The moment that grabbed attention inside the Abbey

By Sean Coughlan

Inside Westminster Abbey

On top of Her Majesty's coffin was a wreath, the Imperial State Crown, and the Sovereign's orb and sceptreImage source, PA Media

Image caption,

On top of Her Majesty’s coffin was a wreath, the Imperial State Crown, and the Sovereign’s orb and sceptre

Even when you know something important has happened, it can still have the power to shock. Particularly when you see it with your own eyes. I had a close-up view inside Westminster Abbey, and that electric moment came when the Queen’s coffin was brought up the aisle.

This was history before us, solemn, spectacular and intense.

Heads of state, dignitaries and local community heroes, side by side on this once-in-a-lifetime guest list, suddenly stood up to attention together. The significance of the moment was almost audible. The chatter, the WhatsApps, texts and Tweets from the crowded pews stopped in its tracks. There was a sharp intake of breath.

We were watching something that we’d remember all our lives. An era was ending, step by step, right before our eyes, here and now, as the soldiers carrying the coffin shuffled up the aisle.

Image source, Reuters

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Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince and Princess of Wales and their children George and Charlotte, in Westminster Abbey

Image source, PA Media

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The pallbearers prepare to lay the coffin down in front of the Royal Family

The choir filled the spine-tingling moment.

King Charles stared straight ahead. Maybe one of his medals was for surviving the exhaustion of the past 11 days. He looked like he must be aching for rest, and who could blame him.

“We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we carry nothing out,” sang the choir, sending up their voices into the high gothic arches.

The congregation of the century was gathered for this state funeral. The Royal Family, NHS workers, political heavyweights, so many world leaders that they had to be loaded onto buses like schoolchildren on an outing.

US President Joe Biden had travelled in an armour-plated car called the Beast. Others of us had come in an overcrowded sea of people called the District Line.

President Biden, holding hands with Jill Biden, looked around the abbey before taking a seat at the side. It can’t be often that a US president is not the centre of attention.

Ex-prime ministers were clustered together, nodding awkwardly like Doctor Whos from rival eras.

Image source, Reuters

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US President Biden holds hands with his wife, Jill, as they arrive at Westminster Abbey

Image source, PA Media

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The congregation included current Prime Minister Liz Truss and former prime ministers Johnson, May, Cameron, Brown, Blair and Major

“Thou knowest Lord the secrets of our hearts,” sang the choir.

The Prince of Wales and Duke of Sussex, William and Harry, were on different sides of the aisle looking sombre – and anyone trying to read the expression of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, or Catherine, Princess of Wales, were faced with the wide brim of their hats.

French President Emmanuel Macron had arrived earlier and stood in the aisle slightly lost, like someone looking for friends at a wedding.

Four candles stood around the coffin. The orb and sceptre glowed. The Imperial State Crown was poking up from behind the spray of flowers. On the top of the crown was a big blue sapphire once worn on a ring by Edward the Confessor more than 900 years ago.

It was an extraordinary spectacle to witness first-hand, the plumed helmets, the convoys of overseas royals, the sea of black mourning clothes, the security whisperers, the bright clerics’ robes and the heralds dressed like a pack of cards.

Even the statues in Poet’s Corner seemed to be craning round to see.

Prime Minister Liz Truss looked tense but held steady as she went up for her reading. “Let your heart not be troubled.”

The congregation stood up to sing The Lord’s My Shepherd. It’s one of those hymns that lulls you into its sadness. Voices begin to catch. “Though I walk through death’s dark vale, yet will I fear none ill.”

You could feel the static in the air.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby had the impossible task of doing justice to the longest reign in British history. He spoke straight to the point. A woman of deep faith had gone to her final rest in the firm conviction of her beliefs. She had every expectation that we would “meet again”.

Image source, Reuters

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Pipe Major Paul Burns

But at the centre of everything here was the Queen’s coffin and her mourning family, an inescapable message of what had happened. This was a moment to say goodbye.

A trumpet played the Last Post. The silence that followed was even louder. This was how things end. In this immense quiet an era was closing. This was our moment of history. Time doesn’t stand still, it never does, whether for a head of state or a nurse on a shift. The New Elizabethan era in which most of us had grown up had finished. The 20th Century boys and girls were now grey-haired parents and grandparents. Everyone has their own story to remember.

A piper played a lament as the Queen was carried slowly towards the Abbey doors, the same doors where she’d once stood on her wedding day as a 21-year-old bride. On her coffin was a sprig of myrtle grown from a cutting from her wedding bouquet.

The guests stepped outside into the daylight, stunned witnesses to something momentous. It wasn’t just that we’d said farewell to the Queen, it was the recognition that we’d lost part of our own lives.

This was a date to be underlined in a future text book. A chapter closing. But the area around the Abbey had been sealed tight with security and there were no crowds on the pavement. We were in a new era and outside there was silence.

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