He may be the world’s most powerful man but the apparent late arrival of the US president, Joe Biden, and his wife, Jill, was not allowed to disrupt the finely tuned choreography of the late Queen’s funeral.
Rather than being ushered immediately to their seats on their arrival at Westminster Abbey, the first couple, aged 79 and 71, had to be gently told they would need to stand and wait as a procession of George and Victoria Cross-holders went ahead of them down the nave of the abbey.
After an awkward period of small talk at the main entrance, as those awarded the highest decorations of military valour went ahead, the Bidens finally followed in the wake of Victoria Cross-holder Pte Johnson Beharry, pushing the wheelchair of Keith Payne VC, 89.
The US president had been given a dispensation to make his journey to the abbey in the “the Beast”, a heavily armoured limousine used by US presidents for security reasons, rather than be bussed to the abbey with the other heads of state and government.
Camera footage shared on social media showed that the Bidens had made slow progress through central London, even being momentarily forced to stop outside a Pret a Manger on Oxford Street.
After arriving hand in hand, the Bidens finally sat down in their places in the abbey at 10.05am. The schedule published by Buckingham Palace suggested the 500 invited dignitaries should have been seated between 9.35am and 9.55am.
Perhaps as a consequence of opting out of the buses taking other leaders from the assembly point at Royal Hospital Chelsea, the Bidens were also given seats 14 rows back in the south transept of the abbey.
The US president took his seat behind Andrzej Duda, the president of Poland, and in front of Petr Fiala, the prime minister of the Czech Republic. Sitting to her husband’s left, Jill Biden sat next to Ignazio Cassis, the president of Switzerland.
The special treatment demanded by the White House was by some way not the most significant diplomatic difficulty facing the earl marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, who was in charge of planning the funeral.
While the decision of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to not attend avoided some damaging headlines, a decision to invite Spain’s disgraced former King Juan Carlos and to then seat him next to his son King Felipe VI and his wife, Queen Letizia, appears likely to make things difficult for the Spanish royal family back home.
Felipe, 54, came to the throne when his father abdicated in 2014 amid dwindling popularity. The 84-year-old, who appeared frail and had to lean on an aide, spends most of his time in self-imposed exile in Abu Dhabi following a series of scandals related to his finances that culminated in Felipe stripping him of his annual stipend and renouncing his personal inheritance.
There had already been a backlash over Juan Carlos’s attendance at the funeral but the Spanish royal household had been determined to at least not to make it worse by allowing a photograph to emerge of the two kings together only for the demands of royal protocol made it unavoidable.
Gerardo Pisarello, an MP for the Catalan branch of the far-left, anti-austerity Podemos party, tweeted: “[Felipe] says he wants nothing to do with his father; that he’s renounced his inheritance and knew nothing about the fiscal outrages. Then they go and sit together as if nothing’s happened, all while Juan Carlos is investigated in England. Shameful.” Pisarello was referring to a case being made against Juan Carlos by a former lover who has accused him of harassment.
The abbey bore witness to the gathering of royals and world leaders not seen for many decades. Among those attending were Japan’s emperor, Naruhito, who rarely makes overseas visits, and Empress Masako who has been largely absent from public appearances since suffering from what the imperial household agency has described as a “adjustment disorder” after giving birth to the couple’s only child, Princess Aiko.