Queen Elizabeth II died on September 8, 2022. As the longest-reigning monarch in British history and the head of one of the most famous families in the world, her death sparked an outpouring of devotion. Stories of her passing clogged global news outlets. “Operation London Bridge,” the Queen’s funeral plan, had been in the works since the 1960s; and thousands of volunteers were called upon to direct the public through the streets of London. At the time of the Queen’s death, I was based in Norfolk, not far from her family home in Sandringham. I listened to sentimental daily BBC interviews with people close to her—the Queen’s chaplain, friends of Prince Charles, notable authors. Most of these interviews lingered on the Queen’s faith. Given that she was the supreme governor of the Church of England, this emphasis should not have been surprising to me, but it was; I did not expect the tributes on a supposedly secular news outlet to be so overtly religious.
Soon, tens of thousands gathered in a line—or “queue”—to wait hours to pay respect to the queen as she was lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. Ian Jack, of The Guardian, referred to it as a “pilgrimage without self-flagellation or any major discomfort beyond sleeplessness, tired legs and sore backs.” Colin Drury, of The Independent, quoted one mourner as saying it was “like making a pilgrimage.” More overt religious news hubs, like The Irish Catholic, used the opportunity to educate readers about the tenets of pilgrimage, including “its main purpose … to achieve holiness and grace” and alleviate “the loneliness of everyday existence and seeking a community.”
I was troubled by the extension of “pilgrimage” to the queue. As a scholar, I study the phenomenon of Christian pilgrimage— namely, the Camino de Santiago, a renowned medieval Catholic pilgrimage transecting the north of Spain. In my ethnographic research, I try to understand why the political contours of this form of religious travel are frequently invisible.
Pilgrimage, like the British monarchy, is heavily steeped in imperial and colonial ideologies. Choosing to focus on the more benign aspects of pilgrimage, such as the community it engenders and elements of personal transformation, conceals this controversial past. Pilgrimages always integrate questions of identity, difference, and control. British colonial authorities once blamed cholera epidemics on Hindu and Muslim pilgrims traveling through eastern cities. Before decolonization, the hajj was heavily controlled by a British imperial pilgrimage administration. Calling the queue a “pilgrimage” does specific work for the monarchy’s political theology, or what Adam Kotsko, an American theologian and expert in the field of political theology, defines in his book, Neoliberalism’s Demons, as “the study of systems of legitimacy, of the ways that political, social, economic, and religious orders maintain their explanatory power and justify the loyalty of their adherents.” This political theology requires the Church of England to legitimate its continuity through rendering invisible its controversial histories of violence. If the queue is a pilgrimage, then it correspondingly sacralizes the queen (and monarchy)—bringing people together through physical duress, acts of kindness, and Christian ideologies of care that are inherently political.
As an anthropologist and a dual British/American citizen, I was aware of the ideological significance of the queue, and also perplexed by the seemingly unreflective outpouring of adulation for the queen. To understand more of what was happening, on Sunday, September 17, I made my own journey to London on the last day to pay respect to the queen before her funeral. I took my toddler on a three-hour train journey, from Norfolk to London, to ask questions of those waiting in line.
When we finally made it to the end of Victoria Street, we found ourselves in a queue to reach the queue. We were flocked by people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds holding flowers and brandishing cameras. At times, we were pushed forward. At other times, we collapsed into those behind us.
After an hour, we arrived in the square outside of Westminster Hall. TV reporters and journalists jockeyed for space amid public onlookers. A female police officer adopting a power stance directed us to Lambeth Bridge, the place most accessible for interviews. On our way, my son made friends with Peter Spens, a painter who had positioned himself by the side of St. Margaret Street for the past two afternoons, painting the queue. He hoped to memorialize and eventually sell the scene, which, in his words, was a pilgrimage because “it seemed to be more about celebrating and honoring the queen, rather than mourning.”
