The Great Hall at Westminister was in silence at four o’clock yesterday morning as I stood in vigil with the coffin of Queen Elizabeth. She was placed on a raised island at the centre of a red catafalque, a decorative wooden framework. Four soldiers stood to the north south east and west of the coffin, their spears hovering downwards, heads bowed so that their white feathers lay at rest. Four Yeomen leant motionless on their staffs like shepherds looking out, four police officers surrounded them like lanterns, and the House Of Commons and House Of Lords doorkeepers were watching, helping, honouring.
Their jobs were both to protect the crown but also to respectfully guide people. A hard path to navigate. Milton describes the archangel Gabriel as the chief of gatekeepers for paradise – and one of the doorkeepers told me that as one man entered the hall, with its ceiling of 24 angels, he stood in shock. The doorkeeper asked if he was ok and the man said he felt as if he had entered paradise
The crowds that had been queuing through the night along the glassy black Thames, like a great river of souls paying their respects, silently trickled over the Westminster hall steps,guided into two tributaries – many quietly weeping, not even a whisper among them. Each responding to the love and strength of a reign that had been a constant presence in their lives for more than a generation.
Layered over the Queen’s coffin was the purple cloth of Royal Priesthood, covered by the flag then a purple cushion holding the Imperial State Crown. This strong centre piece reminded me of the anointing during her coronation in Westminster Abbey. The moment she was anointed with oil was the moment she joined the eternal stillness of union with Christ at the very centre of creation.
But stillness also reminded me of the last time I saw her seated on the tall golden throne as Head Of State in the House of Lords. As acting Speaker’s Chaplain I followed Blackrod with the new Prime Minister to where the Queen sat as unmoving and majestic as a symbol. It was extraordinary to witness the skill with which she embodied sovereign – human, cultural and archetypal.
Around the coffin, four large candles flickered in the night wind but the hall seemed lit with something more. Someone even said that above the coffin, they saw a pillar of light and in that atmosphere it seemed natural to say such things.
When I left, I stood by the dark north door and looked back. What I saw was the best of thousands of years of faith and culture now shown in a timeless vigil for us to take into our lives: the final gift from a great Queen.