On Thursday evening, hours after the death of Queen Elizabeth II was announced, the British capital was just starting to process its collective loss. Under the etched glass panels and dark oak beams of the Victorian-era Princess Louise pub, Mike Rowe and Jeff Nightingill, pints in hand, both expressed a profound sense of shock when they were told the news. “She was, in my lifetime, the best thing about this country,” said Rowe, 77. “She’s the continuity that we have all relied on.”
All across London, as word of the queen’s death rapidly spread through news alerts on smartphones, there was a palpable sense of mourning.
At the Rajmahal sweet shop in East London, customers drinking milk tea joined the shop owner in front of a huge TV screen tuned to the BBC.
“I am going to miss her,” said Ahmed Arif, the shop’s owner, who is British of Bangladeshi heritage. “She looked like my grandmother.”
In the city’s busy pubs Thursday night, the conversations among friends showed just how deeply the loss has touched the nation — and just how fundamental Elizabeth’s role has been in the national identity for the past 70 years.
The words of Rowe and Nightingill sounded like condolences for an old friend, someone who had been a constant in both of their lives.
“She was very moral, and I adored her, irrespective of the fact that I am not a monarchist,” Rowe said. “I don’t think the country will ever be the same. We’ve been very lucky to have her in our lifetime.”
Nightingill, 76, grew teary-eyed as he talked about the queen, and what she had meant to the country. Despite the fact that she was 96, and had been unwell for some time, he said he could barely believe Elizabeth was dead.
“She is a bit of England that will never be replaced,” he said.
Outside Buckingham Palace on Thursday afternoon, people began arriving in small trickles after the announcement that the queen was in ill health. By the time her death was announced at 6.30 pm, the crowd had swelled.
Rainbow at Buckingham Palace. pic.twitter.com/qHNJMcj5UH
— Andy Lines (@andylines) September 8, 2022
Many were tearful, clutching each other as they held umbrellas to shield against the bad weather, their arms laden with bouquets of flowers.
Despite intermittent rain, the throng outside the palace continued to grow late Thursday, with streams of new arrivals making their way from the Green Park tube station to the front of the iconic address where so many of the queen’s most memorable public appearances had been made. Renditions of “God Save the Queen” were heard.
There was total silence outside Buckingham Palace as the news broke, and then the crowds broke into song: God Save the King. pic.twitter.com/6kCUNSLw68
— Anna Stewart (@annastewartcnn) September 8, 2022
As the city, and the nation, processed the news, people paid tribute to the unifying figure that the queen had been in a country that had increasingly felt divided in recent years amid political upheaval with the Brexit referendum and a series of prime ministers. The queen had just ushered in her final prime minister, Liz Truss, two days before her death, a fact that many remarked on Thursday night.
Anne O’Brien, 60, and her husband David O’Brien, 66, who are from Jarron in northern England, shared vivid memories of when they were ages 4 and 6 and saw the queen open a tunnel in their town.
They recalled how she had waved to the crowds from her car and wore a bright blue dress.
“She brought such dignity and strength to this country, ” said Anne O’Brien, a care worker. “I never thought I would see this in my life.”
The couple, who had been visiting London when they heard the news of the queen’s death, rushed to Buckingham Palace to pay tribute. Later, as they left on the tube, Anne O’Brien’s eyes were still watery, and the couple said they planned to go home to watch the tributes on television.
To be sure, not everyone felt as deeply emotional.
“I’m very aware of the fact that they don’t know I exist, so I struggle to feel any real emotion,” said Mo Varley, a teacher in Sheffield, of the queen’s death. “At times like this, I find it a bit frustrating when so many are suffering and those in power don’t appear to care about that.”
Varley said that some anti-monarchists who were pointing out online Thursday night the issues of racism and classism associated with the monarchy were being accused of being disrespectful. “I don’t think you can have a family paid for by the state be free of scrutiny,” she said.
Back at the Princess Louise pub, three New Zealanders were huddled around small tables, discussing the queen’s death. All three had lived in Britain for years but were contemplating the impact that it could have on Commonwealth countries like New Zealand, where the British monarch is the formal head of state.
“Even amid the monarchy vs. republican debate, no one seemed to criticise her,” said one of the friends, Andrew Burns, 35. “She was so well respected.”
He said that the commitment the queen made when she ascended the throne 70 years ago to dedicate her life to the service of the nation had been more than realised.
“My first reaction was, what a human being, what a life of service,” he said. “And my second was, what does this mean for our country?”
After seven decades with the same sovereign as head of state, he wondered if Commonwealth nations may start to reconsider their association with the monarchy after the death of the queen, but said it would be unlikely that any changes would happen soon.
Even for those who are not from Britain or a Commonwealth country, the queen’s death had an impact.
Kai Tsehay, 25, a photographer visiting family in London from the United States, was spending time with her friend Zuri May, 26, when she heard that the queen had died.
The pair had been shopping on nearby Oxford Street and arrived at Buckingham Palace shortly after the flag there was lowered to half-staff.
“We wondered whether there would be some kind of ceremony, so we thought we’d come and see,” Tsehay said, who added that she had felt a different mood in the city that afternoon. “People were whispering, and then I got a message from my family back home telling me the queen had died.”
Vela Arbutina, an artist from Switzerland, said that she felt like she was experiencing a moment in history by being in London on such a significant night.
“She survived almost a hundred years of so many changes,” Arbutina said, adding: “A lot of people are going to be very sad.”
Even those who felt indifferent to or disagreed with the concept of the monarchy paused to reflect on her life of service.
“I feel like we were unprepared for it because everyone was saying she’d outlive us all,” said William Sawtell, 28, a student. “You see her face everywhere. She’s in everyone’s pocket and now we’re going to have kings for generations and generations.”
Sawtell said despite his indifference to the monarchy, “We’ve always admired the queen.”
(Written by Megan Specia, Saskia Solomon, Emma Bubola and Isabella Kwai)