London: It was the silence that spoke loudest as the endless line shuffled through the 920-year-old Westminster Hall, its great emptiness soaring to an oaken hammer-beam roof so vast and beautiful it renders tiny and awestruck those who venture beneath it.
No one spoke. Even the footfall of thousands of feet was muffled by a carpet laid upon the flagstones of the hall.
Silently, too, ushers in morning suits – and here, surely, we should revert to the old name, mourning suits – beckoned the shufflers to keep moving, for many wanted to stop and bow or even curtsy to the coffin beneath its jewelled crown.
They had walked, these thousands, through a cold night and into a morning, stopping and starting, stringing out and bunching up, for drawn-out kilometres along both the south and north banks of the River Thames.
Of course they wanted to stand, however briefly, before the object of their pilgrimage, the coffin of their late Queen, Elizabeth II.
But the line could not be allowed to stop, for there were tens of thousands, and likely hundreds of thousands, yet to come.
The queue began last Wednesday evening, plodding through four days, 24 hours a day. The lying-in-state ends at 6.30am on Monday (3.30pm AEST), when the coffin will be removed to nearby Westminster Abbey for the Queen’s funeral, which begins at 11am.
But such were the numbers wanting to view the coffin that on Sunday morning, the British government issued a plea that no more people set off from home to join the line, because they would not reach Westminster Hall before its Monday morning closure.
Varying reports suggested the numbers of queuers were somewhere between 400,000 and 750,000.
They wore anoraks and sneakers and carried from their shoulders backpacks of snacks and extra sweaters. Here and there the elderly leant on walking sticks, and an occasional child tottered along. Dazed.
These then, were the Queen’s people.
They seemed almost a throwback to another age.
Britain’s Dunkirk Generation is all but gone, but not, it seems, the patient resoluteness.
A night and half a day on your feet in the open, even if London is having an extended late summer, is not something to be approached lightly.
In a nation where many, at least in stereotype, seem most comfortable disappearing behind a newspaper or a book to avoid catching the eye of a fellow passenger on a train or heaven forbid, being drawn into conversation with a stranger, the long queue for the Queen’s lying-in-state transformed into a community of amiable chatter, a river of strangers sharing drinks, spare jackets and neighbourly hands to those who might falter.
Here was a comradely, overwhelmingly good-humoured people’s farewell to a Queen who reigned for 70 years.
It would happen only once in a lifetime, of course.
The medieval splendour of the ceremonial guard around the coffin greeted each walker as they entered the great hall, the morning light rendered sublime by a wall of 1,500 separate pieces of stained glass memorialising the late Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
At its heart, it is spectacle that gives the British monarchy its continuing allure. In these times when empire is a distant memory, spectacle and tradition are the necessary ingredients of what remains.
There, surrounding the coffin, were the Gentlemen at Arms, swans’ plumes cascading from their helmets and battle axes affixed to their staves. And The King’s Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard, popularly called Beefeaters, all heavy scarlet and gold frockcoats and garters atop scarlet hosiery. The Queen’s (now King’s) Guard stood still as statues, bearskin helmets jammed down around their eyes. Swords at the ready.
Every 20 minutes came the sharp crack of an officer’s metal staff on ancient stone, once, twice, signalling the changing of the guard at slow march.
Occasionally, guests of the United Kingdom were ushered in to join the line within the hall. Each simply became another shuffler, unheralded and largely unnoticed by those who had suffered their way through the long hours to reach this point.
Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, his partner Jodie Haydon, Governor-General David Hurley and his wife Linda Hurley, in London for the Queen’s funeral, were among those who came.
Albanese declared later: “Walking through Westminster Hall for the lying-in-state was an incredibly moving experience. Her majesty Queen Elizabeth II meant so much to so many. The raw emotion of those attending to pay their respects made this moment one I will never forget.”
Yes. And that steadfast silence of a determined people.
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