I sat down last week to write a tribute to Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and to date have produced eight pages of largely half-written paragraphs, which are in no particular order and have yet to suggest a particular order to me. I had wanted the piece to be posted in time for Her Majesty’s funeral today, but there is no way that anything of substance will emerge from what I have by that self-set deadline.
That longer measured look back at the reign of one of my favorite historic figures of all time will thus have to wait a few more days before it is ready. I still wanted to post a tribute in time for Her Majesty’s last duty of state, whence the piece you’re currently reading.
I write it as an American, so she wasn’t exactly my Queen, although I also write it as an unabashed anglophile, so Her Majesty can perhaps be styled my Queen-by-adoption. I’ve noticed that I have been feeling the loss of Her Majesty quite a bit more strongly than the other Americans of my acquaintance. Although actually flying to London for the lying-in-state wasn’t anywhere near possible, I have been experiencing a wish that I could have been there to pay my final respects. That is no doubt why I have had trouble tearing myself away from the lTV livestream of the lying-in-state in Westminster Hall.
Westminster Hall has stood for over a millennium: built by William II in 1097, it is the size of four cricket pitches, or 240 feet by 67. Its hammer beam roof, added in the fourteenth century, remains a marvel of medieval engineering, and is a wooden equivalent of the exquisite stone fan vaulting in the Henry VII Chapel across the street. Over the centuries, the hall has seen more than its fair share of British history. Coronation banquets and court entertainments were held there; the law courts sat there; both Guy Fawkes and Charles I were put on trial there, and it was there that Cromwell had himself proclaimed Lord Protector (borrowing the Coronation Chair from nearby Westminster Abbey for the event.)
More recently, the Hall (which continues to form a working part of the complex of the Houses of Parliament) has been used for lyings-in-state. George VI and Queen Mary lay in state there, as did Churchill, and, more recently, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. As the history of the Hall continues to be written, I do not doubt that the five days’ lying-in-state of Queen Elizabeth II will appear in it in capital letters, and, thanks to the wonders of the Internet and YouTube, I was able to watch it all. I didn’t sit glued to my computer for the full five days, but I did check in on the proceedings regularly.
Those images of Westminster Hall have been, not only fascinating, but deeply moving as well. Quietness and decorum are remarkably maintained. The official instructions for paying respects to Her Majesty specify that one must remain silent while in Westminster Hall. Cell phones, cameras and food and drink are all not permitted, and that plays an important role in keeping the mood of solemnity that such an occasion requires. The lying-in-state of the longest-reigning monarch in British history is not an occasion for selfies in front of the catafalque.
There are, of course, the stationary television cameras, planted decorously and operated (I believe) by remote, so as not to intrude too much on people’s long-awaited chance to bid farewell to their Sovereign Lady. They are, however, the only means so many of us have of participating in the event. I suppose the cameras intrude on people’s private grief, but the filing past at a lying-in-state does rather render that grief public anyway. You have to pay your respects in a crowd, although there is, conversely, something meaningful to sharing your grief. Those who are able to be in Westminster Hall certainly know they’re not alone. We all have our personal experiences of The Queen, but we also have the shared experience of Her Majesty, and the scene in Westminster Hall combines both, perhaps never more so than when members of the royal family (first Her Majesty’s four children, then her eight grandchildren the next evening) joined those filing past the coffin in silent vigil.
The mourners came in all shapes and sizes, from young children who somehow managed to wait patiently for hour upon boring hour, to older people in wheelchairs who may have been among the few who remembered George VI. (There was a line for those requiring special assistance. Significantly, it was “sold out” by Friday evening.) The livestream revealed a cross-section of today’s UK, from young women with pink hair to buttoned-down men in business suits. Some people wore black for the occasion, most were “comfortably” dressed in trainers and layers, understandable given the rigors of queuing in London’s changing elements for hours on end.
The other actors upon the scene were the immobile guard of honor, twenty-minute shifts of the combined Gentlemen at Arms, the Yeomen of the Guard, the Royal Company of Archers, and, of course, the instantly recognizable Queen’s Company Grenadier Guards in their bearskin hats. Although one of the Archers collapsed rather alarmingly at one point, the ability of these men (many of whom are visibly no longer young) to stand stock-still for twenty minutes at a clip is remarkable, and the atmosphere in Westminster Hall owes a great deal to them.
Individual mourners, some of whom waited in the queue for longer than 24 hours, react differently. Some just file by, paying their respects by their own actes de présence, and, very likely, viewing the draped coffin, crown, orb and scepter to make real the fact that this Queen – who has been the only queen the overwhelming majority of Britons has ever known – really has left us. Then there are those who stop and pause briefly (there are stewards aplenty to make sure that the line keeps moving, although, from what I’ve seen, they, too, have been paragons of tact.) A great many of those who stop bow. A small number of ladies curtsey. Some of the more believing among the High Church Anglicans and Roman Catholics make the sign of the Cross. The Hindus in the crowd assume the Namaste pose. Ex-military, often in berets and sporting medals, salute the leader of the armed forces smartly. Some of those passing the catafalque are visibly choked up, whilst a few are in tears and require handkerchiefs. But perhaps the reaction I found the most moving was one woman who first curtseyed, and, then, as she was walking away, blew a kiss. No, it wasn’t exactly following protocol upon meeting the Sovereign, but it demonstrated something that the curtsey couldn’t. Yes, we all respected and honored and revered The Queen…but we also loved her. (That woman wasn’t the only to have blown a kiss. I even saw one man do so after offering his bow.)
Watching the mourners file by, I’ve been asking myself what I would do were I fortunate enough to get the chance to be in Westminster Hall to pay my own respects. (I much doubt that I’d have been the only non-British subject in the queue.) I decided that I would stop, bow, and think “goodbye and thank you.” I doubt that I’d blow a kiss, although perhaps I might have, had the actual moment presented itself. I can certainly understand those who did.
Few of those filing by the catafalque could have known Her Majesty personally. I certainly never had the honor (nor the pleasure) of meeting her. Still, part of the magic of Queen Elizabeth II is the way in which she made us all rather feel as though we knew her. There was a lot about The Queen to which we could relate: she was the head of a family that was in no way short of its own dramas and disappointments, she was a devoted dog owner, and she enjoyed afternoon tea, especially (as it came out for her Platinum Jubilee) with Paddington Bear. For these and other reasons, even though I’ll admit a certain amount of projection is involved, we felt that we knew and, yes, understood her – just as she seemed to know and understand us. Yes, she was The Queen who appeared in full royal trappings on state occasions, and she was revered accordingly. But she was also very much a person we loved. The seemingly never-ending lines of people filing through Westminster Hall testify to both aspects of the late monarch.
Do we appreciate fully that we’ve come to the end of an era? Probably not. We’re going to need to sit with that as we get used to living in the new Caroline era. What I think we can all appreciate now is that we have lost a both a beloved public figure, probably the most beloved public figure in the free world, and, yes, a beloved friend. Those of us who like to keep our royal titles straight keep tripping over our tongues and saying “Prince Charles”, partly because he was a prince for even longer than The Queen reigned, and partly because I think we still can’t believe she’s gone. Yes, she was 96, and her health was not what it had once been, but I think a lot of us felt she would go on forever. For me, there’s never not been a Queen Elizabeth II, and she will indeed be sorely missed from this corner of America.
We’ll certainly never see her like again.