The Daily Telegraph
‘Seeing the coffin... today it really hit home’
The moving procession to Westminster Hall was a perfectly paced display of pageantry and ceremony
Beneath vaulting blue skies they gathered to bear witness. From every corner of her kingdom, her Commonwealth and beyond they travelled to pay their respects.
Outside Buckingham Palace, along the Mall, across Horse Guards Parade and all the way to Westminster Hall they assembled to watch their beloved sovereign take her final leave of them.
After a night of rain, the mood was subdued, but the sun broke through in perfect time for the Scots Guards and the Grenadier Guards to strike up a funeral march.
And as they stepped out through the gates, a gasp rippled through the crowd as they caught sight of the coffin, borne not in a gilded coach but mounted on a gun carriage, drawn by seven gleaming black horses. Open to the air so that her subjects might see.
Her casket was carved from oak and draped in the Royal Standard. On top, the dizzyingly bejewelled Imperial State Crown – and in vivid contrast, a plain white wreath of roses, dahlias and foliage from the royal estates in Balmoral and Windsor.
The stark simplicity of that image – seared forever on our retinas, indelibly imprinted in our memories – had a visceral impact.
So profound was the ensuing silence that onlookers could hear the measured clatter of hooves and the jangle of spurs as the Household Cavalry marched past on foot. No one spoke. Even after the procession had passed by there was barely a murmur.
As the sonorous tones of Big Ben rang out, joined by artillery fire from Hyde Park every minute, the utterly transfixing magic of monarchy was everywhere in evidence. The rhythmic sound of it, the dazzling sight of it, the emotional heft of it.
“I feel so moved I can barely put it into words,” sad Judith Kay, 71, from Teddington, Middx. “My middle name is Elizabeth in honour of Her Majesty, so I’ve always been a monarchist. What a wonderful thing it is to be here today. We do this sort of pageantry and ceremony so well in our country.”
On Tuesday, the Princess Royal said it had been “an honour and a privilege” to accompany her mother on her final journeys. Those sentiments were echoed by the throng who felt they had to be present for the procession.
Chris Leinert, 45, had arrived at Heathrow on a last-minute flight from his native Berlin. “I wanted to show respect. I [have known] about her since I was four years old and I watched Trooping the Colour every year with my grandparents,” he said.
For his part, the Reverend David Thomas, 73, from Richmond, spoke warmly of the Queen’s position as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. “I was ordained in her reign and I saw her as the best exponent of the Christian faith in this country,” he said. “Her example, humility and her words – particularly for the Christmas Day speech – were always important. When there was so much negativity about Prince Andrew, she still took him close to her heart and showed forgiveness. That was a really fine example of her Christian faith, as was her work regarding Ireland. When she shook hands with Martin Mcguinness, it felt that part of the Troubles were over.”
The Queen’s coffin had been flown from Scotland the previous evening and spent the night not in the grand surroundings of the Buckingham Palace ballroom but in the less formal Bow Room, which overlooks the grounds of the palace where she held so many garden parties and met so many of her subjects.
It was in this intimate setting that members of her family and staff said their last goodbyes before yesterday’s procession. And as the gun carriage passed by the Carrara marble Queen Victoria Memorial, with its statues so appositely representing courage, constancy, victory, charity, truth and motherhood, it signalled a transition in the ritual of mourning.
Elizabeth II’S private role of mother, grandmother and great-grandmother was gently left behind and the focus returned to her public role as Head of State, Head of the Church, Head of a Nation grieving their loss.
Following the coffin was King Charles III, wearing full ceremonial uniform of Marshal of the RAF. He was accompanied by his siblings: Anne, the Princess Royal, Princes Andrew and Edward, as well as his sons, Prince William, dressed in his Royal Air Force uniform, and Prince Harry in a morning suit.
