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How a PM disliked by Queen Victoria inspired her great-great granddaughter’s lying in state

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Queen Victoria disliked William Gladstone, the prime minister who served her four times across four separate terms.

He “addresses me as though I were a public meeting”, she complained.

The exasperation was mutual. “The Queen alone is enough to kill any man,” Gladstone wrote to a friend.

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When he died in 1898 of cancer, which started behind his cheekbone and spread, the commemorations ordered by politicians at Westminster accidentally inspired a royal tradition – the public lying in state at Westminster Hall.

“The body was brought by special train to the adjacent Underground station before lying in state in Westminster Hall,” wrote Roy Jenkins in his biography of the statesman, “with a great file-past of the famous and obscure alike.”

The hall dates from 1097 and was a location for lavish feasts and banquets, as well the trials of Sir Thomas More, Guy Fawkes and Charles I.

William Gladstone. Pic: AP
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William Gladstone. Pic: AP

Gladstone’s funeral

Among the 10 pallbearers at Gladstone’s funeral at Westminster Abbey were the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and his son, the Duke of York (later George V).

Queen Victoria, unhappy at her family taking such roles, telegrammed her son to ask what precedent he had followed and whose advice he had taken.

The prince responded that he knew of no precedent and had taken no advice.

Centuries-old tradition

The tradition of lying in state stretches back to the 17th century, when Stuart monarchs did so for several days.

Queen Victoria lay in state in Windsor after her death in 1901, but she had requested that it not be public.

When Edward VII died nine years later, Westminster Hall was again opened to mourners to pay their respects.

The first members of the public pay their respects as the vigil begins around the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Hall, London
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The Queen lies in state at Westminster Hall

Modern standard

Edward VII set the modern standard and almost every sovereign since (with the exception of Edward VIII, who abdicated) have lain in state in the same colossal space.

Edward VII’s lying in state was an exercise in egalitarianism, according to the historian Jane Ridley: “Messenger boys were forbidden to hold places for others, and no tickets were sold, so the wealthy were obliged to wait in line with the poor, and the queue itself became a symbol for social equality.”

The historian David Torrance recounts that after public access had closed and the late monarch’s consort, Queen Alexandra, had spent some time with her husband’s coffin, “Winston Churchill attempted to enter with his family” but was turned away.

In 1965, 55 years later, the great prime minister was himself given the honour, which has not been granted to any politicians since.

King Charles III and other members of the royal family hold a vigil at St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, in honour of Queen Elizabeth II. Picture date: Monday September 12, 2022.
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The King and his siblings stand vigil at the Queen’s coffin

In 1936, there was a lying in state for George V, and the “Vigil of the Princes” – when members of the Royal Family stand guard by the monarch’s coffin, as King Charles and his siblings did on Monday – was revived.

In 1952, the coffin of the Queen’s father, George VI, lay in Westminster Hall. Fifty years later in 2002 the same ceremony was used for his wife, the Queen Mother.

And 70 years on, his daughter is now at rest in the same historic spot.

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