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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Gordon Rayner

Death of Queen Elizabeth: Sheer scale of turnout for late monarch a measure of a nation’s love

People observe a 'national moment of reflection" in honour of Queen Elizabeth, the day before her funeral, at Westminster Hall, in London, Britain. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters

GRATUTUDE and respect cannot be weighed, but when future generations learn about Queen Elizabeth II, it will be the numbers that will impress on them just how much she was mourned.

The 400,000 people estimated to have flowed past her coffin by the time Westminster Hall closes its doors this morning had taken part in a secular pilgrimage that none of us alive today will see again.

At an average queueing time of 12 hours, they had clocked 4.8 million hours between them as they shuffled forward, uncomplainingly, in the sunshine, and in the cold, and in the dark. It means that since the queen’s lying in state began last Wednesday, people had spent a cumulative 550 years saying their final thank you. And if each had entered the winding queue at its end in Southwark Park, they would have walked four million miles between them – or 153,846 marathons.

The fact that all of them knew how arduous the wait would be, having been given ample warning, is an even more reliable measure of how much Queen Elizabeth meant to them.

From children in pushchairs to pensioners and global celebrities, they patiently waited their turn to spend a few minutes in the presence of the late queen’s coffin, where they bowed or curtseyed, many turning away in tears.

Thousands more in Edinburgh had paid their respects earlier in St Giles’ Cathedral.

By joining the queue they knew they were becoming a part of history.

Asked why they had left the comfort of their homes, or in some cases flown thousands of kilometres to endure the lengthy waiting time in London, a frequent response was that queueing for 12 hours was “the least I could do” to show appreciation for a woman who served her country right to the end, just as she had promised she would.

The public response left the king “moved beyond measure” and it will be the public’s outpouring of love for Queen Elizabeth that will provide comfort to the royal family as they continue their period of mourning over the next seven days.

Within hours of the 6.30pm announcement of the queen’s death on September 8, floral tributes started to build up at Balmoral, where she died, at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and at Sandringham.

Alongside the flowers there were Paddington Bears, jars of marmalade and even marmalade sandwiches, prompted by the queen’s appearance with the children’s character during the Platinum Jubilee concert.

Britain’s mourners mobilised early.

Long before the queue for Westminster Hall had started to form, there were queues to lay flowers; by Friday, September 9 there was a mile-long line from Marble Arch to Buckingham Palace. Almost anywhere that had an association with the late queen was soon carpeted with flowers.  

In every county, flowers built up at town halls, parks and civic centres, while local libraries opened books of condolence and prayers were said in places of worship of all faiths.

A lucky few were rewarded with a handshake from the new king himself, who met the crowds outside the palace the day after he had lost his mother, and on several occasions since, including an impromptu visit on Saturday to The Queue with his son, the Prince of Wales, to thank mourners lining up in London in person.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron with wife Brigitte pay their respects;. Photo: John Sibley/PA

The sight of the king being kissed on the cheek by a Cypriot tourist (who said she had acted spontaneously because he “looked sad”) could not have been more of a contrast with the metronomic formality of his official mourning duties that were still to come.

On Saturday, September 10, Princes William and Harry set aside their differences to meet well-wishers outside Windsor Castle, together with their wives, the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of Sussex. It was an unexpected moment that was well received by the public.

On Sunday, September 11, it was the Scots who had the first chance to pay their respects in person, lining the route from Balmoral Castle to Edinburgh’s Palace of Holyroodhouse as the late queen began “her last great journey”, as the king memorably put it.

Some threw flowers in front of the hearse, others cheered and clapped, while farmers mounted a guard of honour of tractors as the cortege passed through Royal Deeside.

Staff at Holyroodhouse were able to say a private goodbye to their “boss” as the coffin was kept in the Throne Room overnight, just as Balmoral staff were able to spend time with Elizabeth’s coffin before six gamekeepers carried it to the hearse.

The following day the king, wearing military dress uniform, was joined by his siblings to march in step behind the queen’s coffin along the Royal Mile as it was taken to St Giles’ Cathedral, the applause and cheering of Monday replaced by respectful, awed silence from the public as reality hit home.

As the coffin lay at rest in the cathedral, for 24 hours, the Scottish people filed past, some of them queueing several times in order to absorb as much of the occasion as they could.  

The first in the queue to see the coffin was George Higgins, a former Scots Guardsman, who went straight from finishing his night shift as a security guard at the University of Edinburgh to start queueing at 6.45am.

He waited for almost 12 hours, and had to start work again at 9.30 that evening, meaning he went without any sleep. It was “worth it”, he said.

Last Tuesday, as the queen made her final homecoming to Buckingham Palace, traffic stopped on the A40 dual carriageway as drivers got out of their cars and waited for the cortege to pass on its way from RAF Northolt. The purpose-built state hearse, designed with the queen’s input, incorporated bright internal lighting so that the public could see the coffin, draped in the Royal Standard, even in the dark.

After one last night at Buckingham Palace, Wednesday was the day when the official lying-in-state began. The king and other members of the royal family, including the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sussex, walked behind the coffin as it was pulled on a gun carriage by six black horses. 

As the late queen’s coffin entered Westminster Hall, where it was placed on a catafalque and adorned with the Imperial state crown, orb and sceptre, the Queue for the lying-in-state was already two days old.

Vanessa Nanthakumaran (56) from Harrow, camped out by the Thames for two nights before, at 5pm on Wednesday, she was allowed in.

“As I was going past, I did a curtsy and prayers in my heart for her to be at peace, and I thanked her,” she said.

Her tribute was simple, but like so many of those who filed through Westminster Hall, she had also found it a spiritual experience.

Such was the public’s determination to honour the late queen that even the 16km route that snaked from Southwark Park to Westminster could not contain them: at peak times there was even a queue for the Queue, and by Friday a queue for the queue for the Queue, nicknamed the Elizabeth Line.

People camping out along The Mall in London ahead of the funeral today which starts at 11am.. Photo: Marko Djurica/Reuters

The Queue became not only an incubator for new friendships, but was also a great leveller, as the likes of David Beckham, Tilda Swinton and Sharon Osbourne joined the rest of the public waiting their turn.

Beckham admitted that even for someone as physically fit as a former international footballer, the experience had left him with a sore back and feet.

World leaders, of course, were spared the need to queue, and as the first of 500 foreign dignitaries arrived on Saturday they were led into the Hall to pay their own respects.

Yesterday, US President Joe Biden stood alongside the British public as he gazed at the coffin, placing his hand over his heart.

Queen Elizabeth’s death has been not just a national but an international event. Emmanuel Macron, the French President, paid one of the most eloquent tributes: “She held a special place in the hearts of the French people,” he said.

“She who stood with the giants of the 20th century on the path of history has now left to join them... To you [the British], she was your Queen. To us, she was The Queen.”

Today, as attention turns to the funeral itself, the servicemen and women taking part in the procession will want to make sure the woman to whom they swore allegiance is given perfection in their ceremonial duties.

As the Prince of Wales reportedly told them on a visit to the Pirbright training centre in Surrey on Saturday, the late queen will “be looking down on the whole funeral service... [observing] the detail of the soldiers, their dress and how the drill is carried out, its precision”.

Today London will be the focus of the world, as the heads of almost every country on Earth come together in Westminster Abbey in London to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth II.

Only when life returns to normal tomorrow will we fully understand her absence and grasp how much she will be missed by so many. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)

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