Tsoft rain blanketing Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace did little to deter stunned mourners gathered outside Thursday night as a fixture of British life appeared to pay their solemn respects to the supreme: Queen Elizabeth II, who died earlier this afternoon at her Scottish estate of Balmoral aged 96, drawing the curtain on a remarkable reign spanning seven decades.
“I feel numb. She was amazing, so selfless and such a servant to her people,” said Wendy Green, 45, who came to Holyrood – the Queen’s official residence in the Scottish capital, over which the national flag flies at half-mast – to pay her respects. “We’ll never have another like her.”
The the death of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch there is left a nation stunned. The BBC halted all emergency news updates ahead of the 6.30pm announcement of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, which was greeted across the UK with tears and hushed tones in homes and pubs packed with after-office drinkers. Parish churches, chapels and cathedrals are encouraged to ring their bells in remembrance and to be open for prayers or special services. Meanwhile, a streams of tribute poured forth from all over the world.
“She represents the whole history of Europe, which is our common home with our British friends, she has always given us stability and confidence, she has shown a huge amount of courage and she is a legend in my eyes,” said The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.
“She seemed so eternal and so wonderful that I’m afraid we came to believe, like children, that she would just go on and on.” tweeted former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who last met the Queen on Tuesday to resign.
The Queen’s health is being monitored more and more intensely as she ages. The royal family has its own specialist team of doctors on call 24 hours a day. She has had persistent mobility problems which led her to cancel her attendance at the Braemar Highland Gathering on Saturday with Prince Charles – now King Charles III – in his stead.
The Queen used a cane during her last official engagement on Tuesday to welcome new British Prime Minister Liz Truss, a duty that would normally have taken place at Buckingham Palace in London but took place in Scotland instead. Still, the Queen appeared bright but fragile at the time and few expected the hasty gathering of senior royals at Balmoral just two days later – including Prince Harry and Prince William, although Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton stayed behind– this is a signal for the worst.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II waits in the drawing room before receiving Liz Truss for an audience at Balmoral, where Truss has been invited to become prime minister and form a new government, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on September 6, 2022.
Jane Barlow—Pool photo/AP
Her death in Scotland caused a a carefully crafted plan under the code name Operation Unicorn. (Had it gone south of the border, it would have been Operation London Bridge.) The Queen’s remains are expected to be taken to Holyrood to lie in state before her coffin is taken to St Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile into the city and later into London by Royal Train.
The 10 days of mourning will then end on the day of the Queen’s funeral at Westminster Abbey, during which Parliament will be prorogued. Tens of thousands are expected to descend from around the world to pay their respects, adding to huge crowds of all ages and ethnicities who have already gathered at royal residences across the UK to leave flowers and memories. On Thursday evening, a somber crowd gathered outside Buckingham Palace chanted God save the Queen and, for the new monarch, God save the King. Many mourners who spoke to TIME cited the Queen’s unifying power during a period of recent political and social upheaval, from the pandemic to Brexit to Russia’s war in Ukraine. “I just feel like the world is falling apart around me right now. It’s just a terrible loss,” Luiz Cabral told TIME outside Buckingham Palace. “There’s a lot going on right now and it’s a really devastating thing to add to all of that.”
“You can’t really imagine she’s not there,” added Sally Cherry, a tourist from Australia, of which Elizabeth remained sovereign and is one of the 64 nations of the British Commonwealth of Former British Colonies. “She’s just been there so long and [was] such a part of my parents’ lives. We know of only one monarch so extraordinary. I don’t think you’ll see a reign like that again.
When Elizabeth ascended the throne, the United Kingdom was the seat of a vast empire on which the sun was said to never set. She leaves behind more complex inheritance in many of these countries; at her passing she remained sovereign of 15 nations. Her reign spanned 14 US presidents and 15 British prime ministers, and for many it was fitting that she should pass in Scotland, where she has always shown deep affection.
Balmoral has been the residence of the British Royal Family since 1852 and the Queen regularly spends her summer holidays there. Shortly after her coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1953, the Queen and Prince Philip spent a week in Scotland.
“Locals around Balmoral saw her as their neighbour, often bumping into her on walks or in the village,” said Charlotte Cruikshank, 29, a planning co-ordinator who has a family home near Balmoral. “She will be sadly missed.”
A man holds his phone with a screen saver of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8, 2022 in London.
Leon Neal—Getty Images
However, it is notable that Queen Elizabeth II is actually only the first of that name to rule in Scotland. (Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VII, who ruled England alone for a then-record 44 years between 1558 and 1603, was never actually queen north of the Border.) It’s a distinction often missed that infuriates Scottish nationalists , which would often deface objects marked ‘QEII’ in Scotland, such as Royal Mail letterboxes.
Yet at a time when the mismanagement of Brexit – a majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU in 2016 – by Conservative governments has sparked calls for Scottish independence, the Queen’s clear attachment to Scotland remains a unifying force.
“Her life was one of extraordinary dedication and service,” tweeted Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, a staunch supporter of independence. “On behalf of the people of Scotland, I send my deepest condolences to the King and the Royal Family.
In contrast to the now-departed queen’s stoic face and formidable unifying force, her successor Charles, who is expected to travel across the UK’s four nations in the coming days on ceremonial duties, is a more outspoken voice on social and especially environmental issues. It remains to be seen whether this activism will prove divisive.
“The Queen has ruled for so long that it would feel strange to see someone else in her place,” says Cruikshank. “Charles certainly has big positions, but I hope the general public will get behind him.”
— With reporting by Yasmin Serhan/London
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