‘A mother figure to us all’: Shock and sorrow as crowds grieve for queen

·5-min read
© Tom Wheeldon, France 24

Crowds gathered in the rain outside Buckingham Palace on Friday to mourn Queen Elizabeth II amid shock that a reign lasting seven decades had finally drawn to a close.

They had travelled from all over the country to pay their respects: some stood outside the palace with tears rolling down their faces, couples hugged as they observed the Union Jack flying at half-mast, others laid flowers down in such vast piles that police soon demanded they take them to Green Park.

A day after her death on Thursday after seven decades on the throne, a sense of shock and grief was palpable in the crowds massed around Buckingham Palace who had gathered to pay their respects to Her Majesty on Friday afternoon.

‘Instantly historic’

Young Londoners Charlotte and Charlie were on their way to Hyde Park for the gun salute as they passed through the teeming crowd near the piles of flowers gathered outside the queen’s official London residence.

The news of the death of the queen, who had come to symbolise a beacon of constancy after seven decades on the throne, had come as a shock.

“She’s someone who’s been in all of our lives – and all of our parents’ lives as well. We can’t believe that it’s an end of an era,” Charlotte said. It is going to “take a long time" to get used to seeing references to King Charles III or referring to the monarch as His Majesty the king, or to sing the amended national anthem, "God Save the King", Charlotte continued.

“It feels instantly historic,” Charlie added. “There really is a sense that we’ve lost that link to a long time ago – to the Second World War – and that link, that continuity with that period is now gone.”

“I felt that she was the overall mother figure for all of us, and it felt safe under her,” Charlotte concluded.

As the crowd shared their memories of, and deep affection for, the queen – the subdued chatter only turned to silence at 1pm as the 96 gun cannons sounded from Hyde Park to mark each year of the Queen’s extraordinary life.

Those in the crowd remembered her for her constancy, decency, commitment to family and church, and as a woman who exemplified the easily deployed British saying: “Keep calm and carry on.”

That unflappable sense of duty was at the fore of the qualities cited by mourners. “She carried on doing her duty until she was 96; two days before she died,” noted Ed Cotterell, who arrived outside the palace wearing a queen T-shirt, in homage to the iconic moment when the eponymous British band’s Brian May played "God Save the Queen" on the guitar on the palace roof for Golden Jubilee in 2002.

“And she had a sense of humour; she managed to have fun while carrying out her duty, as we saw in 2012 (when she took part in a video that made it seem like she was parachuting into the London Olympics opening ceremony with Daniel Craig as James Bond) and at her Platinum Jubilee, in that moment with Paddington Bear,” Cotterell continued.

A yearning to express gratitude for the queen’s qualities as a human being animated many in the crowd.

“Coming to show our sadness and our gratitude for everything she did is a beautiful way of saying goodbye,” said Katie, a young woman who came to the palace with a friend and her mother, who travelled down from the Midlands.

“It was so sudden, her death – we felt like she’d always be with us,” Katie said, who was all too aware that she was witnessing a pivotal moment in British history. “We also came for the historical nature of the moment. She was important for so many different generations. We can say years later: 'I was there'.”

‘Not just a queen’

But it was not just Brits who converged at the front of Buckingham Palace, forming crowds spilling out into the grand streets and parks surrounding the monarch’s London home.

Her passing means “something is broken” in linking the past to the present," said Sardinia native and London-resident Andrea. The queen who served on the British home front in the fight against Nazism “represented the memory of the Second World War, and that’s why this Italian is here”.

He expressed great appreciation of the monarch's bond with the British people: “She wasn’t just a queen; she was very close to the people,” as Andrea put it. “She spoke to people alla pancia (an Italian expression translating literally as “to their stomachs” – meaning she stirred people emotionally). She was able to do that with a joke, or even just with her presence.”

Nearby in the troupe of mourners, a German family on a trip to London said the only option for them was to join the crowds at the palace, such was the grief they felt upon hearing the news of the queen's passing on Wednesday.

“We are so sad,” said the mother of the family, her voice trembling with emotion.

“The queen was a rock,” she concluded. “She never faltered in the face of all sorts of tumult. She commands respect.”

This use of the present tense summed up much about the crowd’s emotion – and the lingering feelings of shock that the queen was no longer there.

But as the afternoon weather grew sunnier after the morning rain, people tracked the rolling news feeds showing King Charles III’s car heading to London.

For all their sadness at the queen’s passing – and however surreal it might feel to think of a king on the British throne once more – mourners cried out with full-throated support for the future monarch: “God save the king!”