Christopher Smith


The thing we were all expecting but somehow putting out of mind has happened, and it is strange to think that this time last month we were expecting a change of Head of Government, but not a change of Head of State. Emotions are funny things, and I certainly had quite an emotional reaction to the death of the late Queen, and I suspect that might be true of some of you too. As the King said in his broadcast on the day after her death, hers was ‘a life well lived; a promise with destiny kept and she is mourned most deeply in her passing’.

On the same day, the Archbishop of Canterbury made a point which perhaps helps us to understand our own emotions a bit. He said that her Late Majesty’s death is ‘a shock to our sense of permanence’. And that wasn’t just about the longevity. As I said at the time of the Jubilee in June, that’s just the way it is: she came to the throne at a young age, and lived a long time. But this has been something more, at the heart of which was her unselfconscious confession of the Christian Faith. And, as the Archbishop said in Parliament, ‘It would be easy as a monarch to be proud, but she was everything but that. It was her faith which gave her strength, and she knew that, but she knew also her call to be a servant’.

But the business of ‘permanence’ has more to it, perhaps, than the Archbishop recognised. Much has been said about the end of a long era and the shock of change, but the system we have in this country and the other ‘realms and territories’ gives an important degree of continuity, expressed in that perhaps rather brutal phrase, ‘The Queen is dead; long live the King’. The two reigns are contiguous, separated by only a heartbeat. And we would do Her late Majesty a disservice if we were to think of this as a rupture, rather than as a continuation. We have a new monarch, and a new Prince of Wales, and a nine-year-old prince who will become King beyond my lifetime. The whole thing can only work if it is a matter of service, and service after the example of the King of Kings. ‘If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’

  London felt interestingly different for the best part of a fortnight—more like the nation as a whole, perhaps. It was tricky to get around at times, and the sheer number of people coming into the capital made for crowded pavements, but no trouble. The famous Queue has probably now got its own entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. Members of the constabulary must have come from all over the country too, doing their duty with patience and good cheer, and the security operation around the funeral, with royalty and politicians from all over the world presenting themselves, must have been well-planned, and was certainly well-executed. And everything was pretty much back to normal the day after.

Annoyingly, my invitation to the funeral had got lost in the post, so I watched it all on telly, which took most of the day. ‘It is important to remember that this is a religious service,’ said the commentator before it all began. Mercifully, he stopped commentating at the beginning of the liturgy, and didn’t turn the babble back on until the coffin was nearly out of the Abbey, at which point he quoted some Wordsworth. But a better poet had been quoted during the prayers of intercession: John Donne. ‘Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity: in the habitations of thy majesty and glory, world without end. Amen.’ The choir of Saint George’s Chapel Windsor sang a setting of it at the committal, by William Harris.

What next? Well, in the north-western corner of Trafalgar Square is a plinth that was originally supposed to be home to an equestrian statue of William IV to stand opposite the one of George IV, but the money ran out before it could be made. That ‘Fourth Plinth’ stood empty and dignified until some bright spark had the idea of putting a series of temporary structures on it. The first, in 1999, was a rather moving statue of Jesus by Mark Wallinger called Ecce Homo. Everything that’s been put there since has been embarrassing rubbish. It’s empty at the moment, with another deliberately controversial sculpture in the pipeline. But I hope something permanent will be put there soon. The plinth is surely crying out to be occupied by an equestrian statue of our late Queen. It’s time for a campaign, and I’m going to write to the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group care of the London Mayor’s ‘Culture Team’ about it. Perhaps you might, too!