Not even lobby passes allow entry into Westminster these days, however, not with the Queen’s coffin in state. One could join the mile-long queue and wait for hours, as football star David Beckham did with hundreds of thousands of others. “I thought coming at 2 a.m. it was going to be a little quieter,” he told ITV News. “I was wrong.”
I applied for a press slot. I had 2 a.m. on Saturday. A taxi dropped me off near MI5, the Counterintelligence and Homeland Security Service, a short walk from the Media Gate in Victoria Tower Gardens.
I have been in the field several times. It was different.
Westminster Hall is the oldest structure on the estate, the scene of royal banquets and the trials of King Charles I (beheaded), Guy Fawkes (hanged) and Sir Thomas More (beheaded). It was built in 1097 by the son of William the Conqueror, and these stones are still standing. The hammer-beam roof, commissioned in 1393, has been called “the greatest creation of medieval wooden architecture”. It spans a width of 67 feet, with no supporting pillars.
The shafts of these beams were cut from royal woods, transported to London by barge and cart. They are now adorned with angels with wings and shields. At the top of the stone walls are carved stags, with chains around their necks.
It is a marvel of engineering, of history, of design, of art. And there, under that roof, I looked.
People kept coming. Government and palace officials were stunned by the numbers, a 24/7 procession is expected to last until the Queen’s funeral on Monday morning at Westminster Abbey.
They walked in, down the steps and stopped in front of the queen’s closed coffin, which rests on a raised platform, known as the catafalque.
At the top of the coffin, on a purple pillow, rests the crown.
Candles were burning, but the room was not lit by candlelight. It was clear as a train station. Most remarkable: calm and solemnity.
The public is not allowed to photograph, so there were no hands raised with smartphones. No selfies, no Instagram snaps, no Facebook Live.
People came wrapped in scarves, swaddled in down jackets because of the night cold. Some were dressed in funeral black and a few men wore formal jackets with waistcoats. A woman was wearing what appeared to be a beaded evening dress.
At the coffin they stopped. For a few seconds, but no longer. Some made the sign of the cross. I watched the mourners move their lips, in prayer, in thanks, or in remembrance. Others bowed, a hollow of the head, or very deeply, from the waist.
Two people responded to an intelligent military salute.
There were older men, with regimental berets and medals on their chests from past service. There were people with canes or in wheelchairs. A couple kissed, after passing the coffin, to comfort each other. Some mourners dabbed their eyes with handkerchiefs. You could hear, faintly but audibly, crying.
Every 20 minutes brought a changing of the guard. A stick hit the stone and 10 bodyguards were refreshed by their counterparts, mirror images in their uniforms and outfits.
Around the coffin they stood like works of wax: the Gentlemen-at-Arms with feathered headdresses and cavalry swords, the King’s Guard in bearskin caps, the Yeomen of the Guard in scarlet tunics with The sticks.
On Saturday evening, Princes William and Harry will come for a “grandchildren’s vigil”.