Queen Elizabeth II’s winding final journey from Westminster Abbey to Wellington Arch to Windsor Castle on Monday weighed heavily on the eight soldiers who bore her coffin — in part because it was lined with lead.
The tradition goes back centuries and began with a practical consideration: to help the bodies of deceased monarchs remain pristine, especially before modern preservation techniques.
As a material in coffins, “lead helps keep out moisture and preserve the body for longer and prevent smells and toxins from a dead body escaping,” said Julie Anne Taddeo, a research professor of history at the University of Maryland. “Her coffin was on display for many days and made a long journey to its final resting place.”
Taddeo noted that the added weight created the need for eight pallbearers rather than the usual six.
Soldiers carry the coffins of deceased British monarchs, following an incident in 1901 when horses pulling Queen Victoria’s catafalque were spooked and her coffin nearly spilled into the street. Winston Churchill, who received the last state funeral in Britain before Elizabeth’s on Monday, also had a lead-lined coffin. It was so heavy that it slid off some of the pallbearers’ shoulders when they had to pause on some steps, one of the pallbearers, Lincoln Perkins, told the BBC. When it fell to the two “pushers” at the back to keep the coffin from falling, Perkins said, he uttered aloud to the corpse, “Don’t worry, sir, we’ll look after you.”
“You could actually feel him sliding off the shoulders,” Perkins said. “If we had have dropped him ... I don’t know what it would have been, very embarrassing, but we didn’t.”
Elizabeth’s coffin was entombed Monday evening in a vault in the King George VI Memorial Chapel, part of the St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. She rests near her parents, sister and Prince Philip, her husband, who died last year.
The preservation measures are reminiscent of those used for ancient high-ranking Egyptians, who were also placed in chambers rather than buried in the ground and whose bodies were immaculately preserved. And while ancient wealthy Egyptians were often buried with caches of jewels, sculptures and other belongings, Taddeo said, the queen was reported to have been buried with just her wedding band, made of Welsh gold, and a pair of pearl earrings.
Such austerity would mean that Elizabeth, who was known to embrace frugality and plainness, was buried with fewer belongings than some of her predecessors; Queen Victoria was buried with her husband’s dressing gown and a cast of his hand, and a lock of hair and a photograph of her favorite servant, with whom she was rumored to have had a romantic relationship, Taddeo said. Elizabeth’s orb, scepter and crown — made of nearly 3,000 diamonds and dozens of other jewels — were taken from the top of her coffin and placed on an altar at her burial.
Using lead in coffins is “a long-lived royal tradition,” said Mike Parker Pearson, a professor at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology. He said the embalmed corpse of King Edward I, who died in 1307, was “found in 1774 to be well preserved in his marble sarcophagus” in Westminster Abbey. Pearson added that the practice of using lead was probably adopted around the time of Edward’s death or in the century following it.
Earlier kings were not embalmed, he said. The corpse of William the Conqueror, who died in 1087, was apparently so badly decayed that his bloated abdomen exploded when priests tried to stuff his body into “a stone coffin that proved too small for his bulk,” Pearson said. “Mourners supposedly ran for the door to escape the putrid stench.”
William’s “swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd,” according to Orderic Vitalis, a Benedictine monk who chronicled Anglo-Norman England.