Well, Hallelujah. The prodigal son and his wife finally rejoined the Royal Family in public yesterday – and everyone found something to laugh about.
While the absence of the Queen from her own national service of thanksgiving had taken some of the shine off proceedings at St Paul’s Cathedral, the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, used his sermon to address the Sovereign as if she was there – knowing full well that she was watching on television.
And he hit just the right tone as he used an equestrian analogy to sum up our horse-mad monarch’s record-breaking reign. Noting that the scriptures describe life as a race – and that we were just a day away from the Derby – the Archbishop observed: ‘Your long reign reflects the distance of Aintree more than the sprint of Epsom.’
He went on: ‘Your Majesty, we are sorry that you are not here with us this morning. But we are so glad that you are still in the saddle. And we are glad that there is still more to come. So thank you for staying the course.’
That raised broad smiles right through the royal ranks. They were chuckling in row one dome south, where the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge were seated with their spouses. And there were smiles across the aisle in row two dome north where the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were tucked in between the Duke of York’s daughters and the Queen’s niece, Lady Sarah Chatto.
The Queen would have been delighted with the Service of Thanksgiving, even if she was watching from home
Although much of the Twittersphere will now be engaged in the usual Sussex-centred shouting match about who had snubbed whom, there is one point on which there can be no dispute: Harry and Meghan enjoyed the Archbishop’s racing gag every bit as much as the Cambridges, the Wessexes, the Princess Royal and everyone else.
This was the event which many had confidently predicted would be top of the Queen’s list of Jubilee priorities. Yet her trip up to London the day before, for the Birthday Parade, had caused her sufficient ‘discomfort’ to remain in Windsor. From my perch in the cathedral, looking directly down on where she would have been, it was not hard to understand why. Quite apart from the fact that there was no route to her seat which would not have involved a considerable walk on live television, she would have been unable to make a discreet and dignified exit should she have suddenly felt the need.
It is one thing to appear on a balcony for a few minutes and then go back inside when you feel like it. A long church service, however, would have been unenjoyable. And as the Queen once observed – to her then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie – ‘I don’t think you should ever leave a Christian service feeling sad.’
Besides, as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, she would hate to sit through a service without standing or praying at the appropriate moments.
Given the upbeat atmosphere of the occasion, however, it still felt as if she was there in spirit anyway. The mood was buoyant from the start. It was not hard to detect a sense of relief among Palace officials that the Almighty had chosen to send York’s Archbishop but not its duke – who was, we were told, at home with a non-threatening dose of Covid.
Her Majesty, pictured here reviewing mounted troops at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, has a well known love of horses
There was certainly an unusual amount of cheerful pink on display. The Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Tindall, was in a jaunty fuchsia outfit, matched by the tie of her husband, Mike.
The Countess of Wessex, various Kents, the Home Secretary Priti Patel and the Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon were all in lively pinkish hues. All the Queen’s living British Prime Ministers were here, too. Theresa May was in dark green while, among the men, Sir John Major and Boris Johnson had opted for morning dress, like members of the Royal Household. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron were all in lounge suits. There seemed to be a lot of joking and shoulder-pumping in that pew. I hadn’t seen such a happy Blair/Brown axis since those pre-millennium days of Cool Britannia.
All these politicians and the Services chiefs were seated just in front of the splendid new Remember Me portico, the national memorial to all those who died as a result of the Covid pandemic and completed thanks to the generosity of Daily Mail readers. Once everyone was inside the cathedral, the portico’s mighty oak doors closed. It really is a worthy addition to Wren’s colossus.
Given this was to be the first public sighting of the Sussexes together on British soil for over two years, the choreography of the arrivals was more than usually fascinating.
Most of the royal cousinhood had come by coach – including the Tindalls – but there were separate Royal Mews vehicles for those further up the royal pecking order. The Earl and Countess of Wessex had been given a liveried Rolls-Royce, mounted with the royal arms. Though closer to the throne, the Sussexes could hardly complain about being allocated a mere Range Rover. For, immediately before them, came Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, plus husbands, in a Mercedes minivan.
As the Sussexes made their way inside, everyone – both family and clergy – appeared determined to make them welcome. Vigorous handshakes were the order of the day. Nor were they to be led up the aisle in a clump of second-tier royals. They had their own little procession with their own usher, and a very distinguished one, too. Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Alexander Matheson of Matheson, formerly of the Coldstream Guards, is also the 28th Chief of the Clan. On top of that, he used to be the chap in charge of investitures at Buckingham Palace. In other words, let there be no moaning about Establishment slights come the next authorised Sussex biography.
There was certainly a frisson of excitement as they made their way up the aisle, with each row of the congregation, in turn, doing double-takes and ‘oooh’ faces as the couple came past them.
The Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, struck the right tone when giving the Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral today
They held hands all the way, breaking off only to navigate either side of a huge brass grating and then clinching again on the other side.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which arranges seating plans at these events, had ensured a super-safe placement for the couple in row two, just behind the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Meghan was seated next to Lady Sarah, one of the most popular, unassuming and dependable members of the family who had come with her husband Daniel and two sons, Sam and Arthur. The latter, having recently joined the Royal Marines, was the only member of the extended royal party in uniform. The Duke of Sussex, meanwhile, sat between his wife and his tenant, Jack Brooksbank, Princess Eugenie’s husband. The Brooksbanks and their baby son have been house-sitting at Frogmore Cottage lately.
The entry of the senior royal party can only be described as stupendous. The combined talents of the organist of St Paul’s, William Fox, the Band of the Royal Marines and the Band of the Coldstream Guards produced a superb fusion of organ, brass and percussion as the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, along with the Cambridges, processed with the clergy. The choice of music made it all the more electric. The Choirs of St Paul’s and the Chapel Royal were singing John Rutter’s arrangement of Charles Hubert Parry’s ‘I Was Glad’, with its abrupt cry of ‘Vivat Regina Elizabetha!’
These, of course, were the opening words of the Queen’s Coronation. Every element of this service, don’t forget, had received her personal approval.
Dedication to duty was the recurring theme of this occasion. The cathedral was packed with people of whom the same could be said. Having kept the great and good to a minimum, the Palace had invited hundreds of people who had been awarded honours – mainly MBEs and OBEs – during the pandemic.
As the Archbishop reminded us, just before the parable of Aintree: ‘In Her Majesty, we see an example of this kind of service; a staunch constancy and a steadfast consistency.’
Watching the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall emerging side-by-side into the sunshine when the service had finished – he in morning dress and she in ivory – I was suddenly reminded of an occasion when the Queen herself had used a racing joke to make an important point. It was the day of the prince’s wedding to the duchess at Windsor in 2005. Back then, the monarch stepped forward to toast the bride and groom. She, too, likened life to the challenges of Aintree before reflecting that the happy couple had now entered the ‘winners’ enclosure’.
Even without Her Majesty in our midst, this still felt like an equally happy and historic day.