London was transformed Monday into a pageant of both mourning and celebration.
Endless rows of Union Jacks. Acres of red Beefeater uniforms. Forests of raised arms with cellphones snapping and filming. Flowers everywhere, whether laid in neat piles or pelting the black Jaguar hearse as it glided through town.
All to celebrate the final moments in the storied life of Queen Elizabeth II. A woman who made history. A woman who – in dying at age 96 after 70 years on the throne – was history.
The spectacle of it all was breathtaking. The crisply dressed military men and women in uniform with their gleaming epaulets; the impeccably behaved and beautifully groomed horses; the traditional gun carriage that carried the queen’s father and grandfather, both kings, before her.
And on the coffin, iconic symbols of controversial British power: A monarch’s scepter, an orb signifying God’s dominion over the Earth, and the Imperial State Crown with its nearly 3,000 sparkling diamonds.
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For once, this cacophonous global capital was reverently quiet. Often the loudest sound along the funeral procession route was that of hoofbeats. In a country and a world that so often lacks unity, there seemed to be nothing but.
Many Londoners wore black. They lined streets and filled parks with decorum. There was a sense of shared allegiance in the air, if not to a royal institution than to a beloved figure.
“It was nice to pay tribute for everything she’s done for the country,” said Thomas Gregory of Derby in typically understated British fashion, who along with his bulldog, Tink, had joined thousands watching the ceremonies on a large screen in Hyde Park just a couple of miles from Westminster Hall, where the queen’s body had been lying in state.
As perhaps expected, there was little sobbing or hysterics on display. This is England, after all. But the stiff upper lip was quivering.
In one moment caught by photographers, Princess Charlotte, 7, daughter of Prince William, the heir to the throne, and Princess Kate, started to cry. The picture spoke for many.
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Over roughly six hours, from the start of the queen’s funeral service at London’s Westminster Abbey around 11 a.m. local time until the solemn lowering of her casket beneath the floor of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, thousands of Britons and billions of television viewers around the globe took in scenes out of a storybook.
The event drew a panoply of VIPs, from President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden to former British prime ministers and leaders of various British Commonwealth nations.
But all eyes were on the queen’s immediate family, from Prince Harry and his wife, Duchess Meghan, who exited royal service to live in the United States, to the newly minted and very much in mourning King Charles III. He left a handwritten note on his mother’s coffin reading “In loving and devoted memory,” signed Charles R, for “Rex,” Latin for king.
The event was at once ceremonially ancient and unavoidably modern. And in a testament to this queen’s unflaggingly steady reign, it also was unusually personal for a range of generations, despite the intensifying debate over the need for monarchs in the 21st century.
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“Lizzy was fab. We liked Lizzy,” said Chanelle Tollervey of Hertfordshire. “My nan (grandmother) was devastated.”
She and her friend Lucy Hartnell, both 26, organized a viewing party picnic in Hyde Park, featuring what they assumed were the queen’s favorites: strawberries, cucumber sandwiches and cupcakes.
Tollervey summed up a nation’s mood in the simplest of terms, noting how truly strange the substitution of one simple word can be: “Singing ‘God Save the King’ is going to be weird.”
Hyde Park attendees grew silent as the service began to air on three large screens. Many viewers stood for the service’s choral elements.
Nearly every person wore black or bore a British flag. As “God Save the King” began, people sang as the skies parted and a bright sun split the gray clouds.
After the funeral ceremony ended, people raced to park exits amid cannon blasts so they could catch a glimpse of the procession carrying the queen’s coffin to Windsor. Many waited for nearly an hour for the motorcade to make its way from the abbey to the park, and in their exuberance at one point spontaneously broke into another chorus of “God Save the King.”
When the queen’s hearse finally drove swiftly by, the crowd clapped and cheered.
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Pomp and circumstance abounded in a way not seen the state funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965. But in contrast to all that were countless 2022 touches.
Beyond the ubiquitous smartphones, there were plenty of mourners lining the route dressed in shorts and T-shirts, a striking contrast to the almost blinding uniforms of those accompanying the body.
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A viral moment was born out of the funeral service, when a bishop accidentally dropped a piece of paper and it found its way to the middle of Westminster Abbey. Tweeted @nickswhite, “Impressive work under pressure by the bishop who, having dropped a piece of paper which landed right in camera shot of the coffin, 5 mins later had managed to retrieve it out of shot.”
And ultimately, there was the televised nature of the more intimate details of the ceremony itself: No one but invited guests – typically limited to family, close friends and members of state – had ever been allowed to view a monarch’s committal service. Sharing that normally private event had a way of making you feel as if everyone’s grandmother had died.
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But for some of those who turned up in person to salute their queen, conclusions had not yet been reached on how to feel about the next chapter of the monarchy.
Elyas Hussein, 45, who traveled 125 miles from Birmingham to watch the funeral on the big screen in Hyde Park, had “mixed emotions” watching the ceremony.
“She represented the Commonwealth,” he said, a collective of nations once part of an empire that was tightly and often brutally controlled by the Great Britain.
Hussein said his father served in the British Army’s Pakistan regiment, and both his uncles also served in the British Army. He expressed optimism about Charles, who is likely to streamline and perhaps refocus royal responsibilities as king.
“I think King Charles will emulate his mother,” he said. “He’s done a lot for young people with The Prince’s Trust,” referring to Charles’ charity, which helps youths get jobs and education.
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In the end, the finality of it all was inescapable.
Not only had Britain lost a monarch whose long reign may never be equaled, but the Windsor family had lost a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who by all accounts cared deeply for her family throughout countless scandals, upheavals and deaths.
Among the most poignant images appeared as the queen’s coffin was driven up the long sloped driveway to the entrance of her beloved Windsor Castle, a place she most considered home.
As the hearse made its way to the entrance, a riderless black pony stood almost at attention, next to a handler with bowed head. This was the queen’s Fell pony Emma, one of many horses she doted on during a lifetime of devotion to those regal animals.
And then up the road stood two dogs, both looking calm if perhaps a bit lost. Sandy and Muick, the queen’s corgis, just two of the dozens she had owned.
The queen was, once again, home, if now only in spirit.
As the committal service replete with sung hymns and liturgical readings wound down, there came a moment of marked transition. Crown jeweler Mark Appleby approached the coffin and carefully removed the scepter, orb and crown, which will be used in Charles’ coronation sometime next year.
Then, almost imperceptibly, the coffin lowered into the floor of the church. A bagpiper began to play. The last British queen for likely many generations to come went to her eternal rest, alongside her mother, father and sister.
On June 2, 1953, the Archbishop of Canterbury turned to a 26-year-old Elizabeth, newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II, and in a nod to her Church of England faith that would sustain her throughout her life, said, “May she be filled with thine abundant grace and princely virtues.”
For many Britons and admirers around the world, Queen Elizabeth embodied that 70-year-old wish.
Contributing from London: Kim Hjelmgaard, Jane Onyanga-Omara and Nicole Fallert, USA TODAY
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London was transformed Monday into a pageant of both mourning and celebration.