For Britain's queen mother, subdued tributes

Funeral ceremonies to be held April 9 at Westminster Abbey

April 01, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- It didn't take mourners long yesterday to walk through St. James's Palace to sign condolence books honoring the life of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

The short line seemed a sign of the times and the changed relationship over the decades between Britons and the royal family, the Windsors.

The days when the Windsors were at the center of public life seem as long gone as the era that ended with the queen mother's death Saturday at age 101.

Even some of the monarchy's biggest backers -- and plenty are left in the land -- seem resigned to the notion that the old times can never be rekindled.

"I'm 70, and I think the monarchy will fade out, but hopefully not in my lifetime," said June Lovell, who trooped in from a northern suburb to central London to pay homage to a woman she knew mainly from newspaper accounts and television.

"It will take about 30 or 40 years for the monarchy to go completely," Lovell said. "I don't think young people are that interested in it."

For the royal family, buffeted in the past seven weeks by the deaths of the queen mother and her younger daughter, Princess Margaret, this has been a year of painful transition.

After ruling as head of state for 50 years, Queen Elizabeth II finds herself assuming a role as family matriarch.

Just as Queen Elizabeth II's reign began in inevitable tragedy -- with the death of her father, King George VI -- it will continue through the extended period of public mourning for her mother.

A ceremonial funeral will be held April 9 at Westminster Abbey, after three days in which the queen mother's body will lie in state in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament under ceremonial guard. She will then be laid to rest next to her husband at Windsor's St. George's Chapel.

Great Tom, the state bell at St. Paul's Cathedral, rang for an hour yesterday afternoon to mark the queen mother's passing, as it did after the death of Princess Margaret. The bell tolls only for the death of a member of the royal family, a serving dean of the cathedral or a senior national figure.

Flags flew at half-staff from Buckingham Palace to the Murrayfield rugby stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland, 50 miles south of Glamis Castle, the queen mother's ancestral home.

Few public tears were shed yesterday as tourists thronged The Mall, which connects Buckingham Palace with other stately buildings in the royal precincts.

Some people brought bouquets to place amid the spring flowers at several royal palaces.

"Dear Queen Mum," read one card, "You'll be in our hearts forever."

At St. James's Palace, in an area meant to accommodate thousands, about 100 people at a time waited patiently before heading in to sign the condolence books. After walking past a doorman in a crimson jacket with gold braid, the mourners signed books arranged neatly on wooden tables in a room with paintings of battle scenes.

"I just signed my name and address," said Lovell, who was raised in northern England and speaks with the familiar rasp of a Yorkshirewoman.

"I'm afraid there are a lot of killjoys in this country," she said. "My neighbor wouldn't even turn on her television set to find out about the queen mother. Would you believe that?"

Lovell recalled that in 1960, she sat in a movie theater near the queen mother and Princess Margaret. She can't remember the film but can recall peering over to see the princess smoking cigarettes.

Lovell's friend Shirley Botell also admired the queen mother.

"The queen mother was the rock, the mother figure," said Botell, a Londoner. "What's going to happen now?"

It was a question others grappled with in the pages of Britain's national newspapers.

Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times wrote that without the queen mother, the Windsors "lack the sense of a figure who rises above it all, they all seem mired in the problems of their troubled house."

The pundit added, "Sanctified by age, justified by duty and endorsed by history, no British figure will be more painfully missed."

The Sunday Telegraph, in an editorial titled "What we have lost," celebrated a woman who "provided the backbone that saved the Royal Family." The newspaper noted she supported her husband, who ascended to the throne reluctantly after the abdication of his brother King Edward VIII. According to the paper, she also provided support to her grandson Prince Charles, who, the paper said "shares his grandfather's sense of personal inadequacy."

Historian Andrew Roberts concluded that the queen mother "was raised in a very different ethos, where words like piety, paternalism and sacrifice did not have the tinge of disapprobation that they tend to bear today."

"She has gone," Roberts wrote, "but the values for which she stood will continue to be cherished in the hearts of many Britons."

Those who paid their respects yesterday agreed with the sentiment.

Periodically, the monarchy gets roughed up, but it endures.

It survived Queen Victoria's long period of mourning and isolation after the death of her husband.

It survived the abdication crisis in 1936.

And it will probably survive the travails of the younger Windsors, although attention will surely continue to focus on Prince Charles, first in line to the throne, and his elder son, Prince William.

Five years ago, Britain was wounded by the death of Prince Charles' ex-wife, Princess Diana. The outpouring of grief was genuine and unusual for tight-lipped Britain as mourners created a sea of flowers by the front gates of Diana's home at Kensington Palace.

There may not be as many flowers appearing in the next days, but that doesn't mean that Britons' don't appreciate the queen mother's service.

"Her life was very fulfilled," said Victoria Crisp, 24, of London, who signed a condolence book.

Crisp likened the queen mother's life to a cricket batsman taking his best swings.

"She had a good innings," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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