The invitation

The invitation

Former nurse Tracy Paine MBE (CF 2016) was surprised to be invited to the Queen's funeral. Here's her story of that day.

The funeral of Her Majesty The Queen at Westminster Abbey, 19 September 2022. Download 'HMQ funeral - Alamy 2K1T9C1'
"I realised I too had a story and that was why I was there on that day. I was representing my family, my friends, my colleagues and all of those people I have cared for in my nursing career." - Tracy Paine, Fellow

It was Saturday lunchtime and I had missed a call from an unknown number in my car. As I played the telephone message back in the presence of my husband we looked at one another… astounded. Even listening to it on repeat I found it hard to believe. I rang the number that had been left and I heard: "This is the cabinet office. You have been invited to the Queen’s state funeral on Monday 19th September at 11am. Please keep this confidential."

I had been selected from the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in June following the receipt of my MBE, which was a shock in itself. Being one of only 183 people out of a possible thousand, I realised how fortunate I was to be attending what was to be the greatest funeral in the world of all time.

My husband Ed and I had a secret to keep once again until it was made public. I chose not to tell anyone, even my children, until I received my invitation in writing. A few emails later during that week I realised that this would not be until just 48 hours before the funeral.

On sharing the news with my son, daughter and dad, I still found it hard to conceive what I was going to experience. My granddaughters are a little too young to fully understand what this all meant, but we all knew that this would make history and be talked about within our family long after I have departed.

As the week unfolded I realised that a train on the morning to Euston would not be a sensible option. The media was showing thousands of mourners who had travelled to London to join The Queue to pay their last respects to HM Queen Elizabeth II in the Palace of Westminster's Great Hall, and many were also visiting to lay flowers in the parks.

In the days that lay ahead, whilst waiting for the invitation to arrive, I made arrangements to book trains and a hotel room near Pimlico, which is within walking distance to Westminster Abbey. My invitation finally hit the mat on Saturday 17 September, just 36 hours preparation to follow instructions on what to wear and where to go. I identified a black dress in my wardrobe and shoes. I had no time to go hat shopping (hat shops meant city centre), so I found a black boater that needed a bit of trimming in a local charity shop for £2.99.

The other job I had to do was rearrange our flights to Athens, change our ferry and hotel bookings, for a planned Greek island-hopping trip. All was doable. This was an invitation that I couldn’t turn down.

On Sunday 18, after last-minute jacket-shopping, Ed and I set off for London. As we walked out of Victoria station, the most beautiful rainbow and sunset hit the high glass buildings, attracting several photographers. How very poignant. Helicopters were circling the sky and, although it was busy, there was a feeling that something different was happening.

Having found our hotel, we did a trial run - well walk - to Victoria Tower garden, where I had been instructed to meet in the morning at 7.45am. The funeral was due to commence at 11.00am but the congregation all had to be seated by 9.30am. Later, when I read the order of proceedings and witnessed the full procession, I realised why.

As we got closer to Lambeth bridge we saw The Queue. These people had been standing and shuffling for around 14 hours to pay their last respects to Her Majesty. This was their last opportunity, as the doors would be closed into Westminster at 6am. I was reminded of the absolute privilege that I had, to pay my last respects at Her Majesty’s funeral in person the next day.

The police presence was growing but we were able to walk to the Abbey and to stand under the newly refurbished Big Ben. As luck would have it, we arrived a few minutes before 8pm, in time for the two minutes' silence - and no better place to be. I had never witnessed Parliament Square so quiet. No cars, buses, taxis. No commuters or politicians. Only those who had made the journey to be present for the funeral.

We walked around the outside of the Abbey and watched the terrace being scrubbed and the huge media stand that they were preparing for their greatest show the following day. We then walked past the Churchill Fellowship offices, where I had my interview for my Fellowship application in 2015, and subsequently received my Churchill medallion, which was to play a key part in my journey to London on this special occasion.

