For the next four days – ahead of the funeral at Westminster Abbey on Monday – Queen Elizabeth’s coffin is on display in Westminster Hall, as people who waited in line for hours will have a brief moment of reflection as they file silently near the coffin.
While all of this takes place in a Gothic building of deep political and historical significance dating back to 1097, the actual story of the lie-in-state is more recent – relatively speaking.
Lying in state is a “modern invention – or reinvention”, said Judith Rowbotham, a social and cultural scientist and visiting research professor at the University of Plymouth, in south-west England, in an interview .
“What happened in medieval times to prove that the king was really dead was that the great dignitaries of the kingdom would be invited to view the body of the deceased monarch lying in state. Then, [the body] is just forgotten, not observed.”
A new tradition emerged around the death of a monarch in the 17th and 18th centuries, Rowbotham said, with a sort of state lie that happened in private. “It was not public. It was for high-ranking politicians, senior peers in the kingdom and the royal household.”
It didn’t last very long and the monarchs were buried at night, under cover of darkness, with everything lit by torches, Rowbotham said. She noted that the last monarch to have this experience was King William IV, who died in 1837.
The influence of Queen Victoria
Things changed, however, with the death in 1901 of William’s successor, Queen Victoria.
Victoria, who was Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother, had no particular vision for her own funeral, Rowbotham said. But during his reign, the groundwork was laid for the kind of in-state lying that is happening now.
Victoria and her husband Prince Albert wanted the Duke of Wellington, the soldier and statesman who died in 1852, to have a state funeral, which included an in-state audience.
“It wasn’t always orderly, this lying in state, but [Victoria] was very impressed with the military pomp and spectacle of the funeral itself, the service and things like that,” Rowbotham said.
WATCH | Queen Elizabeth’s coffin leaves Buckingham Palace to lie in state:
Although there was no public lie for Victoria before her funeral in 1901, there was a private one for the family and members of the royal household.
But when her son, who became King Edward VII, died in 1910, there was a lying public in the state.
“Queen Elizabeth once said, ‘I have to be seen to be believed’ and Edward observed her throughout her reign,” Rowbotham said.
“I think Edward, who was very good at pageantry, realized that his funeral at the end of a fairly short reign would best leave his mark both nationally and internationally… if he instituted a public lying in state, that’s what he [did].”
After the death of George V in 1936 and George VI in 1952, there were also such events.
“People come out every time to pay their respects to these monarchs, so it’s become an established tradition,” Rowbotham said.
Ensuring a permanent tradition
Although it has become a tradition, the magnitude of what will unfold over the next few days – and the Security necessary for this – could be unprecedented. Some estimates of the number of people who will file in front of Elizabeth’s coffin are as high as 750,000. A report suggested the line may be temporarily closed if it extends for more than 16 kilometres.
“We expect huge queues,” said Craig Prescott, a constitutional expert at Bangor University in Wales.
There is talk, he says, of “waiting 30 hours to parade, with the queue basically stretching across London, which is extraordinary, from Westminster to the South Bank across the river [Thames] then along the river after London Bridge, after Tower Bridge. It’s a long way to Tower Bridge, but it’s really only halfway.”
The plans, Prescott said, are aimed at allowing as many people as possible to view the Queen’s coffin.
“There’s always a relationship between the monarch and the people. And basically the monarch exists by public consent and it’s an opportunity for individuals to maybe have their own private moment and say thank you to the queen for her service to the country and the Commonwealth over the past 70 years.
‘Ready to do this’
Despite all this waiting, it will be a relatively brief moment that any individual will have in front of the casket. And yet, there are so many of them queuing.
“I think it shows the value in which they hold the queen [that] they’re ready to do it,” Prescott said.
“I think it goes to show that she perhaps in many ways transcended even being a mere monarch and…had…a sort of deep position in the British national psyche by just being there for so long.”
The lie-in-state is also expected to include a vigil with the Queen’s four children – King Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward – standing in silence, each at a corner of their coffin.
It’s the latest take on the Princes’ Vigil, a tradition Rowbotham describes as “very modern”, in that it only dates back to the death of George V, who had four sons who watched over his coffin in 1936. .
“It was a purely private thing, this vigil. There are no photos,” Rowbotham said. “It was a private, spontaneous decision made out of grief.”
No similar vigil occurred for George VI, but returned after the death of his widow, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in 2002. Charles, Andrew, Edward and their cousin David, the son of the sister of The Queen, Princess Margaret, took their turn while her coffin was in state at Westminster Hall.
Earlier this week, the wake was again held at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, with Charles, Anne – the first woman to attend such a vigil – Andrew and Edward standing around their mother’s coffin while a short period.
“It reflects the private and public nature of it all,” Prescott said.
“It shows the respect the royal family had for the monarch and also shows [the role] the royal family, especially the king, is playing now… leading the nation in their grief as well. »