Queen’s coffin to lie in state in keeping with historic tradition

·6-min read

The Queen’s coffin is set to lie in state to allow the public to pay their last respects.

Lying in state is usually reserved for sovereigns, current or past queen consorts, and sometimes former prime ministers.

During the formal occasion, the closed coffin is placed on view in the vast, medieval Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster.

The Queen wearing the Imperial State Crown
The Queen is expected to lie in state with the Imperial State Crown placed on her coffin (PA)

The historic spectacle is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of people.
The Queen’s death in Scotland means there could possibly be a second mini lying in state, most likely in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, which would allow the public to honour the monarch.

Contingency plans put in place in case the Queen died during the pandemic are believed to have included ticketing of the main lying in state, possibly in timed slots – an option which could still be employed.

The Duke of Edinburgh did not lie in state, which was in accordance with his wishes, but, at this point in the Covid-19 crisis, such mass gatherings were also against the law.

Queen Mother’s Death Procession
Crowds of mourners queue to file past the coffin of the Queen Mother in 2002 (Phil Noble/PA)

In the days leading up to the funeral, members of the public will file slowly past to pay their respects in sombre silence.

For a royal lying in state, the coffin is draped in a royal flag, usually a personal standard, and rests on a catafalque – a raised platform covered with a purple cloth, flanked by a military guard around the clock.

A priceless crown and other regalia are traditionally placed on top of a sovereign’s coffin.

Each corner of the platform is watched 24 hours a day by units from the Sovereign’s Bodyguard, Foot Guards or the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment.

The last person to lie in state in the UK was the Queen Mother in 2002.

On top of her coffin in Westminster Hall was her coronation crown, set with the Koh-i-Noor diamond, and a hand-written message from her daughter, the Queen, reading: “In loving memory, Lilibet”.

The Queen's message to her mother
A message from Queen Elizabeth sits on top of the coffin of her mother, the Queen Mother (Toby Melville/PA)

An estimated 200,000 people turned out to pay their respects over three days.

It was the first lying in state where members of the public were subjected to a security check, which slowed the movement of the mourners.

At their longest, queues stretched across Lambeth Bridge and all the way along the South Bank to Southwark Cathedral, with people being warned to expect a wait of up to 12 hours at peak times.

Police were drafted in to deal with the security, large crowds and road closures.

Such were the numbers of people waiting that Scout volunteers were called in to help out and the London Ambulance Service issued warnings to people to wrap up warm and take a hot drink.

The public wait to view the Queen Mother's coffin
The queue to view the coffin of the Queen Mother in 2002 doubled back on itself all along the South Bank between Westminster and Lambeth Bridges (Ben Curtis/PA)

The tradition of lying in state stretches back to the 17th century when Stuart sovereigns lay in state for a number of days.

Edward VII set the modern tradition of royal lying in state in Westminster Hall.

He lay in state in 1910, as did King George V in 1936 and King George VI in 1952.

George VI – the Queen’s father – was the last sovereign before Elizabeth II to die.

On top of his coffin, from the Crown Jewels, lay the Imperial State Crown, the Orb, and Sceptre.

More than 300,000 people queued day and night in bitter, frosty conditions to say their final goodbyes to the king.

Queen Victoria requested that she should not lie in state.

When she died at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight in 1901, a semi-private lying in state was arranged for three days to allow Victoria’s servants and friends to pay their respects.

Two prime ministers – William Gladstone in 1898 and Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 – also lay in state at Westminster Hall, attracting hundreds of thousands of people.

Westminster Hall during Churchill's lying in state
Members of the public file through Westminster Hall to pay their respects to Sir Winston Churchill (PA)

Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, insisted she did not want to lie in state, saying that it would not be “appropriate”.

Just like the Queen Mother, Queen Mary, the wife of King George V, also lay in state when she died in 1953.

The widow of Edward VII, Queen Alexandra, lay in state in 1925, but in Westminster Abbey, not Westminster Hall.

There was even a lying in state for the abdicated Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, who lay in state for two days in the nave of St George’s Chapel when he died in 1972. Some 58,000 people turned out to see his coffin.

But there was no lying in state for Diana, Princess of Wales, who was not an HRH when she died, nor a sovereign’s consort.

In 1930, there was an unusual lying in state in Westminster Hall for the victims of the R101 Airship disaster.

The experimental rigid British airship caught fire as it crossed northern France, killing 48 of the 54 people on board.

The House of Commons was in recess at the time, and the decision to arrange the lying in state for the 48 coffins seems to have been taken by the King, George V, on the advice of ministers.

It is likely that the Queen’s children or even grandchildren will honour her with a vigil and join the guard over the coffin at some point – a tradition which has been called the Vigil of the Princes.

This has happened on two occasions.

The Queen Mother’s four grandsons – the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, the Earl of Wessex and Viscount Linley, now the Earl of Snowdon – stood guard over her coffin in her honour in 2002 as people continued to walk through Westminster Hall.

The vigil
The Prince of Wales stands vigil beside the Queen Mother’s coffin while it lies in state at Westminster Hall in London in 2002 (PA)

King George V’s sons – Edward VIII, the Duke of York (later George VI), Henry, Duke of Gloucester and George, Duke of Kent – carried out the first such tribute in 1936 for their father, late in the evening on the final night of his lying in state.

The vigil has so far only been carried out by male members of the family.

There was no such vigil for George VI – when he died, he had two daughters and his grandchildren were very young.

Should the Princess Royal stand guard for the Queen, she will be the first female member of the royal family to do so.

Westminster Hall, which dates back to 1099, is the oldest part of the parliamentary estate and forms part of the Westminster Unesco World Heritage Site.

The building has been the site of key events throughout history, such as the trial of Charles I, coronation banquets, and addresses by world leaders.