The world has watched transfixed – many in admiration, others in bemusement and some in irritation – the spectacle and fanfare around Queen Elizabeth’s death and funeral. However, we should remind ourselves that the ceremony and rituals, spanning 12 days, is of relatively recent vintage and arguably owes much to the expansion of the British empire and the resources and self-confidence that came with it.

Nearly two centuries ago, during the coronation in 1821 of George IV, prizefighters (or bouncers to use today’s parlance) had to maintain peace among the guests. In fact, the funerals of royals at the time hardly commanded nationwide attention in England. The funerals that did were of national heroes like Wellington or Nelson.

Even during the Victorian period, a member of the nobility noted in the Saturday Review in 1861 that unlike other European nations, England did not have a gift for the “ceremonial”, adding, “Something always breaks down, somebody contrives to escape doing his part, or some bye-motive is suffered to interfere and ruin it all.” Indeed, Victoria’s coronation in 1838 was an unrehearsed and lackadaisical affair.

The historian David Cannadine in his masterly study of the English monarchy notes that up to the first half of the 19th century ceremonials did not “exist to exalt the crown above the political battle, to that Olympus of decorative, integrative impotence which it was later to occupy”. According to him, it was between the late 1870s and 1914 that there was a “fundamental change” in the British monarchy, which placed Queen Victoria and then King Edward above politics as “patriarchal figures” for the nation.

It was not a coincidence that Queen Victoria was crowned empress of India in 1877. There were the durbars or assemblages in India in 1877, 1902 and 1911 spread across three decades. The first durbar in 1877, in the words of then Viceroy Lytton, was meant to place the “Queen’s authority upon the ancient throne of the Moguls, with which the imagination and tradition of Indian subjects associate the splendour of supreme power”. While some of the rituals and planning associated with the durbar might have rubbed off on British royal ceremonies, the contrast between the British way of doing things and Indian princes was also apparent.

The anthropologist Bernard Cohn in his seminal essay on authority in Victorian India quotes Dinkar Rao, the dewan of Gwalior, as saying about the 1877 event: “If any man were to understand why it is that the English are, and must remain the master of India, he need only to go up to Flagstaff tower and look down upon this marvelous camp. Let him notice the method, the order, the cleanliness, the discipline, the perfection of the whole organisation and he will recognise at once the epitome of every title to command and govern which one race can possess over others.”

Besides the official realm of the British monarchs expanding to cover India and large parts of the globe, there were several other factors – advances in technology and media, the remaking of London and rivalry with European monarchies – that contributed to the growth of ceremony and rituals. The British monarchs had also taken to heart what Walter Bagehot, author of The English Constitution, had written in the pages of the Economist: “To be invisible is to be forgotten… To be a symbol, and an effective symbol, you must be vividly and often seen.” He also presciently wrote that the more “democratic we get the more we shall get to like state and show”.

It was during the period from 1877 to the beginning of World War I that some of the grandest royal spectacles were staged – Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee and her funeral; the coronation and funeral of Edward VII and the coronation of George V. Though there were minor glitches such as the horses escaping during Victoria’s funeral, the events were meticulously planned and widely watched and appreciated. The discipline that had so impressed Dinkar Rao was very much in evidence on these occasions.

The British Broadcasting Corporation, founded in 1922, was crucial to the “invention of tradition”, as Eric Hobsbwam terms it, with regard to the British monarchy, particularly during the reigns of George V, George VI and the just-deceased Elizabeth. On radio and later television, commentators, such as Richard Dimbledy, reverentially talked about the “thousand year old tradition” associated with royal rituals despite much of it being of fairly recent provenance.

All of these elements have been at play ever since the demise of the Queen and the words “London Bridge is down” triggered the elaborate and well-rehearsed plans for her funeral and all the associated events. From being laggards at organizing ceremonial events, the British are now masters of it. When the Queen makes her perfectly choreographed final journey to Windsor, it will be watched by thousands on the streets and millions across the globe. Much of the outpouring is due to a genuine affection for the Queen and some of it from the love of spectacle.

Cannadine’s words ring truer than ever before: “The liking which the British public has for royal pageant and display has grown rather than lessened. Old ceremonies have been adapted and new rituals invented, the combined effect of which has been, paradoxically, to give an impression of stability in periods of domestic change, and of continuity and comfort in times of international tension and decline.”

If you take the “British” and “royal” out, much of what Cannadine said applies to the rest of the world too.

Ronojoy Sen is Senior Research Fellow, ISAS & SASP, National University of Singapore.