As the most powerful man on the planet, Joe Biden is normally front and centre of any gathering of world leaders. Not so when it comes to British Royal decorum. The US President and First Lady were relegated to Westminster Abbey’s rear seats, assigned a pew seven rows from the back of Westminster Abbey’s south transept.
Protocols dictate that, at the late Queen’s funeral, Commonwealth political leaders outrank those from the rest of the world, regardless of their importance. And so it was that Mr Biden found himself 14 rows from the front and nine behind Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada, the neighbour that the US normally looks down upon. On this side of the pond, the world order can sometimes turn upside down.
There were other awkward encounters. Spain was abuzz that its disgraced former King Juan Carlos, a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, had not only been invited but was sat next to his son King Felipe – the first time the men had been photographed together in public since the old king went into exile.
Mr Biden, 79, sat in an aisle seat directly behind Andrzej Duda, the Polish leader, and one row in front of Petr Fiala, the prime minister of the Czech Republic. Jill Biden, America’s First Lady, could enjoy the company of Ignazio Cassis, the president of Switzerland, who sat to her left for the hour-long service.
Across the aisle from Mr Biden was South Korea’s head of state President Yoon Suk-yeol while two rows further ahead in the pecking order sat Emmanuel Macron, the French president.
Canada’s delegation to the funeral included actress Sandra Oh, star of the BBC’s Killing Eve, who was appointed to the Order of Canada in June for her “artistic achievements”. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the opera singer, also attended with the New Zealand delegation.
In contrast to President Biden’s chair at the back, all seven surviving British prime ministers attended the funeral and were seated prominently. They also brought their spouses. Queen Elizabeth’s reign spanned 15 prime ministers, the first of whom was Winston Churchill and the last Liz Truss.
The seating arrangements were overseen by Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, who was in charge of the state funeral’s occasionally difficult issues of protocol. The Foreign Office – when asked what input it had had into the seating plan – referred all calls to Buckingham Palace.
With 2,200 guests packed into Westminster Abbey, the state funeral was always going to throw up potential difficulties. Just under a quarter of those invited – in the region of 500 people – were overseas heads of state or foreign dignitaries.
In accordance with protocol, the governors-general of the realms that retain the monarch as their head of state, were seated first with and elected Commonwealth leaders behind them.
That meant sitting Mr Biden some distance back, behind the new King. On the same row as Mr Biden, but on the other side of the aisle, sat China’s representative at the funeral, its vice president Wang Qishan. He was distinguishable by the facemask he wore as he walked into the abbey and which he kept on during the service.
Typically too, the US president is the last to arrive at any major function, the rest of the world kept waiting for him to show up. The US president arrived just after 10am, an hour before the service began and sat waiting with his wife without security detail.
The Bidens arrived at the abbey a little later than planned. World leaders were supposed to be seated in a 20-minute window between 9.35am and 9.55am. But the Bidens arrived 10 minutes after the cut-off and rather than being shown straight to their seats were forced to wait while a procession of George and Victoria Cross-holders went ahead of them. Only once they had passed could the president and First Lady enter the abbey.
Mr Biden had been granted the right to eschew the coaches that brought other world leaders and travel instead to the abbey in “The Beast”, the heavily armour plated limousine that was flown over especially for the occasion.
Video footage showed the car travelling slowly down Oxford Street, en route to the funeral, even being brought to a halt at one point outside a branch of the sandwich chain Pret a Manger. Mr Macron was also given permission to arrive in his own car.
There was seemingly a protocol to the coaches too. Mr Trudeau had also requested his own car but that was turned down. “A lot of great conversations can happen on a bus,” he said later. Those world leaders arriving for the buses, held waiting for them at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, did so in style.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s president, was dropped off in a black BMW with the number plate GER 1, while Anthony Albanese, the prime minister of Australia chose a Jaguar. President Sergio Mattarella of Italy was dropped off in a Maserati with the licence plate ITA 1, which caused quite the stir among onlookers.
In Westminster Abbey, the foreign royals sat opposite their British counterparts with Europe’s longest-serving living monarch, Queen Margrethe of Denmark, at the front. King Charles III, the currently shortest reigning monarch, sat opposite.
King Abdullah of Jordan and his wife, Queen Rania, were seated two rows in front of the Gulf royals, who came unaccompanied by their wives.
Other foreign royals in the front pews included the King and Queen of Bhutan, who arrived with the Emperor and Empress of Japan aboard a royal bus from the Royal Chelsea Hospital.
King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain also travelled by bus. His father, Mr Carlos, who abdicated in 2014 after a series of scandals and publicised love affairs, and his wife Sofía arrived separately at the cathedral. But television cameras soon revealed that the disparate members of the Spanish royal family had been placed on the same pew.
It was the first photograph of King Felipe and his father together since the latter entered self-imposed exile in Abu Dhabi more than two years ago.
Spain’s foreign minister, who also attended, was at pains to point out Mr Carlos’s presence was “purely the result of a personal invitation”.
At the end of the state funeral, leaders of Commonwealth realms moved on to Windsor and the slightly more intimate service at St George’s Chapel. Protocol again barred Mr Biden from attending. By the time the funeral cortege had reached Windsor, Mr Biden was on his way back to the US. For a morning at least he had learned what it’s like to be a minor figure on the world stage.
Normal service will now resume.