There was in former days a bell in Westminster whose tone was so mournful that they say it soured all the milk in the town. It tolled to mark the death of a king. The bells of Westminster today tolled out slowly.
There is more to pageant than theatre, where it demonstrates deep reality. Here was the mourning for a Queen universally loved by all honest people, and the countless multitudes gathered in one accord showed more than a dumb-show. Thousands of soldiers and sailors marching as one, flawlessly, with barely a command needed to be heard, the bright scarlet and plumes of former days displayed because they were needed, and to such precision not arrayed for war but devotion, would not have been possible in a free nation without the unity it displayed.
One can have, in unhappier nations, a display to hide a tottering state behind a moment of glittering swords, but they are of necessity a shallow facade. Here was something bigger, more magnificent, more perfect, and no penny-tyrant could achieve this. It was not a show to blind the eyes but to bring all this together, from state, Commonwealth, church and the armies of the realms, and the unbidden crowds lining the way to bow their heads, it was a demonstration to give a picture of the larger unity of devotion.
We were reminded too, if we thought we could withdraw within our own seas, that the Queen looked further beyond, as should our nation – the procession away from the service was led by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, with Australian and New Zealand soldiers following. All had lost their sovereign and all could show their mutual unity than mere thousands of miles of ocean should not sunder.
There were less happy times, in this land as there are still in others. Yet even in the happiest of kingdoms, the sovereign is not imortal. The Persians may have cried ‘May the King live forver!’ but they knew it was impossible. In that ultimate place, all lie equal, though the love left behind does not.
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
There are no kings now as unhappy as those which haunted Richard II, knowing the deadly nature of the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temple of a king, in his age, not ours. While the crown no longer temps death, it cannot ultimately hold it back. Then we all mourn for the whole nation is bereft.
The bell which soured the milk is no longer there – it was tumbled centuries ago – but the solemn procession passed the site of the belfry where the Middlesex Guildhall stands today, and other bells tolled, with more hope somehow that they can sound happier days.
Today though, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.