Lying in State – Witnesses of an historical moment

I remember back in April 2002 I was very impressed by the queues for Elizabeth The Queen Mother, mother of Queen Elizabeth II. I decided I would travel to the UK if it would happen again and pay my respect in person. However when it finally happened, I was far too occupied with long planned royal events elsewhere. Several friends and acquaintances travelled to London, United Kingdom from various parts of the country to attend the Lying in State of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Hall. Several of them shared their stories, impressions and photos with me.

The Lying in State of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II took place in Westminster Hall at the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) from Wednesday 14 September 2022 (5.00pm BST) to Monday 19 September 2022 (6.30am BST). The hall was open 24 hours a day. People who wanted to pay their respect to the Queen entered the Palace of Westminster through St Stephen’s Entrance which opens at the foot of a short flight of stairs. From there people passed into Westminster Hall by proceeding down two longer flights of stairs to ground level. The queue was divided to pass on either side of the catafalque. Mourners were asked to keep moving forward at all times while being in line until exiting into Parliament Square. Up to 250.000 people seem to have passed the coffin.

During the Lying in State the coffin of the Queen rested on a raised platform (catafalque) in the middle of Westminster Hall. Each corner of the platform was guarded around the clock by members of the Sovereign’s guard of the Household Cavalry, Foot Guards and The King’s Bodyguards. On Friday evening the four children of the Queen held a short vigil, while on Saturday evening her eight grandchildren honoured her with a vigil. On Sunday heads of state and royals coming to London for the state funeral on Monday 19 September paid their respect.

People already started queueing along the River Thames much earlier than the opening of Westminster Hall on Wednesday. When the Lying in State started the queue was already about 2,5 miles long and during the coming days was up to around five miles at some times. It stretched from Westminster across Lambeth Bridge and along the river to Southwark Park. As people were sometimes queueing for more than 14 hours, the queue was closed on Sunday evening at 10.45pm BST, to be sure that everybody could pass the coffin. Surprisingly I learnt the people in the queue behaved rather well and were patient, even if they had to wait for many hours while it was chilly, sometimes even wet. As the queue was near the waterfront by times the wind was pretty icy.

My friend Yaroslava, who only one week earlier had arrived in the UK after fleeing Ukraine, was the first of my friends to queue at around 4.00pm BST on Wednesday. It took her 7 1/2 hours to get into the Westminster Hall. She was heart broken by the news about the death of the Queen and told me that it felt like “being part of history-in-the making”. She decided to queue, because she had admired the Queen greatly “since my first steps in learning the English language”. She was glad to be able to say goodbye in person. Rowan Marie started queueing at 6.30pm BST under Cannon Street Rail Bridge, when the queue – not a very straight one – was supposed to be about 2,5 mile long, and ended her journey around 3.30am BST on Thursday 15 September. David joined the queue from 7.30pm BST, and finally filed passed the coffin at 4.15am BST. When Michael from Leeds arrived in London on Wednesday 14 September towards the evening the queue already stretched back to beyond Blackfriars Bridge. He finally made it into Westminster Hall by 6.20am BST. Another friend, James came all the way from Wales and had an early start on Saturday 17 September, It took him 12 hours and 22 minutes to get into Westminster Hall.

The longer the Queen was Lying in State the longer the queues were. However they were well organised I was told, the stewards were very efficient and people were very orderly, David said. Also Rowan Marie says she couldn’t believe how fast the queue was moving. Especially when the queue stopped moving for long periods the feet got very tired. Along the route were water filling stations and portaloos. Yaroslava said that the queue was a very active one. In the meantime one could admire the gorgeous views of the sunset. People made friends and got acquainted with one another, as Yaroslava said, “while being united with one feeling of great love towards the late great Queen and gathered by the spirit of this remarkable woman”. Also Michael mentions the tour of some of the capital city’s most memorable landmarks, like the dome of St Paul’s, the National Theatre, the Houses of Parliament, the National Covid Memorial, Lambeth Palace and he even saw skateboarders performing their risky moves under the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre with its walls full of graffiti at midnight.

When crossing Lambeth Bridge towards the Palace of Westminster all thought they were finally near Westminster Hall. But it took forever to cross the bridge, and when finally descending the steps of the bridge, it turned out the wait was far from over. It took Rowan Marie one hour to get from the steps to the monument halfway Victoria Tower Gardens, immediately next to the Palace of Westminster, two and a half hours to get from the monument to the end of the gardens. She calls it a “zigzag nightmare”, Michael speaks of an “airport security styled pattern”. From there it took Rowan Marie another two and a half hours to get into Westminster Hall, as the hall was apparently closed for an hour for cleaning. Michael was told that the queue stopped for about one hour because one of the guards positioned at the Queen’s catafalque in Westminster Hall had fainted. His zig-zagging took over two hours, and these was by far the most uncomfortable part of the proceedings. Finally there was a bag check area, where one had to leave all food and drinks behind, not to be returned.

The wait was tough at times, people in line were tired, cold, stiff, hungry and sometimes even frustrated. Feet were very tired too and sturdy, sensible shoes were recommended. Queues were stopped because of fainting guards. But in the end it was all worth it.

Yaroslava: “As we approached the entrance the conversations turned quickly quiet and a respectful silence was established as we walked inside. We saw changing of the guards and that was a moment to prepare yourself for the moment. When I remember that moment when I approached the coffin and bowed my head I can’t find words to describe it. A spiritual minute in private caught by a very public BBC coverage camera.”

Rowan Marie: “The hall was silent. I saw the coffin and tears started to fall… suddenly it felt very real that she was gone. Some people curtsied or bowed as they passed. All I could manage was a stifled sob and a little nod of the head. I hope HM didn’t mind. The Imperial State Crown, with its historic jewels & symbolic significance, was a sad but powerful sight. In that 900 year old hall, the history of this country was so real & present you could almost touch it. And there lay our Queen, descended from it all, finally leaving us. As I was about to leave, we heard the ‘tap tap’ on the floor, indicating the guard was about to change. How lucky to be able to watch this ceremony, to have some extra time with Her Majesty, and to quietly say thank you one last time.” She was lucky enough to see a rehearsal of the funeral procession with thousands of forces when she left the Hall.

David: “Inside Westminster Hall the atmosphere was amazing . It was totally silent. I didn’t notice to many tears. I was struck at how much the crown glistened. During my time in the hall they changed the guard which allowed a longer stay. I could then admire the roof of the hall and tried to remember the historic events that took place in the hall.”

Michael: “We arrived at the door of Westminster Hall at about 6:20am – the sight was breathtaking. Like a Medieval tableau. The glorious colours of the tunics of the immovable Yeomen of the Guard. The Imperial State Crown, gleaming with jewels, surmounted on the Queen’s coffin, looked tiny. It was an emotional time. Many gave way to tears, some bowing, genuflecting and curtseying. After the long hours of waiting it was over and we emerged into Parliament Square in daylight.” As his younger companions wanted to do some more sight seeing, he also inspected the banks of flowers in Green Park, and finally got back home in the evening, after 41 hours without sleep, and some really tired legs and feet.

James: “I feel both privileged and overwhelmed to have been able to say farewell personally.
Worth every second.”

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