Part of what was so moving about Thursday’s events, was the experience common to so many families of sudden and unexpected news; the dash to a bedside; the realisation that life is ending. As a hospital chaplain I witnessed on many occasions the anxiety of families as to whether everyone would get there in time, the inevitable sorrow once the moment of death arrived, and the imperceptible shift in relationships that death precipitates. In many instances a death can be the end of an era. The moment when some familiar conversations about long-deceased relatives and neighbours are no longer possible.
The BBC series, The Hollow Crown, began in 2012 and featured several of Shakespeare’s history plays. It was a tour de force of casting and direction and will no doubt remain an important part of the BBC’s archive. One of the sublimely acted moments featured Simon Russell-Beale as the comic character, Falstaff. Sitting by a fireside at night, Falstaff reminisces with Shallow and Silence about the days of their youth. It is at once a sad and honest recognition of our mortality, and the days that pass so quickly.
Certain, ’tis certain; very sure, very sure: death,King Henry IV, part II, Act 3, Scene 2, William Shakespeare 1660
as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all; all shall die.
In the conversation about their past, the protagonists avoid detail. Although the play is set in another era, looking back over the 55 years from the date of its performance, audiences would recognise how dangerous it was to discuss history. The beliefs, convictions and actions of one period could bring plaudits at the time but a decade later put someone in peril of trial and execution. It was much safer to say simply: ‘Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that that this knight and I have seen!’
We do not now live in a country that presents this kind of risk. There may be a social expectation about public conduct and comments during the period of official mourning for the Queen, but there are no punitive sanctions. We can speak about the past, and voice convictions that may be at odds with the prevailing mood. This is not a freedom enjoyed everywhere and, travelling in Cuba some years ago, I was aware of how cautious local people could be in speaking about their society and its history.
The title for the BBC series is taken from Richard III and concerns the mortality of kings: ‘within the hollow crown That rounds the mortal temples of a king Keeps Death his court’. Despite all the layers of privilege and deference, sovereigns are mortal and death can come quickly. The empty crown is the enduring motif of royalty, with its void filled instantly, silently and seamlessly, the moment its last occupant dies. In the past this could be contested and fought over, whereas now the British monarchy’s succession is no longer disputed. After a reign of astonishing longevity, while its trappings and function may change, the likely succession of sovereigns appears guaranteed deep into the 22nd century.
While in no sense a presence in people’s immediate relationships, the departure of the Queen will be felt by many as the loss of a vital connection with the past. Her experience of WWII, and Prime Ministers from Churchill to Truss, highlight a consistency spanning generations. On the news of her death my thoughts went to my mother and grandmother, both keen supporters of the Queen. As an early and life-long member of the Mothers’ Union, my grandmother was an active participant in an organisation for which the Queen was Patron up until the moment of her death.
The poet John Donne was 31 years old when Elizabeth I died in 1603. His subsequent rise to become Dean of St Paul’s relied on Royal patronage, and was accompanied by the composition of some of the finest Metaphysical poetry in the English Language. Donne was very concerned with death, and one of his most memorable texts adopts the idea of literature to explore his theme.
When someone dies: “one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another”.John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions; Meditation XVII.
Understandably, the Queen’s life contained a series of volumes – possibly its own library – of public interactions and comments. Not to mention the private moments, the scattered leaves, that are also part of our story. She is now being translated into posterity and, spiritually, to a better place. To give Shakespeare the final word, even a long and notable Royal reign is fleeting in the sweep of human history. Our time on stage comes to an end and, when the ‘insubstantial pageant has faded’, no grandeur alters the truth we all hold in common: that ‘our little life is rounded with a sleep’.