By the dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, Britons from all walks of life gathered outside the ornate gates of Buckingham Palace in central London, first in anxious anticipation, then in mourning for the only monarch virtually any of them had ever known .
Some cried. Some clasped hands. Others looked around sullenly, lost in their own thoughts.
Even before the formal announcement of Queen Elizabeth II’s death at the age of 96 late Thursday afternoon, as the last light of day vanished amid downpours, crowds had gathered outside the palace, which has been the official residence of British monarchs since the 19th century was, crowds formed.
“It’s a somber moment,” said Jeffrey Julien, 57, a Londoner who watched as the British flag was lowered to half-mast to commemorate Elizabeth’s death. “She is a public figure in this country who has been on television and in the news my entire life. She was the constant.”
Earlier in the day, when news broke that members of the royal family were rushing to the Queen’s side at her summer retreat, Balmoral Castle in Scotland, crowds in the capital broke into a performance of “God Save the Queen”.
They later switched to other lyrics: “God save the king”, in recognition of the seamless transition to a new sovereign, King Charles III, the late Queen’s eldest son.
An unimaginable rainbow appeared over the crowds at the Queen Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace – a scene that was captured in countless photos and quickly spread across the internet.
Mourners held flowers and candles. Images of corgis — the Queen’s favorite dog breed — lit up their smartphones, as did photos of Elizabeth waving to crowds in the 1950s, and others from more recent public appearances, including with then-President Obama and his wife Michelle.
Amal Shezad, an American from New York, said she came to catch a glimpse of a well-known tourist attraction, the changing of the guard. Instead, she saw what would likely be a one-off event, the grief of a dead queen in real time.
“I am a witness to history,” said Shezad.
The death of Elizabeth, whose seven decades on the throne provided a strong sense of national continuity, comes at a turbulent time for Britain.
A new and untried Prime Minister, Liz Truss, is at the political helm after formally introducing herself to the Queen just two days earlier. Winter heralds punishing energy shortages, with gas and oil prices shooting beyond what many can afford.
The economic and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit, the secession from the European Union in 2020, are only now being fully felt. Britain has emerged as one of the staunchest international supporters of war-torn Ukraine, with all the obligations that entails.
Even before Elizabeth’s death was officially announced, BBC presenters had already switched to somber black attire, which first flashed on smartphones and television screens and then quickly spread to stunned passers-by.
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On board a British Airways flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport to London’s Heathrow, the captain went to the intercom just before landing to inform passengers of Elizabeth’s passing. Telling passengers he had sad news and wanted to give people time to think, the captain said the long-lived monarch had died with her family by her side.
“I thought I should at least tell you before you get to the terminal as I know many will be very, very saddened by this,” he said, calling it the “sadest of days”. The cabin crew cried in the back of the plane and walked up and down the aisles with tears in their eyes.
“I suppose the British monarchy goes on,” the captain said to the passengers. “I should end it by saying, ‘God save the new king.'”
In a brief statement, Charles paid tribute to a “esteemed sovereign and a well-loved mother.”
British and TV stations all switched to covering the Queen’s death. National mourning and remembrance, as well as adjusting to life under a new monarch, will take days if not weeks.
Not everyone saw this as a turning point.
“I don’t feel good or bad about her,” said Jaswinder Singh, a restaurant worker who was finishing his shift in the clayey Mayfair area near Buckingham Palace early Thursday when the excitement interrupted his usual walk home across the Thames.
“We have a lot different plans here than the Queen,” he said. “The cost of everything is increasing; pay is not. We have a new PM who says she can solve it. I do not know.”
Around the British capital, noisy pubs and busy restaurants fell silent at the news.
Alistair Jeffrey, 29, a bartender, was having a pint outside the Victoria Pub in Dalston, an east London area, when he learned of the Queen’s death.
As Britain held a days-long platinum jubilee celebration to mark Elizabeth’s record-breaking 70th jubilee over the summer, Jeffrey said he left London to avoid “a riot over the Queen”. Now, as the country mourns, Jeffrey said he thought he would remain in the capital.
“It’s just so unusual and historical, no matter what you think of her, if you like her,” he said. “The city feels different.”
David Lebowitz, a taxi driver waiting for a fare outside the historic Langham Hotel, pointed to the contrast between the turbulence of British politics, including the recent ouster of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, and the seeming timelessness of Elizabeth’s rule.
“Look at our government – all it is is a scandal and the resignation of the prime minister,” he said. “The queen stayed with us. You could have your politics either way, but you would still admire the Queen.”
Kaleem is a staff writer and Boyle is a special correspondent. Times staffer Laura King in Washington contributed.
https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-09-08/britain-mourns-queen-elizabeth-death-tumultuous-moment Queen Elizabeth mourned at a tumultuous time in Britain