LONDON — They came in droves to central London, arriving before dawn and flocking to blockaded streets. Some had camped overnight. Others made hourslong journeys in the darkness to score a prime location for the royal spectacle.
They stood on stepladders, or scaled mailboxes, or huddled before giant screens in Hyde Park to get the best view they could of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.
“I needed to say my final goodbye,” said Beny Hamedi, 55, who clutched a photo of the queen. “And I think it will be a moment no one will ever forget.”
The 11 days since Queen Elizabeth’s II died at the age of 96 have been a coordinated exercise in public grief as Britain comes to terms with the loss of its longest-serving monarch.
The vigils that have popped up on the streets and in parks, the serpentine queue to see her coffin lying in state, the cross-country travel for royal commemorations — they have all been a way to bid farewell to a woman many viewed as family, people said time and again.
But in some ways, the days of ceremonies have also been a moment for Britons to reinforce their national sense of identity. And they have provided a much-needed distraction from a frightening cost-of-living crisis and a period of political turmoil that have dominated the national agenda for months.
Perhaps nowhere were those sentiments felt more fully than in the crowds that gathered in and around central London to see the procession that followed the queen’s state funeral in nearby Westminster Abbey.
“We are never going to see a queen again in our lifetime,” said Melissa Hackett, 28, who had traveled with a friend from her home in Doncaster in northern England on Sunday, referring to the line of succession. The queen’s eldest son is now King Charles III. His son William is second in line, followed by his own eldest son, George.
Outside the long stretches of barricades that blocked off much of the area around the parade route from the still arriving crowd, hawkers sold homemade programs and small Union Jack flags.
Some Key Moments in Queen Elizabeth’s Reign
Becoming queen. Following the death of King George VI, Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary ascended to the throne on Feb. 6, 1952, at age 25. The coronation of the newly minted Queen Elizabeth II took place on June 2 the following year.
A historic visit. On May 18, 1965, Elizabeth arrived in Bonn on the first state visit by a British monarch to Germany in more than 50 years. The trip formally sealed the reconciliation between the two nations following the world wars.
First grandchild. In 1977, the queen stepped into the role of grandmother for the first time, after Princess Anne gave birth to a son, Peter. Elizabeth’s four children have given her a total of eight grandchildren, who have been followed by several great-grandchildren.
Princess Diana’s death. In a rare televised broadcast ahead of Diana’s funeral in 1997, Queen Elizabeth remembered the Princess of Wales, who died in a car crash in Paris at age 36, as “an exceptional and gifted human being.”
Golden jubilee. In 2002, celebrations to mark Elizabeth II’s 50 years as queen culminated in a star-studded concert at Buckingham Palace in the presence of 12,000 cheering guests, with an estimated one million more watching on giant screens set up around London.
A trip to Ireland. In May 2011, the queen visited the Irish Republic, whose troubled relationship with the British monarchy spanned centuries. The trip, infused with powerful symbols of reconciliation, is considered one of the most politically freighted trips of Elizabeth’s reign.
Breaking a record. As of 5:30 p.m. British time on Sept. 9, 2015, Elizabeth II became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, surpassing Queen Victoria, her great-great-grandmother. Elizabeth was 89 at the time, and had ruled for 23,226 days, 16 hours and about 30 minutes.
Marking 70 years of marriage. On Nov. 20, 2017, the queen and Prince Philip celebrated their 70th anniversary, becoming the longest-married couple in royal history. The two wed in 1947, as the country and the world was still reeling from the atrocities of World War II.
Losing her spouse. In 2021, Queen Elizabeth II bade farewell to Prince Philip, who died on April 9. An image of the queen grieving alone at the funeral amid coronavirus restrictions struck a chord with viewers at home following the event.
Public viewing areas were set up in parks in London and other cities, and people propped up camping chairs, laid out blankets, and erected small step stools to see over the people in front of them. But the early festival-like atmosphere became somber when the funeral service began and video was beamed from Westminster Abbey.
