Shame on those who pour scorn on the mourners
Today’s state funeral brings an end to the official mourning period. It has also brought an end to The Queue — perhaps the most extraordinary of all the tributes paid to Elizabeth II over the last ten days. Though sensitively managed, the queue was not choreographed — and it was anything but uniform. Tens of thousands of people from across the country and around the world streamed through Westminster Hall — each to pay tribute to the Queen in their own way.
But for a minority of bystanders the lying-in-state was more than their shrivelled souls could bear. There was crude mockery of course, with some of the more awkward bows and curtsies singled-out for ridicule. Others resorted to whataboutery — what about the poor? what about climate change? — as if we’re too stupid to think about more than one thing at a time. Various experts popped-up to analyse the ‘true’ motivations of the queuers (perhaps someone should analyse the true motivations of the experts). Most absurd of all, were the concern-trollers who tried to portray the queue as a minor humanitarian disaster — the sort of thing that a more rational nation might have avoided.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with not being a monarchist. And if ceremony of any sort leaves some people cold, that is their business not ours. However, to go out of one’s way to belittle those who mourn the Queen, who lament the passing of an age or who are simply caught up in the moment, is a contemptible thing.
Appropriately, it is the royal motto Honi soit qui mal y pense that is the best rebuke to the cynics. This fragment of medieval Norman French has various translations, but the simplest and best is this: “shame on him who thinks ill of it”.
Though especially associated with the Order of the Garter founded by Edward III in 1348, the precise origin of the motto and the symbolism of the garter itself is uncertain. The best known story is that the King saved the blushes of a lady of the court when an item of her under-clothing fell to her feet during a dance. By literally holding up the garter as a symbol of honour, he turned the tables on those who were laughing at his unfortunate dance partner. He shamed the shamers.
It has to be said there are no contemporary sources for this story. Some historians point out that, at the time, garters were more commonly worn by men than women — and that the symbol (and accompanying motto) alludes to the bond of loyalty between a monarch and his closest companions on the field of battle.
But whatever the origin, it is clear that, symbolically, this is all about the elevation of virtue above baser instincts. One might object that throughout most of our history, it is the baser instincts that dominated. But nevertheless the civilising impulse — the struggle to lift ourselves out of the cruelty and chaos of the past – is literally written across our national story.
Today, millions of people will mark the passing of the kindest and gentlest of monarchs. Let’s not think ill of it.