LONDON – Hundreds of thousands of mourners from across the UK and beyond wait more than 10 hours on foot for precious seconds with the late Queen Elizabeth II – the only monarch most have ever known, and the last queen of England many expect to see in their lifetime.
The line – called in England the Queue – to see the Queen lying in state in Westminster Hall on Friday traveled five miles and had to be cut short as wait times stretched to 24 hours. The separated accessible queue permanently closed the next day after reaching capacity.
The audience had been promised long days, chilly nights and sore calves, but it showed up anyway. More than a dozen worshipers NPR spoke to online and outside the room all agreed that the experience, exhausting as it was, was worth it.
“It’s really strange, actually, because if you tell a Brit they’re going to be queuing that long, they’d rather say ‘Why?'” laughs military veteran Chris Jay, about 10 1/2 hours after his wait. “But obviously the Queen [is] such an important part for many people in the UK and especially for those who have been in the armed forces and have served and sworn allegiance to the Queen. I just felt compelled to come here.”
Some people came from other parts of the UK and Europe, others traveled from places as far afield as Canada and the US. Their specific motivations and feelings about the monarchy varied, but they shared many things in common: appreciation of the Queen’s devotion, eagerness to participate in history, and a mixture of uncertainty and uncertainty. optimism about the future of the monarchy under King Charles III.
“Everyone was in a really good mood,” Ashleigh Harvey said as she finally left the venue after around 1 p.m. “I think so many people were honored to be here for as long as it was going to take in the queue, and everyone had accepted it and were more than happy to wait as long as it took just to pay homage.”
The mood was gloomy but also joyful, as people gathered to celebrate the Queen. Some dressed up for the occasion, like the rugby coach wearing a button-up Union Jack waistcoat and the history buff dressed as a 17th-century royalist, with a cape and all. And despite reported safety issues and overcrowding issues, many line users bonded with their neighbors and described the shared sense of community as a highlight of their experience.
“I made friends in that queue – we swapped numbers, we shared food… there’s a group of us who will meet up after this,” says Teresa Bhatti, 54 year. “We enjoyed every second.”
In contrast, the atmosphere inside Westminster Hall was calm, serene and respectful, people said. This part of the line passed much faster, with less time to process the inevitable flood of emotions. And at least one woman could be seen wiping away her tears as she exited the doors.
Ying Shum and Joe Yuen, who moved to the UK several months ago, said they were touched by the experience.
“Very significant, especially [because] we’re from Hong Kong,” Shum said. “And I think most people who have come here are willing to spend 10 a.m., 8 p.m. — whatever, because the Queen has already spent 70 years for her service.”
The moment is historic but also personal
People praised the Queen for her contributions to the country, especially for doing her duty for so many years and for being a reliable and reassuring presence in good times and bad.
It has been a feature of the lives of millions of people, from banknotes to military medals, says Bryan Hunt, a Home Office official who has volunteered on the line.
Hunt says he briefly met the Queen at a garden party several years ago – he remembers vividly how special she made him feel, as well as “her piercing blue eyes and how was small”.
Sandra Napier, who decided to join the line on a pre-planned visit to Northern Ireland, said the Queen was loved not just at home but around the world as an ambassador. She was particularly moved by the Queen’s trip to Northern Ireland in 2012, when she shook hands with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness in what Napier described as a significant gesture of reconciliation and peacemaking – something she said the world still needed.
“The world is in a bit of a precarious situation post-COVID, economically, as far as Ukraine is concerned, and I think it’s really given people a positive direction and a connection,” she says of the event.
Some people said they braved the long hours because they wanted to be part of an event that will be remembered for generations. Everyone had their reasons, and for some, it was mostly emotion.
“I just feel like I need to be there for her,” Bhatti said.
People will miss the Queen, but are optimistic about her successor
It’s hard for people to imagine England without a queen, now and in the foreseeable future. Many have described King Charles III as having big shoes to fill, but say they are reassured that he has been preparing for this responsibility for decades.
Rosie Beddows, who was online with her husband and son, says she believes with Camilla by his side, Charles will move the country forward in a perhaps more environmentally friendly way. And she thinks William and Kate will make a “superb” Prince and Princess of Wales and future rulers.
“I think the monarchy is in a very strong position, and if you look at this queue, that’s what the monarchy means to the British public,” she said, a comment echoed by many others.
Of course, not all Britons support the institution, which people (especially younger people) view as archaic and colonialist.
Heather Labanya, who is half Zambian, acknowledges there are many views on the monarchy in the UK and says she personally worked to separate the Queen from the institution she represented.
In particular, she mentioned that independence fighters, including the first president of Zambia – a former British colony – had respect for the Queen and her role in her democratization.
“I always felt able to hold the understanding of all these composite parts,” she adds. “But the way my parents also raised me was to try to look ahead and continue to hold on to this rich history that we have as a family, as a culture, looking ahead how can we rebuild a future that includes everyone.”