Anna Stubbens, 29, a doctor in London, said she went to Hyde Park to watch the day’s events on big screens “because it would have been so sad to miss it.” She said she thought of bringing a bottle of champagne, but her fiancé convinced her to leave it. “He said it would be inappropriate,” she said.
Those fortunate enough to secure a spot along the procession route settled in for the wait. Some visitors, navigating the chaos of an unfamiliar city, found themselves shunted toward random sections of Hyde Park where tens of thousands watched the service together on the large screens. Many brought food or bought sausages or fish and chips from several food trucks installed for the occasion.
“I have cried my eyes out all the way through,” said Jess Parson, 36,wrapped in a Union Jack. “They don’t make them like her anymore. She was a one-off.”
The crowd grew hushed as the first chords of a hymn from the funeral echoed out over speakers lining the Mall, the road that runs from Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square.
One group of women, leaning on metal barricades, clasped their hands as if in prayer. Another woman wept as she sang along with a choir to a hymn that had been part of Elizabeth’s wedding to Philip in 1947, as princess and prince.
Others crossed their arms, hugging themselves against the cold.
At the end of the ceremony, as two minutes of silence were held, people in the crowd bowed their heads. Children held the hands of their parents. One mother draped her arm over her small son’s shoulder.
Enid Reade, 80, and her daughter Ellen Reade, 43, from Lancashire, were among those quietly listening to the hymns filtering out of speakers in Hyde Park.
“I’m old enough to remember her promise to the people that she would serve us whether her life was short or long,” the elder Ms. Reade said, referencing a speech the queen gave when she was 21. “I just want to be here.”
The funeral gave way to the splendor of a large military procession as the queen’s coffin was moved from Westminster Abbey up the Mall. And the sun made an appearance as brass bands played mournful dirges.
As the queen’s coffin — followed closely by the royal family, led by King Charles — passed by, the only noise was the distant thump of drumbeats and the clomp of horses’ hooves. Then, amid the silent march, from one side of the crowd on Horse Guards Road, a single male voice shouted out, “God bless the queen,” as her coffin rolled past.
Members of the military in the crowd saluted their one-time commander in chief as the queen’s coffin passed by. Jeff McNally, 63, wore a medal he was awarded in the 1970s, when he served in the Royal Artillery, with Queen Elizabeth’s face on it.
“I want to say goodbye to my boss,” he said. “Prime ministers come and go, but she has been the one constant thing in my life.”
At the end of the march down the Mall, which had played host to so many of the major ceremonial moments of Queen Elizabeth’s life, her coffin was transferred from the gun carriage to a hearse for a 25-mile trip to Windsor Castle. It gave Londoners another opportunity to catch a final glimpse of the monarch before her reign was relegated to history.
Those who couldn’t get a spot at the edge of the pavement as the queen’s hearse drove by scrambled up railings and climbed atop post boxes to get a better look.
“You’ll wait for a brief moment — but that moment lasts forever,” said Andrew Lucas, about the hours spent waiting for the coffin to pass by.
Mourners also lined roadways to see the hearse roll past. The sky above Hounslow in West London fell unusually quiet during the procession, a rarity for local residents living under the flight path of Heathrow Airport, one of the busiest in the world. The airport said on Thursday that it has rescheduled flights “out of respect” for the queen to ensure the flight path remained quiet over London and Windsor during the ceremony.
After the procession passed through one west London neighborhood, the crowd quickly dispersed, and children emerged into the street to play soccer — relishing the unusually empty roads. Street sweepers donned their coveralls, spreading out to pick up discarded bouquets and trash that had been left behind.
As the crowds filtered out from the city center, many were reflective or took stock of the event.
“I wasn’t interested in seeing the rest of the family, but I was always transfixed by the queen,” said Fiona Russell, 53.
The days since the queen’s death had seen much of the rest of the country similarly transfixed,said Robert Scott, also 53. But “the focus once the dust settles this week will be on everything else,” he said.
“This whole thing has been a massive distraction,” he said, noting Britain’s political tumult and economic woes. “And I think some leading politicians were probably very relieved.”
Emma Bubola, Isabella Kwai and Euan Ward contributed reporting from London.