LONDON — By early afternoon, the scent of thousands of lilies and roses wafted in the air outside Buckingham Palace. But the pilgrims kept coming, with more bouquets and caresses addressed to the one queen most have ever known.
The scene outside the wrought iron gates was just as Nick French had expected. But when he left a London hospital on Friday, still shaky 10 days after surgery for prostate cancer, there was no doubt he would join them. French set out on foot for an hour-long stroll through the city, searching seven largely sold-out florist shops until his arms were filled with blossoms of crimson and cream, pink and purple.
“I felt the need to come here,” said the 50-year-old social services adviser from nearby Kent, standing behind a police barricade. It is true that Elizabeth II, born royalty and dutiful, had lived a life of palaces and splendor. But in the Queen’s decades of steadfast stewardship, French said, a common man had found an inspiration and a kindred soul.
Elizabeth’s life, “offers me hope because the Queen was always an incredibly charitable person, a decent person, even in the face of great adversity,” he said, “And that gives me a role model to try to move forward in my own life.” , after cancer.”
A day after the longest-reigning monarch in British history died at the age of 96, French’s tribute echoed through the crowds that thronged to Buckingham and the memorial square where the palace presides.
Those in attendance were, of course, self-selected—people who cared for the Queen and had come to express their affections. But the pilgrimage was not only remarkable for its size; it was also striking, as it underlined the multiplicity of roles visitors say the queen had in the lives of those she could never have known.
“You have inspired generations of young women like me to serve the great nation that has flourished under your leadership,” read a note written in purple marker and left at the gate.
“Farewell, my love,” read another, pinned to a bouquet of yellow roses. “Thank you ma’am … for being a beacon of hope and stability in difficult times.”
And another: “Thank you for everything you stood for. For your devotion to duty, your concern, your compassion and your love for us, your people.”
The outpouring of flowers and heartfelt remarks in public places, for those old enough to remember, evoked another bleak week in London 25 years ago – the days after Princess Diana, the Queen’s former daughter-in-law, died in a car accident in Paris. Then a nation poured out its public grief in a way that was not entirely different.
For David Hunt, a 67-year-old retiree from the British Library, the Queen was a symbol of a bygone era and her death a reminder of how much everything has changed since her reign in his youth. And Claire McDaniel, 48, said she came after she finished working at a skincare store because it felt like the right thing to do for a monarch who, to her, almost felt like a grandmother.
“During the pandemic, she came on TV and said, ‘This is bad, but it will get better. We will see each other again and get back together.’ And I think as a country it was exactly what we needed,” McDaniel said.
Not far away, classmates Adam Al-Mufty and Oliver Hughes, both 16 and in school uniform, said they had come to Buckingham Palace to observe a chapter of history. But there was more.
“She represented us all,” Al-Mufty said, recognizing that it’s unlikely a teenage student and a sovereign could have a relationship with each other. “She was very sober.”
French, who came to the palace after an MRI to check that the recent surgery had removed all of his cancer, said his fondness for Elizabeth started in childhood but grew stronger in recent years.
After French’s father died in 2019, he said he found comfort in observing the Queen’s grace and determination at the funeral of her husband, Prince Philip. As she got older and her own health faltered, her determination to enjoy the places and things she loved — while preserving her role as queen — gave him inspiration, he said.
When he arrived at Buckingham Palace on Friday, he arranged four small bunches of flowers in a generous bouquet held together with a headband given to him by another admirer in the crowd. At the barricade, he handed them over to a police officer, who promised to find a good spot at the foot of the palace gates.
It offered little comfort. But in the coming weeks, the pain of losing Elizabeth will be hard to hide, said McDaniel, the store associate. After all, the Queen’s face and name are everywhere – on British money and postage stamps, at an airport terminal at Heathrow and on London’s newest underground line.
“It’s going to be hard, but we’ll get through it,” McDaniel said. “That’s what we do. We’re English. We’ll have a cup of tea and move on.”
Adam Geller is a national writer for The Associated Press, commissioned in London to cover the Queen’s death. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/adgeller