In a redux of a bygone age, Buckingham Palace was at the apex of global power — if just for a day. Hundreds of world leaders and dignitaries called on King Charles III at the chief London residence of Britain’s royal family ahead of the funeral of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, on Monday. Top-level representatives from close to 200 countries and territories are expected to attend the funeral, including President Biden and first lady Jill Biden, heads of government and state from near and far, and a diverse cast of kings and queens from other nations.
Authorities in London believe around 1 million mourners will come to the central areas of the city, packing the streets in an attempt to watch the queen’s coffin progress on a gun carriage to Westminster Abbey, before later reaching its final resting spot at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor. Britain hasn’t hosted proceedings like this since the 1965 state funeral of Winston Churchill. The world hasn’t witnessed a commemoration of this scale likely since December 2013, when tens of thousands of people packed a stadium in Johannesburg to celebrate the life and legacy of anti-apartheid hero and former South African president Nelson Mandela.
The uniqueness of the moment is compounded by its timing. Many of the world leaders gathering in London have had to scramble originally planned travel to New York, where the annual high-level session of the U.N. General Assembly is about to get underway. The throngs of VIPs are creating all sorts of headaches for palace protocol staffers and those at the U.K. Foreign Office fielding requests from the delegations of nearly 500 visiting foreign dignitaries. They have been compelled to place eminent figures like the emperor of Japan in shuttle buses to the funeral amid severe logistical constraints.
“All the world leaders are on a field trip,” British comedian Jimmy Carr joked to my colleagues. “And you know who is actually in charge? For that 45 minutes, the leader of the world is the bus driver. ‘My bus, my rules! Sit down in the back. North Korea, get along with South Korea. Sit down! China, what are you doing in the back? Sit down!’”
"In tomorrow's world, we must all work together, as hard as ever, if we are truly to be United Nations."— United Nations (@UN) September 11, 2022
-- Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, speaking in the General Assembly Hall in 2010, one of two memorable visits she made to UNHQ. https://t.co/DsIobCncy9 pic.twitter.com/mSmLyB1h3N
In reality, North Korea was not invited, while China is sending Vice President Wang Qishan, not President Xi Jinping, to the funeral. There are some other notable, if not unsurprising, absences: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were not invited to the funeral, yet another mark of the Kremlin’s isolation since launching its major invasion of Ukraine. The Russian Foreign Ministry described the lack of invitation for Putin as “deeply immoral.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have opted not to attend amid a backlash from activists over the royal’s checkered human rights record. But for those who have made the trip, the gathering — not unlike Mandela’s funeral when former president Barack Obama shook hands with his Cuban counterpart — may prove fertile ground for geopolitical encounters.
Already, some leaders have landed in hot water for their lack of decorum or for skipping the much-valorized queue to pay their respects to the queen lying in state. Armenian President Vahagn Khachaturyan roiled the British tabloids when he was seen posing for a photo taken by one of his associates in front of the queen’s coffin. The right-wing Daily Mail scoffed at Antigua and Barbuda’s “rebellious” Prime Minister Gaston Browne, who shook hands with the king in Buckingham Palace days after reviving plans for a referendum to decide whether to convert his nation into a republic.
For Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the event offered the far-right firebrand an opportunity to strut on the world stage in the last weeks of a deeply divisive and heated election campaign. Bolsonaro has previously rebuked Charles for the latter’s environmental campaigning. On Sunday, Bolsonaro addressed local supporters from a balcony in Mayfair about the evils of abortion and “gender ideology.” Domestic politics will also shadow his use of the bully pulpit in New York later in the week.
"A reassuring and inspiring presence, she was an anchor of stability across decades of often turbulent history."— United Nations (@UN) September 15, 2022
-- @antonioguterres at General Assembly commemoration in remembrance of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. https://t.co/EDRO62NIfz pic.twitter.com/1ZnltkFzfv
For British Prime Minister Liz Truss, the moment has offered her something of a reprieve. The queen died just two days after appointing Truss as prime minister and the national outpouring of grief at her passing has subsumed what may have been an unforgiving first few weeks in power, amid an inflation-driven cost-of-living crisis and looming industrial action.
Truss used the weekend before the funeral to quietly host a number of visiting world leaders at 10 Downing Street, kick-starting her prime ministerial turn at geopolitics. That included a somewhat encouraging sit-down with the prime minister of Ireland, which is locked in tense discussions with Britain’s Tory government over their differences surrounding the post-Brexit agreement that governs conditions in Northern Ireland.
“The fact that so many leaders from around the world … are flooding to London gives the new prime minister ample time for soft diplomacy, those quiet conversations before and after the funeral, which will help her achieve her objective — if it is achievable — of ‘global Britain,’” British political historian Anthony Seldon told the Associated Press.
The funeral did force Truss and Biden to defer a planned meeting this weekend to later in the week as world leaders make the trip across the Atlantic to the United Nations. The world’s preeminent international organization did its part honoring the queen as well with a day of speeches and remembrance at a General Assembly session last Thursday.
Secretary General António Guterres described Elizabeth as a figure who “defied geopolitical gravity” and “a pillar without peer on the world stage” for seven decades.
“When our institution and Queen Elizabeth were both young, she stood at this very podium and called on leaders to demonstrate their devotion to the ideals of the United Nations Charter,” said Guterres, before citing her last speech to this body in 2010 where she urged that, “in tomorrow’s world, we must work together as hard as ever if we are truly to be United Nations.”
A version of that now assembles itself at her funeral. “Even in death, she’s still working, isn’t she?” mused Christopher Matthews, a taxicab driver in Edinburgh, to my colleagues.
The death of Queen Elizabeth II
The final resting place: Queen Elizabeth II has been buried in her final resting place next to Prince Philip, her husband of more than 70 years, capping an elaborate state funeral, which was invested with all the pomp, circumstance and showmanship that the monarchy, military and state could put on display for a global broadcast audience of millions.
The state funeral: The funeral was full of pageantry and pathos, including a new national anthem, funeral ensembles with affectionate touches in honor of the queen, a personal note from King Charles III, appearances by the young heirs, Prince George and Princess Charlotte and the royal corgis. Here are some of the most memorable moments in photos and videos.
A new monarch: Queen Elizabeth II’s son, Charles, became King Charles III the moment his mother died. He may bring a markedly different personal vision of religion and spirituality to the role. Here’s what to know about him.
We’re following changes in the British monarchy post-Elizabeth. Get the Post Elizabeth newsletter for the latest updates.