Thousands queued overnight into Thursday to pay their last solemn respects to Queen Elizabeth II, with some choking back tears after seeing her coffin lying in state in London.
Britain’s longest-serving monarch, who died a week ago aged 96 after 70 years on the throne, is at rest in the capital’s Westminster Hall ahead of Monday’s state funeral at Westminster Abbey.
After waiting for more than 48 hours, the first public mourners were allowed into the vast mediaeval hall on Wednesday after the coffin left Buckingham Palace for the last time, in a ceremonial procession witnessed by tens of thousands.
Thursday marks the first full day of Queen Elizabeth II’s lying-in-state — a last chance to say farewell to a much-loved monarch admired around the world for her steadfast sense of duty.
“Nation’s turn to say farewell,” the Daily Telegraph headlined on its front page, above an image of the coffin shortly after it had arrived inside the centuries-old hall in the UK parliamentary complex.
All Britain’s national newspapers carried similar images on their covers.
The queen’s casket, draped in the Royal Standard flag and bearing the Imperial State Crown plus the Orb and Sceptre, was raised high on a platform, with tall, flickering candles at each corner.
The coffin was being guarded by soldiers in ceremonial uniform, in a constant vigil.
One guard fainted off the podium overnight, in a sign of the toll standing vigil can take.
– ‘At peace’ –
In sombre scenes, many people stopped and bowed or curtsied towards the coffin. Others crossed themselves, or removed their hats.
Some prayed towards the casket or wiped away tears with tissues. Others brought their infants in pushchairs. Old soldiers stopped and gave one last salute to their former commander-in-chief.
Accountant Sue Harvey, 50, was among those in tears after filing past the coffin.
“Inside it was really quiet, really calm, and incredibly emotional. A lot of people were in tears but there was a total silence. It was just so respectful,” she told AFP.
“I wanted to make sure I did see her no matter how long the queue was going to be, because I never met her when she was alive.”
Vickie Wicks, 36, a clinical paramedic specialist who took the day off work, was also in tears after leaving the hall.
“The guards were watching her one last time at the four corners of the coffin. It was beautiful,” she said. “She was at peace.”
Nina, a 40-year-old performer, wanted to say thank you for Elizabeth’s life of unswerving service to the nation.
“In this place, you can’t escape the magnitude of who she was. I got really emotional — and I was not the only one,” she said.
As dawn broke Thursday, the queue snaked back around two miles (3.2 kilometres) along the south bank of the Thames river, with mourners set to wait for many hours to see the late sovereign.
Organisers have prepared up to 10 miles of queuing infrastructure, with expectations hundreds of thousands will want to file past the coffin.
– ‘What we do’ –
The coffin had been taken to Westminster Hall from Buckingham Palace earlier Wednesday.
To the strains of a military band playing funeral marches, King Charles III led the royal family in procession behind a horse-drawn gun carriage bearing the casket.
Charles — Elizabeth’s eldest son — his siblings, and his own sons, Princes William and Harry, walked at a carefully choreographed 75 steps a minute behind the gun carriage.
The sight of the new king’s two grief-stricken sons inevitably evoked memories of 1997, when the brothers — then aged just 15 and 12 — walked, heads bowed, behind the coffin of their mother, Diana, princess of Wales.
From the Elizabeth Tower at the Houses of Parliament, the Big Ben bell tolled out each minute as the casket passed in front of hushed crowds lining the route.
– Royal visits –
The grand procession through the flag-lined heart of London represented the latest step in 11 days of national mourning that will culminate with the funeral.
On Thursday, William and wife Kate will travel to Sandringham, the royals’ private winter retreat in eastern England to view the floral tributes left by members of the public at the Norwich Gates.
Charles, 73, was created Prince of Wales by his mother in 1958 and on his first full day as monarch Friday bestowed the title on his eldest son.
The historic title is given to the heir apparent to the throne.
Thursday’s visit will be the first official engagement conducted by the new Prince and Princess of Wales.
Meanwhile Elizabeth’s youngest son Prince Edward, 58, and his wife Sophie, were to visit Manchester in northwest England to view the civic book of condolence at the city’s central library.
They were also to view the floral tributes in St Ann’s Square and meet members of the public who are volunteering at the site, and light a candle in memory of Queen Elizabeth at Manchester Cathedral.
The late monarch’s funeral will see hundreds of world leaders and global royalty pack the historic Westminster Abbey in the heart of the British capital.
US President Joe Biden has confirmed he will attend, as will French President Emmanuel Macron and Japan’s Emperor Naruhito.