Pheasant from Windsor… the cavalry in full fig… this was a masterclass in soft power: ROBERT HARDMAN watches the Royal Family at their best as King hosts first state visit

Laid out around the Buckingham Palace ballroom, the finest gold and silver pieces from George IV’s Grand Service looked as magnificent as they have always done.

The sight of almost 1,000 glasses (six for every one of the 161 guests, each seated precisely 18 inches apart) plus a similar array of silver-gilt cutlery never fails to impress the grandest state visitor. Ditto the Household Cavalry and the horses and carriages of Royal Mews in their full splendour.

It is all part of the soft-power masterclass that is a British state visit.

Yet it was not hard to spot one or two subtle changes too, yesterday, as the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, became the first state visitor to be welcomed to this country by King Charles III.

Take the flowers, for example. Instead of the voluptuous, almost effusive displays which would previously cascade over the table at these events, we had more restrained vases of autumnal golds and reds, picked at the Palace and Windsor (not a single stem was imported). Sustainability is now a top priority. Hence the source of the pheasant on last night’s banquet menu: Windsor Great Park.

Laid out around the Buckingham Palace ballroom, the finest gold and silver pieces from George IV’s Grand Service looked as magnificent as they have always done

The most obvious change, however, was, simply, the maleness of it all.

The arrival of Mr Ramaphosa was certainly a landmark in several regards. This was the first state occasion of the new reign, the first state visit in more than three years and the first of Rishi Sunak’s government.

Britain’s last state visitor was Donald Trump in June 2019. Back then, however, Britain had a female Prime Minister as well as a Queen regnant.

Last night’s state banquet produced a sight we have not seen here in more than 70 years: two men sitting next to each other in pride of place at the top of the table. The masculine feel of yesterday’s welcome was amplified by the fact that President Ramaphosa had arrived alone, without the First Lady, who had remained in South Africa recovering from eye surgery.

The traditional pavilion had been erected on Horse Guards for the formal welcome and inspection of the Guard of Honour, in this case Number 7 Company Coldstream Guards.

The president was running a few minutes late and, not being a military man, made swift work of walking up and down the ranks.

With officials keeping an eye on the time, the King then ushered him into the Irish State Coach, together with the Queen Consort, for the procession to the Palace.

The VIP greeting line which had assembled on Horse Guards – including the Prime Minister and the chiefs of the Armed Forces – would receive their introductions to the president at last night’s state banquet instead. 

The sight of almost 1,000 glasses (six for every one of the 161 guests, each seated precisely 18 inches apart) plus a similar array of silver-gilt cutlery never fails to impress the grandest state visitor

Yet it was not hard to spot one or two subtle changes too, yesterday, as the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, became the first state visitor to be welcomed to this country by King Charles III

Following behind the two heads of state, the Prince and Princess of Wales escorted the South African foreign minister, Dr Naledi Pandor, in the Australian State Coach.

Inside the Grand Entrance, the South African entourage were greeted by a mix of households old and new. In addition to the King’s team from his days as Prince of Wales, here were the staff who loyally served Her Late Majesty to the end, including her Lady in Waiting, Lady Susan Hussey, and her Master of the Household, Vice Admiral Sir Tony Johnstone-Burt.

This was to be expected. When organising something as complex as a state visit – especially after a hiatus of more than three years – you want all the experienced Palace veterans you can muster.

After a welcome lunch of salmon fillets followed by raspberry souffle, the King and Queen Consort led the president through to the Picture Gallery for an exhibition of royal artefacts linked to South Africa. These started with the logbook and sketches of Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred, who was the first royal visitor to the Cape in 1860.

Diplomatically skipping over the Zulu and Boer wars, the next display focused on the visit of George VI and his family in 1947. There was a photograph of Princess Elizabeth delivering her famous 21st birthday speech, pledging ‘my whole life’ to her peoples, alongside her actual text.

Her similarly historic speech, delivered on her first visit as Queen in 1995, following the election of President Nelson Mandela, was on an adjacent table. So, too, were photos of the two leaders (who became such firm friends that Mr Mandela was the only non-royal world leader who would call the Queen ‘Elizabeth’ – and get away with it). ‘This lovely picture,’ remarked Mr Ramaphosa. ‘You were lucky to have known [them] both,’ the King replied. The beautifully ornate chess set which Mr Mandela had given the Duke of Edinburgh was also laid out.

There were chuckles as the two heads of state viewed a photograph of the King’s own visit to South Africa in 1997. Standing alongside him were the Spice Girls, who had been performing at a charity concert in aid of the Nations Trust, founded by the Queen and Mr Mandela.

Following behind, the Prince of Wales was obviously amused as he pointed out the photo to Dr Pandor. ‘My father in South Africa,’ he declared. ‘And the Spice Girls.’

All day, all through the Palace, there was a clear sense of excitement, of rejuvenation and the clearing of cobwebs. Long before the death of the Queen, indeed well before the Covid pandemic, things had been winding down here as builders moved in to carry out the first major refurbishment since the reign of George VI.

Much of the place will still be a building site for some time to come. However, yesterday represented a very welcome return not just to business as usual – tiaras, carriages and all – but to Buckingham Palace’s fully functioning role as Britain’s pre-eminent seat of state.

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