Had we an elected president, who then died in whilst in office, undoubtedly there would be proper respect and ceremony to mark it. I doubt however, that there would have been displays of public grief and affection in the way that we have seen in the last few days. Would crowds of well-wishers have flooded to the presidential palace and to the presidential country retreats?Would there have been such ceremony, even in the midst of the mourning, to mark the inauguration of a president’s replacement? I was out very late on Thursday night walking along the Mall and watching the crowds thronging towards Buckingham Palace, some with flowers, others just to stand, wait, and reflect. On Saturday morning I walked up the Mall again, this time on my way to take part the Accession Council at St James’s Palace as a member of the Privy Council. The crowds were out in even greater force to witness the Proclamation of our new King with a great shout of ‘God Save The King’ followed by a rousing three cheers. Unlike relatively short presidential terms, a monarch provides something of a backdrop for a lifetime, providing a constant presence and reassurance. We may imagine that we have been almost familiar with our monarchs simply because it seemed that they were always there, an ever constant presence.
I was Vice Chamberlain to our late Queen from 2012 to 2014. I cannot claim to have known her better than any other of her subjects, but one of the rare privileges had by the Vice Chamberlain is private audiences with the Monarch when a humble address is sent by the Commons to the Sovereign. These take place following every State Opening of Parliament, they mark important events like royal marriages and births, but they are also used for more mundane business, for example, where the Commons wants a particular individual appointed to a job that is in the gift of the Crown.On these occasions the Vice Chamberlain is entirely alone with the Monarch, nobody else is present. My experience was that once the formal business was concluded, the Queen would relax and we’d have a brief chat. She had quite a sense of humour. I’ve told a story in this column before, but I think it bears repetition: When I presented my first humble address to the Queen at Buckingham Palace, I was briefed beforehand by a courtier about the proper etiquette. In particular, he insisted that on no account was I to observe the ‘former custom’ of walking backwards so as not to turn my back on the Sovereign when I left the room. He said that this sort of ‘flummery’ had been abandoned for good. So, I presented the humble address, I enjoyed our chat and then, when I was about to take my leave, with a mischievous smile the Queen asked me “ now, are you going to walk backwards?”. I replied that I had been ordered not to, but if she’d like me to..? She chuckled, saying it that she didn’t mind at all either way, but she just had the impression that I might be a stickler for tradition. I said that, if it was really all the same to her, then yes, I would like to walk backwards. She smiled and said “just make sure you don’t trip up, or I’ll be in real trouble”