I have been very fortunate to have journeyed on many occasions into London during my career, to attend Royal College of Nursing meetings and working parties, attend launch events in Westminster, speak at the Queen Elizabeth institute, receive my Churchill Fellowship medallion and have afternoon tea on the terrace in the House of Lords. But nothing was to prepare me for the experience of the following morning.

We ventured out of the hotel at 7.45am, making sure to grab a coffee and some breakfast. The receptionist had stayed all night, as her colleague couldn’t get to the hotel due to road closures. Pubs had no food available as they couldn’t get deliveries. The streets were empty of vehicles. We saw stewards on every corner offering to help and direct. A chaplain was walking in front in his red robes. Ladies in hats were waiting for lifts and I was pleased to have brought my flat shoes for the walk along the river through a very quiet London that was filled with anticipation. As we approached Lambeth Bridge, I could see more people in hats, tails and uniforms. Police motorbikes came past in orderly procession. As the barricades came into view, it was time for me to put on my heels and hat and leave Ed to go off and find somewhere to watch the procession, with no idea of where and when we would meet again later!

I joined a very short queue which replaced The Queue from the previous night on Lambeth Bridge. A sailor checked my invitation and my walk to Westminster Abbey began. I chatted to a member of the Privy Council, who asked me if the parking meters were operating today. I spotted Chris Whitty, the scientist I had followed every day for weeks and months trying to understand and ensure we were keeping residents and staff as safe as we could throughout COVID. It was surreal to think that at this moment we’d made it through. Instead of seeing him on telly I would see him, before and after the event. I regret not speaking to him.

Every police officer, steward, security and special armed force said good morning as we walked through Tower Gardens. This very spot is where more than 250,000 people had queued and snaked through hour after hour in anticipation of seeing the coffin and to pay their last respects just hours and days before. We used their toilets and the security tents that had screened the visitors, now in use for the Abbey. We were escorted across the empty roads by smiling policemen in traditional uniform as we made our way to the north door. I spotted Kiri Te Kenawa.

I clutched my yellow ticket tightly, which gave me access to this most beautiful and historical Abbey, my first visit. We took our seats just six rows from the front of the aisle, wondering who might walk up the steps of the pulpit at our side. I introduced myself and chatted to the CEO of the Royal Marines Charity and a lady who worked in the High Commission for St Kits and Nevis, who told me that her mum was the director general and would be arriving on one of the VIP coaches which other dignitaries. We chatted about the current positive support for a monarchy in the Caribbean. I met the CEO from Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, a lady from the public sector in Northern Ireland and the CEO of Great Ormand Street Hospital, who apologised for being so tall in front of me. Glancing behind me, I saw Kenneth Branagh.

There were so many medals, uniforms colours, hats… so many back stories it would have been great to hear. I realised I too had a story and that was why I was there on that day. I was representing my very proud family, my friends, my colleagues and thinking of all of those people I have cared for in my nursing career and those who still reside in care homes and retirement communities, who would be watching and grieving for the monarch who they have lived with for most of their lives.

The congregation sat and chatted, waiting patiently, wondering how we would manage to stay still for so long on our seats. We were soon captivated as the proceedings began like clockwork and the people in the procession started to arrive. I can’t actually remember in what order people arrived, but I was interested to see the ex-prime ministers with partners getting seated at the start of the event.

The overseas dignitaries and foreign royalty were very interesting, and we tried to spot everyone and establish their country of origin. The Chinese were easy to see as they were the only two people wearing masks. Joe Biden and his wife were early to be seated and they had to wait just like us for all the coaches to arrive.

As the Beefeaters took their positions, the bearskins and the trumpeters filed in, the colours of red and gold began to stand out against the black, with the fuchsia-pink robes from the Vatican representation, it all came to life. The choir took their positions lining the aisle, followed by the ministers of the church and everyone turned their heads.

We heard the faint sounds of the bagpipes and the drums coming closer and we knew that she was arriving. My hairs were standing on end as we stood to see the procession.

As the royal family walked through, I caught the tops of everyone’s head. I couldn’t see the children but I could see how absolutely immaculate and serene everyone was. Sarah Ferguson looked a lonely figure walking on her own behind her daughters. The Princess of Wales looked very elegant and the Prince of Wales very tall and stately, towering above the King in height.

