By Michael Holden and Sachin Ravikumar
LONDON (Reuters) – King Charles and his siblings stood vigil by the coffin of their late mother Queen Elizabeth on Friday as tens of thousands of mourners queuing to pay their final respects during her lying in state were told they faced a wait of up to 24 hours.
Charles, Princess Anne, Princes Andrew and Edward, attired in military uniforms, stood in silence with their heads bowed for the 15-minute vigil at the historic Westminster Hall where the coffin of the late monarch has been lying since Wednesday.
Most of the other members of the British royal family, including some of the queen’s great-grandchildren, watched from a gallery.
Tens of thousands of people of all ages and from all walks of life have already filed past the coffin in a constant, solemn stream to pay tribute to the queen, who died in Scotland on Sept. 8 at the age of 96 after a 70-year reign.
Despite the warning of how long it would take to reach the building, mourners continued to join a well-organised line that stretches along the south bank of the Thames then over the river to parliament’s Westminster Hall, knowing their wait would last through the night when temperatures were forecast to be cold.
“We have been overwhelmed by the tide of emotion that has engulfed us and the sheer number of people who have gone out of their way to express their own love, admiration and respect to such a very special and unique person,” Prince Edward, the queen’s youngest son, said in a statement.
Rosie Beddows, 57, from Sussex, had queued with her husband and son, and happened to pass by the coffin when it was being guarded by the royal family.
“It was absolutely amazing, so moving, so beautiful. It was an incredibly long day, but we saw the king,” she said, sounding elated. “I can’t believe it. I think he’s going to be a brilliant king.”
Despite the warning of lengthy queues – repeated across local rail stations – people had flooded into Southwark Park to join the line, many in high spirits. In contrast, those who emerged from the Lying-In-State were quiet, reflective, and a little stiff.
Among their number was former England soccer captain David Beckham who looked tearful as he waited to file past the coffin, having queued for more than 13 hours on his own, snacking on crisps, sweets and donuts.
“We were all here celebrating her majesty today and it didn’t matter how long we were there,” said Beckham, wearing a dark suit and flat cap. “We were there for a reason. And everyone was together. It was a special few hours.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, in London for the funeral, was another of those who visited Westminster Hall on Friday, stopping to curtsy as she filed past the coffin.
The oak casket stands on a purple-clad catafalque, draped in the Royal Standard and with the bejewelled Imperial State Crown placed on top.
Soldiers in ceremonial uniform and other officials are keeping vigil around it as people walk past to pay homage after their long wait. Many have been in tears, and others have saluted or bowed their heads.
Some 750,000 people in total are expected to file past the coffin ahead of the state funeral on Monday which presidents, prime ministers, royalty and other world leaders are due to attend.
U.S. President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of Australia, Canada and Jamaica will join the emperor of Japan among the congregation.
London’s police force said the funeral would be the biggest security operation it has ever undertaken.
The force has been preparing for possibilities ranging from terrorism threats to protests and crowd crushes, senior police official Stuart Cundy told reporters.
VISIT TO WALES
Charles, who acceded to the throne on his mother’s death, earlier visited Wales on Friday, the last stage of a tour of the United Kingdom to acknowledge his status as the new monarch and head of state and to greet the public.
Charles and his wife Camilla, the Queen Consort, attended a service at Cardiff’s Llandaff Cathedral then talked with cheering well-wishers outside.
Wales has a particular significance for the new king, who for five decades preceding last week’s accession had the title Prince of Wales.
There were a few anti-monarchy protesters outside Cardiff Castle, where Charles met Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford.
One man held a banner saying “Cancel Royals” and a placard saying “End Prince of Wales Title”. Another read: “Not My King”.
Similar small protests have been held outside parliament in London and in Edinburgh over the past days, although Charles has enjoyed a surge in support since he succeeded Elizabeth.
DEFENDER OF FAITHS
Later, the new king returned to London to meet faith leaders at Buckingham Palace where he said he was determined to be “sovereign of all communities”.
As monarch and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Charles holds the title “Defender of the Faith”, but he said he his saw his role as stretching beyond his own strong Christian beliefs, and that he had a duty to protect diversity.
“By my most profound convictions, therefore – as well as by my position as sovereign – I hold myself bound to respect those who follow other spiritual paths, as well as those who seek to live their lives in accordance with secular ideals,” he told the faith leaders.
“I am determined, as king, to preserve and promote those principles across all communities, and for all beliefs, with all my heart.”
Following the vigil of the queen’s children on Friday, her eight grandchildren, including the new Prince of Wales, William, and his brother Prince Harry will stand vigil at the coffin on Saturday evening.
In an adjustment to protocol, both Harry and his uncle Prince Andrew have been allowed to wear military uniform when they take their turns, royal officials said.
Both are war veterans – Andrew having served as a Royal Navy helicopter pilot during the Falklands War and Harry serving two tours of duty with the British Army in Afghanistan.
But so far only ‘working royals’ have appeared in uniform while Andrew and Harry have appeared in processions in morning suits after they lost their honorary military titles when they stepped back from public royal duties.
(Additional reporting by Alistair Smout and Farouq Suleiman; Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Kate Holton, Alison Williams, Rosalba O’Brien and Daniel Wallis)