Royal funerals through the ages from a loyal dog to a spooked horse and a broken crown

As the nation continues to mourn for The Queen following her death last week, many of us will now be turning out attention towards the funeral, which will be incomparable in scale and grandeur to any funeral we have seen before.

While many of us will have seen state funerals in the past, such as after the death of the Queen Mother in 2002 and Princess Diana in 1997, far fewer people will recall the death of the previous Sovereign, King George VI’s funeral which was held in 1952.

While the procession itself was televised, the funeral service was not, meaning that the Queen’s upcoming service, which will be televised for the very first time, marks a significant moment in history as the nation gathers to say a solemn final farewell to its longest reigning monarch.

The decision to televise the service is just one example of the modernisation of the royal family’s funeral customs over the years, as throughout the centuries, customs and rituals have been upheld and honoured at the funerals of Kings and Queens, but very rarely changed.

Here are some of traditions, and some of the more unusual incidents and mishaps, which have shaped the end of historic royal eras.

Breaking of the White Staff

The Lord Chamberlain, the most senior official of the Royal Household, carries a white staff as one of the symbols of his office.

He will ceremonially break the staff over the Queen’s grave at some stage to signify the end of his service to her as sovereign.

The current Lord Chamberlain is former MI5 spy chief Baron Parker of Minsmere.

The last time this tradition was executed was in 1952, when the then-Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Clarendon, did so over George VI’s grave.

Dogs at the funeral

During his reign, King Edward VII carefully planned his own funeral before he died in 1910 and his military procession featured a unique element.

The King was inseparable from his loyal wire-haired fox terrier Caesar, who followed him everywhere.

Caesar, nicknamed Stinky by courtiers, was inconsolable when the King died and the dog roamed the corridors looking for his master.

On the day of the funeral, he achieved widespread fame for trotting behind the King’s coffin alongside a Highland soldier and behind the King’s symbolically riderless horse, his favourite charger.

Caesar was given such a prominent position that he walked ahead of the new King, George V, and foreign heads of state, an act which enraged Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.

The little dog’s relationship with the King is acknowledged on Edward VII’s tomb in St George’s Chapel Windsor, where Caesar is immortalised in stone, curled up at his master’s feet.

The fallen crown

During the procession to George V’s lying in state in 1936, the topmost cross of the Imperial State Crown, which was resting on the coffin, jolted off and fell to the ground.

The new King, Edward VIII, took it as a bad omen. He abdicated within a year.

Women at funerals

Prior to Queen Victoria’s reign, etiquette dictated that aristocratic women should not attend funerals at all.

But since Victoria herself had started going to funerals it was, for the first time, considered proper for women to mourn at her state burial in 1901.

The use of ropes

Non-commissioned sailors, naval ratings, traditionally pull the gun carriage bearing a sovereign’s coffin through the streets using ropes.

The custom was adopted in 1901 at Queen Victoria’s funeral when the splinter bar of the gun carriage broke as her lead-lined coffin, weighing nearly half a ton, was lifted into place and the horses began to move.

Hit by a ricocheting leather strap, one of the horses panicked and plunged.

The naval guard of honour stepped in and dragged the gun carriage to the castle, with the image considered so striking it has been used at every British monarch’s funeral since.

Night funerals

The funerals of Queen Victoria’s predecessors were held at night, but in a change of tradition, hers took place in the day – a custom that has been followed ever since.

White funeral

The Windsors wear black in mourning at royal funerals.

Their ancestor, Victoria, did so for four decades after her husband, Prince Albert, died.

But, for her own funeral, Victoria left instructions that her military ceremony should be white instead of black.

Her coffin was covered with a white and golden pall on its journey from the Isle of Wight, and, in London, black fabric hangings were banished from the streets in favour of purple cashmere with white satin bows.

Vigil of the Princes

In 1936, King George V’s sons – Edward VIII, the Duke of York (later George VI), Henry, Duke of Gloucester, and George, Duke of Kent – carried out the first Vigil of the Princes tribute.

They stood guard over the coffin late in the evening on the final night of his lying in state.

The Queen’s children have already held a short vigil around her coffin in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, with the Princess Royal becoming the first royal woman to do so.

The Queen Mother’s four grandsons – the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, the Earl of Wessex and Viscount Linley, now the Earl of Snowdon – stood guard over her coffin during her lying in state in 2002 as people continued to walk through Westminster Hall.

Merry congregations

At the funeral of the unpopular and gluttonous George IV in 1830, Windsor was described as filled with “more the characters of a masquerade, than spectators hastening to a funeral”.

The crowds waiting for the procession in the Lower Ward of the castle grew impatient and were “joyous and merry” rather than “mournful and sad”.

The funeral was itself chaotic.

The new King, William IV, delighted to have the top job, chatted loudly throughout the service, as did most of the congregation.

He was heard discussing “the most frivolous things” about his dead predecessor and left before the service was over.


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