The Queen’s funeral is about to take place, with world leaders and the UK public gathering to pay their respects to the deceased monarch in central London.
Tens of thousands of spectators are set to watch the procession of the former UK head of state’s coffin, which will be followed by King Charles III and key members of the Royal Family.
Her Majesty will be carried on a state gun carriage that has been used at several previous state funerals, including those of Queen Victoria, King George VI and Sir Winston Churchill.
But why are sailors pulling this carriage rather than horses?
What is the state gun carriage?
The state gun carriage is a wheeled frame and mount that is based upon the type of military gun carriage that would have been used to carry field guns on battlefields in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The major difference between this carriage and a standard mount for a field gun is that it is fitted with a catafalque – a raised platform fitted with rollers that allow a coffin to be more easily put on and taken off the carriage by a bearer party.
Kept and maintained by the Royal Navy at HMS Excellent on Whale Island in Portsmouth, the 2.5 tonne gun carriage has been used at six previous state funerals. These were for:
- Queen Victoria (1901)
- King Edward VII (1910)
- King George V (1936)
- King George VI (1952)
- Sir Winston Churchill (1965)
- Lord Mountbatten (1979)
Constructed at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, South East London, it was first used at the state funeral of Queen Victoria because she had requested she be buried as ‘a soldier’s daughter’.
In between the subsequent funerals, the state gun carriage has been kept in what the Royal Navy says are “environmentally-controlled conditions” in a state of readiness that means it can be used at just 24 hours’ notice.
Maintenance includes a weekly clean, and turning the wheels by a quarter-of-an-inch to ensure they do not become warped from standing still. These duties are carried out by Lieutenant Commander Paul ‘Ronnie’ Barker.
Why do sailors pull the gun carriage?
Having sailors pull the state gun carriage at state funerals is a tradition that originated with Queen Victoria.
Her funeral took place at St George’s Chapel in the grounds of Windsor Castle - the location where the Queen will be interred later today - on 2 February 1901.
When the procession carrying Queen Victoria’s coffin set off from Windsor railway station, the horses that were pulling it reared up.
It is believed this was caused by the cold weather conditions that had hit the Berkshire town that day.
After the horses were led away, Royal Navy sailors standing guard nearby were called in to pull the coffin through Windsor.
The tradition has continued at state funerals ever since.
How many sailors pull the state gun carriage?
In all, 142 sailors from Royal Navy vessels and stations across the UK will pull the state gun carriage through London as part of the funeral procession.
Most of the group of sailors will pull the ceremonial carriage from the front, with the remaining military personnel acting as its brakes.
They have been drilled for the state funeral at HMS Collingwood in Fareham, Hampshire.