Eventually, we made it to the bottleneck before the grounds of Westminster Hall, where several volunteers were checking bright green wrist bands. “Wrists up, wrists up,” a volunteer chanted, turning her work into a celebratory dance. One couple near us had driven up from Leeds that morning. Another family had come all the way from Yorkshire. The majority seemed to be from London. Two young London mothers, one carrying her baby on her chest, and the other pushing a stroller, had befriended each other in the queue. “We’ve really been taking care of each other.” When I asked why they had come, they smiled, “We came for the queue.”
At one point, a man wearing the wrong wrist band was asked to step away. I found out his name was John Garry. He told me that he had first queued two days earlier, waiting 13 hours to pay his respects to the queen. He had queued again that day, to keep his wife and an assortment of new friends company. He introduced me to @Curiousiguana’s viral Twitter rumination about the queue and its Britishness, which he felt was accurate up to a point. It did a good job of comically conveying the culture of the queue, but it missed out on the community generated by the experience. “What doesn’t come through, is that I left with a family,” he said. He talked about the random acts of kindness he’d witnessed. A woman living in a modest council flat had opened up her doors and told anyone passing that they were free to use her “loo.” Another woman had gone home to get blankets for those around her, while a “queue friend” held her place in line. Garry told me that he had queued to, “quite simply” say, “Thank you, Ma’am.” “You see,” he continued, “I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Her Majesty to shake the hands of some of the world leaders she had to shake hands with. I couldn’t do it. She had to just be civil with everyone. That’s real magnanimity.” When I asked about the monarchy’s role in perpetuating slavery and colonial violence, he mentioned that he felt like the majority of people in the queue were only aware of Britain’s history after World War II. When I tried to say that Britain is still coming to terms with its role in the slave trade, Garry changed the subject.
We didn’t make it inside to see the queen in the end. It was getting cold, and the prospect of waiting for another eight hours through the cold night with a one-year-old felt unwise. After an hour of watching the police contain the stream of people, and repairmen fix traffic lights near Westminster, it was time to leave. My son and I started our trek back to Victoria Station, this time along an emptier sidewalk through the spitting rain.
We rushed to make our train. With my son on my back, I heaved through the aisle between the seats searching for somewhere to sit. Eventually, we collapsed next to a mother and daughter from Leeds, who kindly rearranged to make room for us. They had, unsurprisingly, been to pay their respects to the queen, spending the previous night in the queue, and touring Central London that day thanks to a new friend from the queue. They asked me what I had been doing in London, and I told them. When I mentioned my work on the Camino, they looked at each other. “We’re Catholics, and we make the pilgrimage to Walsingham every year,” they said. When I asked if they thought the queue was a pilgrimage, the mother nodded and said, “I wanted to say it was a pilgrimage while I was there, but you never know how people will react. My priest always says it’s called pilgrimage for a reason, because there’s the word ‘grim’ in there. It’s not meant to be comfortable. The queue was like that, you know.”
Pilgrimages have always been spaces of community and contestation. And yet, the more contentious elements of pilgrimage are frequently ignored. Alluding to the queue as a pilgrimage does distinctive political work. It erases the harm that has been done by the monarchy through allusions to an exemplary collective and sacred experience that also epitomizes “Britishness.” It perpetuates the place of religion (really, the Church of England) in sustaining both the monarchy and British nationalism, while legitimizing the waves of oppression and control associated with the Empire. It may be that to understand the passing of the queen and the haze of collective mourning that dominated the news cycle for two weeks, eclipsing other significant headlines, requires, as columnist Emma Brockes suggests, playing a British “subject.” But to call the queue a pilgrimage without acknowledging the full spectrum of British history and the related politics of pilgrimage rituals? There is also a “grim” reality to that.
Augusta Thomson is a PhD candidate in anthropology at New York University. Her research has been supported by the Council for European studies, the Society for Visual Anthropology/Lemelson Foundation, and the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, among others. She has written for a variety of publications, including Al Jazeera English, HuffPost, and The Daily Beast.