When I saw the adorned coffin with the sparkling crown sitting proudly on the purple cushion and the Royal Standard, I honestly thought: "What am I witnessing here?" As the sun shone through the stained glass window, we all bowed our heads as Her Majesty’s coffin passed by.

The choir began and we took our seats for the service. I followed the service sheet and sang my heart out. The three hymns were all recognisable, including Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, which we sang at our wedding just 40 years ago. The Lord's My Shepherd reminded many of us of those that we have lost, whilst making it a funeral that felt very familiar and inclusive. The Archbishop of Canterbury reminded us of the difficulty of grieving in public, closely followed by various religious representatives making readings. The Chief Rabbi said after the event: “Seeing all those present at the Abbey today, there was such a beautiful sense of harmony.” And that was how it felt.

Liz Truss climbed the steps of the pulpit at our side and we craned our necks to watch her deliver the very familiar psalm. A huge responsibility on such an important occasion, and so soon after being one of the last people to meet the Queen and becoming Prime Minister.

My legs were shaking as the service moved forward. I had to consult my order of service for the words to the second verse of the National Anthem, and whilst becoming very emotional singing "God save our King" for the first time, I confess to making an error and reverting to our "gracious Queen" in the last line. She was on my mind.

The Last Post and the lone bagpipes were spine-tingling. The procession reassembled and began to leave the Abbey as we bowed our heads for the last time to the magnificent coffin. As the heads of state, world leaders and royalty began to make their way out, they drew to a halt. They had to wait patiently in front of us, as the coffin had to be remounted onto the gun carriage outside the Abbey and the military procession reassembled. Even world leaders have to queue for such an event.

Eventually everyone was able to mingle and make their own way out of the Abbey in a very different and huddled fashion this time. I decided that I would leave through the main west doors and take the same route as the Queen’s procession. I met another lady who like me had recently received an MBE and we took the opportunity to take some photos of one another outside, as none had been permitted or felt appropriate before the service.

Outside, the world’s media were taking their images of the last dignitaries who were boarding the coaches to be taken to Windsor for the final service of commital or to the Palace for a reception.

The journey for us was now over and I started to make my way out, walking alongside a gentleman with a New Zealand cape adorned with kiwi feathers. Parliament Square was completely cleared with big green barrackade blocking entrances all around the Abbey and areas that we had walked around the night before. Uniformed police lined the routes speaking to us as we passed, and we took the opportunity to ask them to take our photos. I wanted to get the Churchill statue in the background. Being honoured with the last state funeral, I’m sure he would have approved of this one.

Making my way to Big Ben and Westminster Bridge, I rang Ed. I was trying to figure out where he was and where we could meet. The crowds were on the corner of Westminster and I could see the last of the bands marching towards Horse Guards Parade. It was here that Ed had watched the whole procession. He was breathless and overcome with emotion when I spoke to him. “I’ve seen the King! I’ve seen everything Trace. It was amazing!" I was so relieved that he had seen and witnessed the greatest event of our time. We met as teenagers and never in our wildest dreams did we think we would be a part of anything quite like this. We’d had very different experiences of the day - but both very poignant.

As I walked back towards Lambeth Bridge, I spotted five huge black vehicles. It was Joe Biden and his wife boarding ‘the beast’ with his entourage. The only foreign leader permitted to have a private vehicle at the occasion. It seemed quite small compared to the Queen’s procession that was making its way down the Mall to Hyde Park, carefully passing each monument as a reminder of all those who had lost their lives for Queen and country.

Eventually, I found my way out with other members of the congregation and was very pleased to see my husband (or rather my flat shoes), clutching onto my ceremonial order of service and order of procession. These two documents were a precious reminder of a completely momentous and overwhelming occasion.

We made our way to a pub to watch the final procession to Windsor on TV. Back to two very different worlds, but for a short period of time we were as one.

RIP Your Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Tracy Paine blogs about her Fellowship at granddementiadesign. Our tribute to The Queen can be read here.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.

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