What It's Like to View Queen Elizabeth Lying in State, as Seen by a PEOPLE Reporter

·4 min read

PEOPLE joined a select few media outlets to be permitted into to the hallowed Westminster Hall to view Queen Elizabeth lying in state. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of mourners who have come in coach loads, by train and by car from all four corners of the United Kingdom to queue day and night for five miles and wait up to 14 hours, a handful of journalists were led through the dark stone-arched courtyards leading through Westminster Palace at midnight on Friday.

Despite not having made that epic pilgrimage through the streets of London, the moment I entered the medieval hall to find myself standing in front of the coffin was a truly momentous one. The Queen's casket is raised up on a burgundy three-tiered dias surrounded by armored guards. They were standing with their backs to their sovereign, their heads bowed in sorrow. The sense of peace and silence was overwhelming.

As was the sense of history.

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Atmosphere outside Westminster Hall on September 15th, 2022.
Atmosphere outside Westminster Hall on September 15th, 2022.

Juliet Butler Westminster Hall

Westminster Hall was built in 1097 by the son of William the Conqueror, Rufus. It was where King Richard had his coronation banquet in 1189, and King Charles I was tried here in 1649 before his execution. It seems entirely fitting that Queen Elizabeth should be lying in state within the six-foot-thick walls and high vaulted timber roof as a part of the rituals and ceremonies that have taken place here for centuries.

A general view as King Charles III, Princess Anne, Princess Royal and Camilla, Queen Consort view the coffin carrying Queen Elizabeth II being laid to rest in Westminster Hall
A general view as King Charles III, Princess Anne, Princess Royal and Camilla, Queen Consort view the coffin carrying Queen Elizabeth II being laid to rest in Westminster Hall

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Queen Elizabeth

The Imperial State Crown lay on the casket, sparkling in the candlelight with 3,000 diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, pearls and rubies. Also sparkling was the chest armor of the Gentlemen at Arms guards, their elderly faces partly obscured by the swan feather plumage on their helmets. Their weapons were inverted as a mark of a respect and they stood still as statues.

Members of the public pay their respects as they pass the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it Lies in State inside Westminster Hall, at the Palace of Westminster in London on September 14, 2022. - Queen Elizabeth II will lie in state in Westminster Hall inside the Palace of Westminster, from Wednesday until a few hours before her funeral on Monday, with huge queues expected to file past her coffin to pay their respects.
Members of the public pay their respects as they pass the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it Lies in State inside Westminster Hall, at the Palace of Westminster in London on September 14, 2022. - Queen Elizabeth II will lie in state in Westminster Hall inside the Palace of Westminster, from Wednesday until a few hours before her funeral on Monday, with huge queues expected to file past her coffin to pay their respects.

BEN STANSALL/POOL/AFP via Getty Westminster Hall

We were quietly led into a corner of the cold cavernous hall to watch the silent vigil filing past.

The mourners stopped for a moment as they passed to bow, salute, curtsy or blow a kiss at this crowning moment of their long journey.

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One woman, who was being pushed in a wheelchair with a Union Jack rug across her knees, crossed herself. An elderly lady limped past with a stick and wiped away tears. How had she walked for so long? Small children rubbed their sleepy eyes, and a mother softly kissed the baby in her arms as she walked out. They carried rucksacks and plastic bags and wore anything from shorts and trainers to a suit and tie bedecked with medals.

The only sound was the soft shuffling of feet, broken once by the distant drunken singing of "God Save the King" from late-night revelers outside the Palace.

Atmosphere outside Westminster Hall on September 15th, 2022.
Atmosphere outside Westminster Hall on September 15th, 2022.

Juliet Butler Westminster Hall

The coffin was attended by three circles of protective guards. The inner circle is the royal bodyguards, first formed by King Henry VIII to act as a mounted escort. They were wearing cavalry swords and spurs on their high black boots and carried battle-axes that are more than 300 years old. On the next step down stood the Yeoman Guard, or "beefeaters," who guard the Tower of London. They were dressed in red Tudor uniforms and were holding medieval style pikes. And finally, four metropolitan police officers were standing to attention by the four large candles at each corner of the catafalque.

Every 20 minutes, a guard standing on an internal balcony banged his staff on the floor to signal the changing of the guard. Two days ago, one of the guards, many of whom are elderly and wear bulky metal body armor and heavy helmets, apparently fainted and collapsed to the floor. Once the staff has been struck, the replacement guards emerge from a corner door, descend some steps and slow step to the coffin. It is a moment of rich pageantry quietly observed by the crowds descending into the Hall who stand, wait and watch in wonder.

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Britain's Queen Elizabeth II Lies in State on a Catafalque inside an empty Westminster Hall, at the Palace of Westminster, in London on September 14, 2022, ahead of the public being allowed in to pay their respects. - Queen Elizabeth II will lie in state in Westminster Hall inside the Palace of Westminster, from Wednesday until a few hours before her funeral on Monday, with huge queues expected to file past her coffin to pay their respects.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II Lies in State on a Catafalque inside an empty Westminster Hall, at the Palace of Westminster, in London on September 14, 2022, ahead of the public being allowed in to pay their respects. - Queen Elizabeth II will lie in state in Westminster Hall inside the Palace of Westminster, from Wednesday until a few hours before her funeral on Monday, with huge queues expected to file past her coffin to pay their respects.

CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/POOL/AFP via Getty Queen Elizabeth lying in state

After half an hour, during which time seemed to stand still, we are ushered back towards the side door and stop once more before the casket to briefly nod our heads in respect.

Seeing the Queen lying here — in this, the most ancient and historic building in the Palace of Westminster — I felt that it was entirely the right place for her to be. The silent hall seemed filled with a sense that she was at peace, and that she would no doubt be grateful for the love and homage of her subjects, which was so evident in the short time I was there.

I was witnessing the end of the second Elizabethan era.