Queen’s children hold vigil over coffin in Westminster Hall | Queen Elizabeth II

Three measured taps of the guard’s stick on the stone steps inside Westminster Hall signalled the start of the vigil of the princes as Queen Elizabeth II’s four children, led by the King, marched slowly down, stopping in front of the catafalque.

Another triple tap, and they stepped on to it. King Charles, red-eyed and blinking, took up his place at the head of the coffin, the Princess Royal and Earl of Wessex to each side of it, and the Duke of York at its foot.

Slowly, and in unison, they turned outwards. Then they stood, backs to the coffin, motionless, heads bowed.

This was her children’s final poignant ceremonial tribute to a mother, and their Queen, before her state funeral on Monday. And, like so many other occasions over the past week, a deeply private moment played out so very publicly.

Members of the public continued to file slowly past on both sides, their soft footsteps the only sound in the great hall as the King and his siblings mounted guard. Other members of the royal family, including the Queen Consort and Countess of Wessex, watched from nearby. After 15 minutes, and with another triple tap, the four stepped down – their duty done.

It was the second time her children had paid their respects in this manner, the first being at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, where her coffin lay at rest before the journey back to Buckingham Palace. But on this occasion in Westminster Hall, Prince Andrew was permitted to wear military uniform, his nonworking royal status having previously confined him to morning dress.

On Saturday evening, the Queen’s eight grandchildren will stand vigil beside her coffin, it has been confirmed. The Prince of Wales will stand at the head, and the Duke of Sussex at the foot. At the King’s request, they will both be in uniform with Harry, as a nonworking royal, granted permission for the solemn occasion. The other grandchildren will be in morning coats and dark formal dress with decorations.

The vigil of the princes first took place in 1936 when the four sons of King George V kept watch over his coffin as it lay in state. In 2002, the four grandsons of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, kept vigil at her coffin in Westminster Hall.

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