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

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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, gathered to pay their respects to Her Majesty on Friday afternoon.

Crowds gather outside Buckingham Palace, the Queen's London residence, to pay their respects to the former monarch.
Crowds gather outside Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s London residence, to pay their respects to the former monarch. © Tom Wheeldon, FRANCE 24

‘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 King Charles III written down, referring to the monarch as His Majesty the King, to sing the national anthem God Save the Queen, 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. 

Londoners Charlie and Charlotte pay their respects outside Buckingham Palace before going to see the gun salute in Hyde Park, September 9, 2022.
Londoners Charlie and Charlotte pay their respects outside Buckingham Palace before going to see the gun salute in Hyde Park, September 9, 2022. © Tom Wheeldon, FRANCE 24

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 her 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 Her Majesty’s 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 made it look like she was parachuting into the London Olympics opening ceremony with 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 so 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.’”

People hug in sorrow outside Buckingham Palace.
People hug in sorrow outside Buckingham Palace. © Tom Wheeldon, FRANCE 24

‘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 Majesty’s passing means “something is broken” linking the past to the present; 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”, said Sardinia-native and London-resident Andrea. 

He expressed great appreciation of Her Majesty’s bond with the British people: “She wasn’t just a Queen; she was very close to the people,” Andrea put it. “She spoke to people alla pancia [an Italian expression translating literally as “to their stomachs” – meaning she stirred a deep emotional resonance]. 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 Her Majesty’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 so much about the crowd’s emotions – a feeling of shock that she 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 upset 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!”

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