A child places flowers outside the Palace of Holyrood, Edinburgh, Scotland on Sept. 8 after the announcement that Queen Elizabeth, Britain's longest-reigning monarch and the nation's figurehead for seven decades, died aged 96. Credit - Lee Smith—Reuters
The soft rain blanketing Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace did little to deter mourners gathered outside Thursday evening, as one constant fixture of British life appeared to pay its own solemn tribute to another, far loftier exemplar: Queen Elizabeth II.
Earlier in the afternoon, the beloved monarch died aged 96 at her Scottish country estate of Balmoral, some 76 miles (122 kilometers) away, drawing the curtain on a remarkable reign that lasted seven decades. She was the sovereign of 15 nations and her reign spanned the tenures of 14 U.S. presidents and 15 British prime ministers.
“I feel numb. She was amazing, so selfless, and such a servant to her people,” says Wendy Green, 45, who came to pay her respects at the Queen’s official residence in the Scottish capital, over which the national flag flew at half-mast. “We will never have another quite like her.”
As her age advanced, the Queen’s health was monitored with increasing scrutiny by a dedicated team of medics on 24-hour call. Nevertheless, the death of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch has left a nation stunned.
The BBC suspended regular programming for breaking news updates in the lead up to the announcement, at 6:30 pm local time, of her passing. Across the U.K., in homes and in pubs thronged with after-work drinkers, her subjects received the news with shock and grief. Places of worship are being encouraged to toll their bells in remembrance and to remain open for prayer or special services. Meanwhile, a flood of tributes has poured in from around the globe.
“She represents the whole history of the Europe that is our common home with our British friends. She has always given us stability and confidence, she has shown an immense amount of courage, and is a legend in my eyes,” said E.U. Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.
“She seemed so timeless and so wonderful that I am afraid that we have come to believe, like children, she would just go on and on,” tweeted former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who saw the Queen earlier this week to tender his resignation.
The Queen had ongoing mobility issues that led her to cancel her Sept. 3 attendance at the Braemar Highland Gathering—an iconic, annual celebration of Scottish sports and culture. (Prince Charles—now King Charles III—stepped in instead.) She also used a walking stick when she received new British Prime Minister Liz Truss on Tuesday, as what would be the Queen’s last official engagement.
Such a meeting would normally have taken place at Buckingham Palace in London; the fact that it was held in Scotland was taken as a sign that the monarch was too frail to travel. Still, nobody expected senior royals, including Prince Harry and Prince William, to be hurriedly traveling to Balmoral just two days later. Their gathering was a signal to the nation to expect the worst.
Mourning for Queen Elizabeth
The Queen’s coffin will now be taken to Holyrood, then to St Giles’ Cathedral on the Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, and from there to London by Royal Train. A 10-day mourning period, during which Parliament will be suspended, will be followed with a funeral at Westminster Abbey.
Tens of thousands are expected to arrive from all over the world to pay their respects, adding to huge crowds of every age and ethnicity that have already gathered at royal residences across the U.K. to leave flowers and mementos.
On Thursday evening, a somber crowd gathered outside Buckingham Palace, spontaneously breaking into “God Save the Queen,” as well as choruses of “God Save the King” as the national anthem will now be called.
Read More: What Happens When Queen Elizabeth Dies
Many mourners spoke of the unifying, reassuring presence of the Queen during a period of political and social upheaval—from the pandemic to Brexit and the uncertainty in Europe triggered by Russia’s war in Ukraine. “I just feel like the world is crumbling around me now. It’s just a terrible loss,” Louise Cabral told TIME outside of Buckingham Palace. “A lot is happening at the moment and this is just a really devastating thing to add to it all.”
“You can’t actually quite imagine her not being there,” added Sally Cherry, an Australian tourist. Australia was once a federation of British colonies and it continued to regard Elizabeth as its sovereign. “She’s just been there for so long and [was] such a part of my parents’ lives. We’ve only known one monarch, so quite extraordinary. I don’t think you’ll see a reign like that again.”
The Queen’s legacy
When Elizabeth ascended the throne, the U.K. was the apex of a sprawling empire upon which, it was said, the sun never set. The Queen leaves behind a complex legacy in many of those former imperial possessions. But it was fitting for many that she passed in Scotland, which she has always held in deep affection.
Balmoral has been a residence of the British Royal Family since 1852 and the Queen regularly spent her summer vacations there. Shortly after her Coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1953, the Queen and Prince Philip spent a week in Scotland.
“The locals around Balmoral saw her as their neighbor, often bumping into her on walks or in the village,” says Charlotte Cruickshank, 29, who has a family home near Balmoral. “She will be sadly missed.”
Queen Elizabeth II was in fact the first of her name to rule in Scotland. Elizabeth I, who herself reigned England for a then record-breaking 44 years between 1558 and 1603, was never queen north of the border.
Elizabeth II’s rule was not welcomed by all Scots. Nationalists would frequently deface the royal emblem. Brexit, which was not welcomed by Scots, who voted to remain in the E.U., has galvanized calls for Scottish independence. But the Queen’s unabashed fondness for Scotland won over many hearts.
“Her life was one of extraordinary dedication and service,” tweeted Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, a staunch independence advocate. “On behalf of the people of Scotland, I convey my deepest condolences to The King and the Royal Family.”
Queen Elizabeth’s successor Charles is expected to make several ceremonial appearances across his new kingdom in the coming days. It remains to be seen whether or not he can provide the same sense of unity and stability that his mother did.
“The Queen had been reigning for so long that it will feel strange to see someone else in her place,” says Cruickshank, the Balmoral local, articulating the feelings of many in the U.K. “Charles certainly has big boots to fill, but I hope the general public will be behind him.”
—With reporting by Yasmeen Serhan/London