The queen alone: how Prince Philip’s death will change the British monarchy

With the poignant sight of the widowed queen, the world glimpsed not just the era that is ending, but the one that is inevitably on its way

You could barely see her, but you could glimpse the future. Maybe it was the sepulchral gloom of the dark wooden stalls of St George’s chapel, or perhaps it was the restraint of a TV director keeping their distance, respecting the privacy of the moment, but Queen Elizabeth was hardly visible in the live coverage of her late husband’s funeral on Saturday. Masked and in an unlit corner, the monarch was all but unseen.

When the camera did catch her, it made for a poignant sight: the widow alone, an image that “broke hearts around the world,” in the words of the Washington Post, but one that will resonate in the UK especially. Even the sternest republican has long admitted that an extraordinary bond exists between Elizabeth and the people who have been her subjects for nearly seven decades. Now, if anything, that bond will be strengthened.

Part of it will be natural human sympathy for a woman deprived of the man she had known for 81 years, who had been her “strength and stay” for 73 years. Traditionally, a monarch is meant to inspire awe and deference in those she reigns over. Now there will be tenderness too.

Saturday’s funeral will have added another, more improbable, dimension to the relationship: an unlikely kind of solidarity. Like tens of thousands of others, the queen was denied the traditional farewell for a loved one. Of course, by any normal standards, Prince Philip was buried with great ceremony. But it was not quite the funeral he or his wife had imagined: there were 30 guests, not 800. More importantly, like every other Briton who has suffered a loss this last year, the mourners had to sit apart and cover their faces. They could not sing. The widow had to sit alone, denied the consolation of touch.


In a country that despises double standards – one rule for them, another rule for us – the sight of the monarch abiding by the same regulations that have restricted everyone else in the UK, sharing their fate, will matter. The queen learned that lesson long ago. She was 14 when her mother said, after Buckingham Palace was bombed in September 1940, that she “could look the East End in the face.”

Few were more keenly aware of the fragility of monarchy than Philip … He saw thrones pushed over and dynasties collapse

And so the ties that bind Elizabeth to her subjects become stronger: next year she will mark her platinum jubilee, a milestone that has never been reached before. But in a few days, she will be 95 years old. Which means that Saturday’s hour of mourning in Windsor, like the eight days that preceded it, offered a glimpse not only of the era that is ending, but of the one that is, inevitably, on its way – the one in which the royal family will be without its oldest generation.

Some things will not change. The royal family proved again at the funeral that it bows to no one when it comes to the staging of ceremony. Covid was meant to have stripped the spectacle, but somehow the very austerity of the event only made it more beautiful. The monarchy probably has a fraction of the budget Netflix can splash on The Crown’s recreation of royal events, but it still knows how to put on a perfect show. The dipped heads of the guardsmen; the single wreath of white flowers; the four haunting voices of the choir; the silhouetted image of a sole piper, receding through an ancient doorway at the funeral’s close – it matched anything director Stephen Daldry and his Emmy-winning team could have come up with.

Similarly, the British monarchy will not lose its knack for compelling storylines. The drama of William and Harry walking behind the coffin of their grandfather, apparently needing to be separated by a cousin – only then to be seen chatting after the funeral – is an archetypal soap opera plot, brothers at odds if not at war, that could run for decades. There need be no worries on that score.

But the other signs will be more troubling for the palace, ones that go far beyond a record number that will already have caused worry: the 109,741 complaints to the BBC over its coverage of Philip’s death, with many irritated to miss EastEnders or the MasterChef final.

There are more serious concerns. Those with a closeup view testified that Prince Charles appeared to be broken-up by the death of his father, but he has stubbornly refused to arouse deep affection in the hearts of the public. Maybe that will come once he finally becomes king, but few would bet on it. Not least because the prince of Wales has been unable to emulate the quality that is the foundation of his mother’s standing: her silence on nearly every question of controversy, a fastidious neutrality that has made her acceptable to almost everyone.

Behind him in the procession was his brother Andrew, shielded by his father’s coffin from the opprobrium that would on any other day surely greet his appearance in public. Anne is respected, Edward is inoffensive, William and Harry have their fans – but none have the stature of the man they buried. That’s partly because their military records are weaker than Philip’s was and partly for a reason that none of them can help: they do not have the connection to the second world war which serves as the bedrock event of modern Britain.

The queen and her husband embodied that link. He fought for his country in the Royal Navy; she was on the balcony, in uniform, alongside Winston Churchill on VE Day. That has helped tie the monarchy to the country for the entire postwar era: witness the instant power of the queen’s message in the first weeks of Covid, invoking a wartime anthem to say, “We will meet again.” The death of Prince Philip has loosened that connection; one day it will be gone.

It is not sacrilegious to talk like this, nor disrespectful of the prince himself. On the contrary, few were more keenly aware of the fragility of monarchy than him. His grandfather was the king of Greece, but his father was chased out of the country, banished for life. His great-aunt was murdered along with the Russian tsar in the bloodshed of the Bolshevik revolution. He saw once-solid thrones pushed over and long-rooted royal dynasties collapse.

The queen herself hardly needs to be told that no law of nature says a monarchy must exist for ever. The defining fact of her own life may well be the abdication of her uncle, after serving just eight months as King Edward VIII. She knows that royal stability and continuity are far from automatic, but take persistence, perseverance and deft personnel. She and her late husband fitted the bill perfectly. But from that couple, from that generation, there is now just her, alone. – Guardian

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist