry has to do with grief. You might well say that the three Queens could have been spared the ordeal. But royalty is based upon tradition which links it with the centuries like a chain. The dead King was a man like other men, the new Queen a woman like other women, but they embody the story of a people and, in death as in life, they are the servants of the nation over which they rule.
Now we are Elizabethans again. The centuries have run their cycle and we are asking if we shall be enriched by another Shakespeare, Bacon, Drake and Burleigh. At least the reign starts with a prime minister who has the language and the spirit of that golden sixteenth century.
The King is dead, long live the Queen! A new page in our story has begun and the pen of history is poised. The ancient stones of Westminster Hall sleep again, waiting until pageantry unfolds its carpet again. -k
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