This was altogether different in scale and scope from the intimate 15-minute procession held in Edinburgh from the Palace of Holyroodhouse to St Giles’ Cathedral, when the coffin was slowly driven by car up the Royal Mile, an ancient narrow thoroughfare, and at times seemed close enough to touch. Here in the grand heart of ceremonial London, Union flags flew the length of the Mall as some 500 service personnel accompanied the Queen.
Social worker Sarah Murray, from North London, said: “It felt like we’ve lost something very special and that she’s actually gone... today really made it hit home. Seeing the coffin and the crown on the top, it just felt empty.”
She praised the Royal family for acknowledging the bereavement felt by ordinary people and allowing them to join in the mourning process. She also highlighted her sense of pride.
“I’m glad I lived in a reign of a Queen because they are very few and far in between. It’s a huge loss, especially as a woman. She’s been a strong woman who has stayed constant and who has been reliable.”
All along the route the people of Britain sought – in some small way – to repay the service they had received from their dutiful Queen during her 70-year reign.
Debbie Mcgee and her husband, who travelled from Hertfordshire at the crack of dawn, had been waiting at RAF Northolt last night for the Queen’s arrival back to London, so this was their second opportunity to say farewell.
“She’s all I’ve ever known, so it’s a very special moment. It was really lovely to be a part of this, it was just amazing, we’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. Ms Mcgee was moved to see the rest of the Royal family walk behind the late monarch’s coffin.
“It was a moment for them to mourn personally, so they were probably caught up in the own grief. But I think as a family they have represented the Queen very well,” she said.
After making its way up the Mall, the procession rounded the bend, coming onto Horse Guards Road and past the Admiralty Citadel before travelling on to Westminster as the minute guns were fired by the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery and Big Ben sounded from the Elizabeth Tower.
“It’s one day of our lives, to stand here,” said Allyson Weightman, 50, from Nottingham. “She gave us her whole life.”
The melancholy music brought onlookers to tears. The powerful beat of a drum set the pace; still the steadfast crowd made no noise. The single red roses many had brought to throw on the route remained in their hands.
Then, as the King and his three siblings marched by, followed by the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sussex, a sudden cry went up: “God save the Queen!” And another: “God save the King!” Finally: “God bless the Royal family!”
“It was surreal,” said Pat Stringer, 66, a retired nurse from London. “I think the fact that everyone was silent says it all really. It was just so respectful.”
Ms Stringer felt compelled to make her way to the procession route, partly because she realised that in the swirl of the past few days, the late Queen’s death almost hadn’t felt real. It was important to come, she said, to try to make sense of it, to make it “more real”.
As the procession reached Whitehall, tentative applause began to ripple through the crowd. The cortège moved out of sight. People embraced and wiped their eyes; awe-struck and moved by the unique event they had not just seen but shared.
Hong-kong born Angela Lee, 60, from Darwen, Lancs, had taken three days off work to see the procession and then join the end of the queue to see the Queen lying in state.
“Oh God, she meant so much. I’ve grown up with her!” she said. “It’s a sad loss. She was our great Queen – she was just a perfect human being.”
Angela Rutter, 53, from Peterborough, said: “All my life she’s been everywhere – from Brownies and guides when we swore allegiance to her to the stamps and everything.”
Ex-military man Rob Selby, 67, added: “I’ve come to pay my last respects to the most wonderful woman in the world.”
As the coffin was brought into Westminster Hall, the crowd dissolved away with contented smiles. Death comes to us all, commoner and Queen, however blessed and glorious. But there is reassurance to be had in ritual, especially when executed with such precision and grace. There is also solace to be had in recalling that a few months ago the Mall was packed with well-wishers who had come out to mark her Platinum Jubilee and enjoy the festivities.
Back in June, Her Majesty was visibly frail but her smiles of delight at the extraordinary scenes of loyalty and love lit up the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
And so as she lies in state and her subjects file past, night and day, honouring her in death, we can be comforted that our late, great Queen was in no doubt about just how much she meant to us in life.