LONDON — Even in death, Queen Elizabeth II has convening power.
World leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden and France’s Emmanuel Macron descended on the U.K. capital to pay their respects to the late monarch Sunday, as the country prepared to say goodbye in grand style to its head of state for seven decades.
Leaders touched down over the weekend ahead of Monday’s royal funeral, which takes place in Westminster Abbey at 11 a.m. local time before a committal service later in the afternoon.
Using a fast-track VIP lane, some of those assembled joined members of the public in Westminster Hall to pay their respects to the queen, whose coffin is lying in state in the ancient Palace of Westminster until Monday morning.
Biden was applauded as he and his wife Jill arrived at the Houses of Parliament by presidential car. He appeared on the balcony overlooking Queen Elizabeth’s coffin, along with his wife, Jill, late Sunday afternoon.
The U.S. president signed the official book of condolences for the late monarch at Lancaster House, and paid tribute to someone whose loss he said “leaves a giant hole” and who reminded him of his own mother.
He added: “Sometimes you think you’ll never overcome it, but as I’ve told the King, she’s going to be with him every step of the way, every minute, every moment and that’s a reassuring notion. So to all the people of England, to all the people of the United Kingdom, our hearts go out to you. And you were fortunate to have had her for 70 years, we all were. The world’s better for her.”
Macron was meanwhile spotted leaving the Houses of Parliament on foot with his wife, and the French president told reporters he was in London to “share the pain of the British.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, and Olena Zelenska, the wife of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, were among those who visited Westminster Hall to see the queen lying in state.
On Sunday night, leaders and dignitaries, including Biden and the first lady, will take part in a reception hosted by the new King Charles III.
While most world leaders paid understated visits, Armenian President Vahagn Khachaturyan came under fire after he was caught having his picture taken at the foot of the late monarch’s coffin in a breach of the strict no-phones rule in force at the lying-in-state, the Sun newspaper reported Sunday.
The funeral of the only monarch most Britons have known is expected to bring central London to a standstill and involves the biggest security operation the capital has ever seen.
Liz Truss, who has been U.K. prime minister for less than a fortnight, met the king at Buckingham Palace, and is scheduled to mark a national “moment of reflection” for the queen outside No. 10 Downing Street.
On the buses
For all the warm words from visiting dignitaries, there will be some notable absences in Westminster Abbey on Monday.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, is no longer expected to attend the Westminster Abbey funeral, foreign office sources told Reuters on Sunday. Riyadh is expected to be represented by Prince Turki bin Mohammed al Saud instead. Extending an invitation to Bin Salman had been controversial following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has not been invited.
British organizers have also had a diplomatic row on their hands over the logistics of getting a host of world leaders to an event at the heart of the U.K. capital.
The British foreign office faced a backlash after guidance to overseas embassies, obtained by POLITICO, stipulated that leaders “will be required” to leave their personal vehicles at a site in west London and instead arrive at the funeral in shared coaches, citing security and road restrictions.
Last week, there were reports some members of Middle Eastern and North African royalty were unlikely to travel to London as a result of the edict. A Kuwaiti official told the Guardian: “If the King came to our neighbourhood, we would not put him on a bus. Expecting firm friends of King Charles to all gather like schoolboys on a bus to go to the funeral is not the start we were expecting. That’s why some of us are staying away.”
Downing Street later said U.S. President Biden would not have to take the bus to Westminster Abbey — a move that sparked anger from some nations demanding the same treatment.
Yet other world leaders were more relaxed. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Sunday the proposal “just makes good sense.”
“I don’t think the bus warrants too much fuss,” she told the BBC.