|Granny insisted on taking us on a history lesson|
Last Saturday, two of my grandchildren and I went out for a history and anthropology lesson. We could have gone to Legoland in Berkshire but chose nearby Windsor instead. Bill, 10, Delilah, 8, and I left Oxford by train at dawn and were surprised by how many other people were waiting at Slough station for the six-minute ride into Windsor. It was a glorious, sunny morning and the train passed over the River Thames not far from where King John signed Magna Carta in 1215. Bill looked at his train ticket and asked ‘What’s an etton?’ ‘Eton is a small town just over there, on the river. It’s famous for a boarding school started in the 15th century for poor boys. It’s a charity, but the fees are more than what most people in Britain earn. Most British Prime Ministers went there.’ ‘Did Teresa May go there?’ ‘No, they still only allow boys, who have to wear tail coats.’ ‘I wouldn’t like that,’ said Bill. This led to a discussion of educational rights, privilege and power. Arriving at Windsor and Eton station, we compared Queen Victoria's taste for ornate architecture, with the concrete minimalism of the 21st century shopping mall now attached to it.
|Oh look! There's a Royal Wedding on today! |
When we saw that the ancient winding streets of Windsor were decked with bunting, we realised that something was up. Apparently two lovely people were getting married – a British prince and an American TV star! Kindly policemen with machine guns ushered us towards the Great Park. ‘This is certainly a long walk,’ said Delilah as we looked up the Queen’s two-mile front drive. Above the Long Walk rose Windsor Castle, begun by William I in 1070, soon after he conquered England. Over the centuries the castle grew and became more and more elaborate. In 1992 after a curtain caught alight, a fire raged through the state apartments because royal residences don’t have to adhere to fire regulations. They also don’t buy house insurance, but craftspeople rallied round and everything was rebuilt even better, and safer, than before. Delilah noticed the huge Royal Standard fluttering above the Round Tower. ‘That means the Queen is at home,’ I told her. ‘And that’s where she lived as a child during the Second World War, safe from the Blitz.’
|Windsor Castle on fire, 20 November, 1992.|
We found a spot on the grass under a flowering chestnut tree and joined thousands of people enjoying picnics. In front of us was a huge screen on which we watched the participants of our social anthropology study arriving at St George’s Chapel. The men all wore a uniform of mid-20th century dark suits and ties. A few had tail coats, perhaps harking back to their school days at Eton. Most of the women wore the costume of aristocracy when attending Ascot races: pastel-coloured silk frocks, large hats and ridiculous stiletto-heeled shoes. It was a miracle nobody tripped on the 15th century flagstones. The conversation around us gave us an insight into both the viewed and the viewers. People wondered why Princesses Eugene and Beatrice always look so frumpy; why Victoria Beckham looked so grumpy; and why Princess Anne was wearing her father’s dressing gown. While the Duchess of Cambridge was commended for recycling her ivory suit – it had been seen at least twice before.
|Swoons from the crowd for George Clooney, and admiration |
for Amal's outfit by Stella McCartney. copyright Gareth Fuller/PA
The first royal wedding at Windsor was in 1121, between Henry I and his second wife, the young and beautiful Adeliza of Louvain in Belgium. When the divorced, bi-racial, American bride, Ms Rachel Meghan Markle appeared, everyone cried. Her dress was a perfect blend of simplicity and grandeur; and her make-up did not hide her freckles. Her five-metre silk veil was both beautiful, and a political statement: the 53 flowers embroidered round the edge were a nod to the leaders of the Commonwealth who had voted for the Prince of Wales to take over as head when the Queen dies. The missing teeth of the page boys added homely reality. And the whispered endearments of His Royal Highness Prince Henry Charles Albert David of Wales brought sighs from all the women around us whose hopes were now dashed.
|Page boy John Mulroney's reaction to the trumpet|
fanfare on entering St George's Chapel.
St George’s Chapel was commissioned by King Edward IV in 1475 and is a masterpiece of Perpendicular Gothic architecture. The English matrimonial rite has been evolving for 1,000 years and this one was a traditional post-Reformation, Anglican marriage, with modern twists. The last mixed-heritage British royal was Queen Charlotte who married George III in 1761 and this ceremony certainly celebrated diversity. We had the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop, the Jamaican Chaplain to The Queen, and African-American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry. He broke with decorum and preached with noisy passion about love, slavery, equality and poverty – an unexpected blend of theology, history and politics that brought cheers from the crowd.
|Queen Charlotte was descended|
from African Portuguese royalty
The service was also a glorious lesson in the history of English music, beginning with the motet ‘If ye love me’ by Thomas Tallis (1505-85). Ever since 1348, boys have sung eight times a week in St George’s, including at Christmas and Easter, in exchange for a free education. My brother was a chorister there, and at the end of each term my family and I attended Evensong in the Quire before taking him home. As George Clooney admired the fine East Window dedicated in memory of Prince Albert, and the banners of the Knights of the Garter, he sat in the same 15th century carved oak stall as I did, nearly 60 years ago. The 600 VIP guests in the nave had to be content with looking up at the 16th century vaulted ceiling and frieze of 250 carved angels from their fold-up chairs.
|George Clooney and I sat in the back row on the left,|
behind St George's choir, only 60 years apart.
The sublime English music continued with Rutter, Elgar, Vaughn Williams and Holst and exquisite playing by teenage ’cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. The highlight in the Long Walk came when the crowd joined the Kingdom Gospel Choir in singing ‘Stand By Me’ by Ben E. King. My, did we sing our hearts out! How many people knew this was originally a slave song?
As the guests in the chapel and 120,000 others gathered outside, stood to sing the National Anthem, I was aware that this could be the last time my grandchildren would witness their 92 year-old Queen feted in this way. Then it was time to rush to the fence to watch the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex pass by in their open landau, pulled by four prancing horses. ‘I saw her,’ said Delilah panting with excitement. ‘She was really beautiful.’ ‘And I saw the soldiers with gold helmets, holding real swords as they galloped along,’ exclaimed Bill. Bill and Delilah’s history lesson on Saturday was certainly an Excellent Adventure.
|Friendly police officers offered to share their helmets.|
|The Long Walk, Windsor Great Park. Can you spot us in the crowd on the right? |
Sounds like they had a lovely and informative day!
What a fun and lovely piece! Lucky you and lucky grandchildren!
This will be a day they won’t forget! Is that Bill with the policemen? What a lovely shot! And yes, the little boy grinning with delight behind the bride is adorable! I read that his Dad said he’d have a TV in his bedroom this summer for having done this.
Nice to hear from someone who was there, thanks for sharing!
You know it's kind of funny..I'm so glad your grandkids had afront row seat at a pageant they will remember forever. I just can't help but think that many of your comments are rather smart..I hope they didn't hear the tone you portray.
Dear Mary, Don't worry my grandkids know that I want them to enjoy history, in all its colours and shades. They heard, they watched, they listened, they learned, they make their own judgements. My wish is that they explore the past, to understand the present, and so improve the future.
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