Briefly In The Presence of the Queen

Author’s note:

In honor of tomorrow’s royal wedding, here is a short story about a young Carleton College graduate in the autumn of 1962 who happens upon a royal holiday and commemoration ceremony. His name for the purpose of the story is Jack Grantham. All other names and events are authentic. A short silent video provides documentation.

Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, Scotland, October 17, 1962

The second week in October Jack Grantham arrived by train in Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland, where Allen Shaw and his wife, Leslie, met him at the station. He could not know when he arrived in this ancient city of stone on high, treeless moors, he was about to have one of the memorable experiences of his life. He had planned to arrive on a Thursday, visit for a couple of days, and on Saturday return to Oxford. Accordingly, Allen and Leslie drove Jack by car to their townhouse and, the following morning, in an unexpectedly luxurious touch of hospitality, served him breakfast in bed. It was, they said, their way of delaying his having to arise for the day before the house had a chance to warm from the night’s chill from the glow of its freshly-lit fireplaces in each room.

They then — as he enjoyed the juice, coffee, cakes, and eggs — explained that, if possible, he needed to delay his return trip until after Sunday. That day, October 17, they said, King Olav V of Norway would be making a ceremonial state visit to Scotland. It would be his first visit since he had stayed there in exile during the German occupation of his country in World War II. The visit and accompanying national holiday, they said, would be something he “might enjoy. Could he delay his return to Oxford for another day?” He, excitedly, almost without thinking, replied: ‘of course.’” Leslie’s father, was executive director of the Scottish Information Bureau, they said, and in this capacity was overseer of local arrangements for the festivities and could get tickets to some of the events.

The royal visit began in front of the Caledonian Hotel in the city’s center in the valley below the palace, with Queen Elizabeth II–youthful and attractive at 36 years and only nine years into her reign–dressed in a tailored grey-blue cloth coat and matching hat with matching short, floppy feathers on its band standing next to King Olav. His highness was by then 59 years-old, tall and resplendent in navy blue admiral’s regalia with gold trim, white officer’s cap, his coat covered in medals on ribbons, gray sash matching the queen’s coat, white gloves, and sword. For his part, The queen’s consort, Prince Phillip, wore an admiral’s uniform, campaign hat, jacket, kilts, high stockings, sash, medals, white gloves, and sword.

The king and prince stepped forward and, alongside the captain of the guard, walked the line, inspecting the guard troops before them in ranks. When they finished, the queen’s open carriage–pale red with gold trim, and six white horses—on cue came forward. The queen got in and moved to the seat facing front; the king beside her; and her husband, Phillip, in the seat facing them. The captain of the queen’s life guard then rode smartly, hooves clattering on the cobblestones, to a position beside her, his sword erect at his chest, and the procession began to move. The advance guard was the queen’s twelve mounted Life Guards, resplendent in dashing red tunics and gleaming silver helmets with white plumes on top. Following the carriage were the mounted “Blues and Royals,” (the Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons), also on fine black horses. The royal couple waved to cheering crowds that thronged the streets as she signaled for the parade to begin.

Observing all this and appearing among the dignitaries were two young Americans: the expatriate from Crawfordsville, Indiana, Allen Shaw and the young man for whom Allen had been childhood hero, Jack Grantham. The two young men in their khaki trench coats no doubt seemed wildly out of place to the other invited guests. The tickets Leslie’s father had obtained, it turned out, had been for the reviewing stand inside Holyrood Palace courtyard. They were standing no further than thirty feet from the spot where the royal carriage would stop. Jack and Allen for all practical purposes would be part of the courtyard ceremony.

As the procession approached palace (the queen’s royal residence in Scotland), the Black Watch Troop, in their signature green-, blue-, and black-plaid kilt dress uniforms snapped to attention. Their bagpipers–appearing in Jack’s photographs with leopard skin robes over their shoulders—inflated their instruments and began to play. The Life Guard entered the courtyard, their hooves cracking noisily on the cobblestones and a flight of four Royal Air Force fighter planes screamed overhead in low formation at supersonic speed chilling the spines of the onlookers and drowning out the wheezing squeals of the bagpipes.

The royal carriage stopped in front of a specially-constructed, four-tier, street-level reviewing stand where some thirty dignitaries, including six or seven in the dress uniform of generals and admirals, had gathered. The royal party stepped out of the carriage in front of the stand. The troop, facing the queen, their rifles stiffly upright at their chests, signaled its readiness for inspection. The king, escorted by Prince Phillip and the captain of the Black Watch, then walked briskly down the line.

Many years later, as he became more familiar with World War II, Jack would learn the meaning of what he had witnessed. Half the Black Watch regiment, he discovered, had been captured by the Germans at Dunkirk in 1940 (when the queen was a teenager); but the remaining half had fought courageously through the European theater of war, from North Africa in 1942 to Berlin in 1945.

Traveling backward in time, in the second decade of the previous century the regiment also had been part of the army with which Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.   Before that, it had defeated the colonial troops of George Washington at Brooklyn Heights, New York, during the colonial revolt against British rule in North America. At the turn of the twentieth century the Black Watch troops had defeated the Boers in South Africa. Even without having yet studied this history, the pageantry at Holyrood Courtyard on October 17, 1962 and proximity to historic monarchy brought tears. Jack could glimpse for himself why the British, now in the second half of the twentieth century, despite an elected parliament and prime minister, retained their monarch.

The image above  links to is a silent video of the event ( Jack and Allen are not visible but are standing on the scaffold bleachers in the frame to the right as the royal carriage enters the Holyrood Palace courtyard with the Black Watch troop in ranks to the left.