The funeral for Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband of 73 years who died April 9 at the age of 99, will be a private family service, kept small to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions—but, even so, the world will be watching.
Prince Harry’s much-anticipated return for his grandfather’s funeral on Saturday, a year after announcing he and Meghan Markle would step back from royal duties, has echoes of Edward VIII—who in 1936 became the first British monarch to voluntarily abdicate—returning for the funerals for his brother George VI in 1952 and his mother Queen Mary in 1953. That doesn’t mean funerals bring automatic family reconciliation. According to historian Carolyn Harris, an expert on the history of the British royal family and author of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, there were still a lot of hard feelings between the erstwhile Edward VIII—known as the Duke of Windsor after abdication—and his family, which did not get put aside publicly until 1967 when Queen Elizabeth II invited him to the unveiling of a plaque honoring Queen Mary outside the deceased queen’s London home, Marlborough House.
But the return of an absent family member is not the only parallel between mid-century royal funerals and that of Prince Philip.
While following along via social media is a new phenomenon for royal funerals, the idea of televising a somber event of that kind is a product of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, with the format for royal funeral broadcasts dating back to the deaths of her father George VI, who was King during World War II (1936-1952), and her grandfather George V (1910-1936), who reigned during World War I.
It was a period that, due to the wars, gave rise to new remembrance rituals across British society.
“Some of the traditions of remembering those who have been lost in the world wars come to influence royal funerals,” says Harris. “For both their funerals, there are moments of silence that are observed by the public, people being encouraged to donate to charities that will benefit young people, and greater amounts of media coverage.”
George V’s funeral was broadcast over radio, while sales of televisions rose as people wanted to watch George VI’s funeral. (The coronation of the current Queen the following year also gave TV sales a boost.)
The hundreds of thousands of complaints about the BBC’s wall-to-wall coverage of Prince Philip‘s death echo complaints about the week-long coverage of King George VI’s death back in 1952. “It was difficult to have gloomy news for an entire week and no comedies being shown, or played on the radio,” as Harris summed up the viewer complaints back then.
Those broadcasts built on a change that had been underway for decades.
“Before Queen Victoria, royal funerals were generally viewed as family occasions, rather than public occasions,” says Harris. “There was a lot of widespread public mourning when Queen Victoria died, as she had been Queen for such a long period of time.”
That public mourning has been felt particularly strongly for royals who have died tragically young. In 1817, Princess Charlotte died during childbirth at the age of 21, and Lord Henry Brougham wrote, “It really was as if every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child.” People were hugging in the street and composing poems to process their grief. More recently, the funeral for another royal known as “the people’s princess,” Princess Diana, who died suddenly in 1997 in a Paris car crash at the age of 36, drew an estimated 2.5 billion television viewers, making it one of the most-watched TV broadcasts ever. Diana was mourned globally, with people leaving flower memorials all over London and cities all over the world.
Royal funerals have become about more than just remembering the life of a person and what they mean to the royal family; they have become moments to look back on a generation and Britain’s place in the world. Prince Philip’s death has prompted reflections on the World War II generation, just as Queen Mother’s 2002 funeral “was an opportunity to look back on the 20th century,” as Harris puts it.
“They’re not simply periods to mourn the member of the royal family who has passed away,” she says, “but to look back at all the key events in their lives, and people look back on where they were at some of these key moments.”