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The hallowed history of state funerals - Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | Sep 18, 2022

Ministry of Defence picture

Today’s State Funeral at Westminster Abbey is only the second held in Britain since George VI’s death in February 1952. The exceptional first was accorded to the kingdom’s World War II saviour, Winston Churchill, in January 1965. There was non-royal precedent: Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington had been similarly honoured; and Gladstone. The laying out in Westminster Hall had begun with him in 1898. (Gladstone’s great rival, Disraeli, and a much more recent great, Margaret Thatcher, had also been offered State Funerals; but both declined.)

It was very rare for a monarch to attend non-royal funerals but the young queen not only joined the congregation at St Paul’s but acceded precedence - taking her seat before the arrival of Churchill’s coffin and recessing behind the Churchill family. The pomp and precision were deeply impressive, drawing on tradition and an august sense of great occasion. “Something”, Noel Coward once quipped, “We overdo so well.” Of course, plans had to be periodically redrawn as Churchill lived so long. As Louis Mountbatten observed, “The pall bearers kept dying.”

The most magisterial moment actually came after the service as the barge carrying Churchill’s body along the Thames towards Blenheim and the Marlborough cemetery at Bladon. Tower Bridge had already been fully raised in honour when, on the south bank, nearly forty dockers dipped their cranes in silent salute. “That,” recalled his grandson, Nicholas Soames, “undid us all.”

This perfection had not always been the case. Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901 was a shemozzle - the horses of the gun carriage were frightened and kicked and broke the traces. Victoria's son, Edward VII, was so annoyed that he left detailed instructions on how his obsequies would proceed.

There was always room for indulging royal foibles and affections. Victoria was somehow squeezed into a casket containing lockets, bracelets, rings, chains, a shawl, handkerchiefs, Prince Albert's dressing-gown and a plaster cast of his hand, John Brown's photograph and his hair in a case.

In 1910, Edward VII’s favourite charger, Kildare, and his beloved terrier Caesar walked directly behind the gun carriage carrying his master's coffin. The nine kings who attended including the Kaiser, had to make do with walking in Caesar's wake. Edward VII, the Uncle of Europe, was the first monarch to lie in state in Westminster Hall.

Black was to be worn officially for a whole year while the court was in mourning. The biographer Kenneth Rose wrote that one hostess threaded black ribbons through her daughter’s underclothes while a grocer in Jermyn Street displayed black Bradenham hams in his window. More recently the period of mourning has shortened to the days between the death and the funeral.

A smoking-induced death in 1936 claimed George V, as it had his father and would his son. His last words were said to have been, “How’s the Empire?” though Christopher Hitchens would later claim that he was enquiring about Wallis Simpson and actually gasped, “How’s the vampire?” The King’s physician, Lord Dawson of Penn, administered a fatal dose of morphine to relieve the pain, but also to ensure that it would hasten the king’s death so it could be decorously reported in the morning papers rather than the racy evening tabloids.

At George V's initial funeral procession in February 1936 from Sandringham to the station, his pet parrot Charlotte followed directly behind Queen Mary and her daughter in a carriage of her own. Jock, the king's old grey pony, followed Charlotte. When the procession continued in London, the King’s four sons walked behind his gun carriage. The new King. Edward VIII, saw a flicker - ‘something dancing along the pavement’ - it turned out to be the Maltese Cross which had fallen on the road from the top of the crown on the old King’s coffin. Edward wondered ‘if it was a bad omen’

At George V’s lying-in-state at Westminster Hall the tradition of the Princes’ Vigil was instituted with his four sons surrounding his catafalque in silence on the eve of the funeral, something repeated in Edinburgh and in London last week with the Queen’s four children. Such was the Queen’s longevity that her eight grandchildren were old enough to honour her in the same way at Westminster.

Having survived the trauma of taking the throne upon his brother Edward’s abdication and the long hard years of the War, George VI’s death at 56 still came as a shock. His daughter, the new Queen Elizabeth, returned from Kenya - sad but calm and self-contained. The crowds that lined the funeral path of her father were immense, but a lasting impression of the event was the poignant sight of three black-veiled, grief-stricken queens – mother, wife and daughter – in mourning for the son, husband and father they had lost.

In 1972, the body of his elder brother (the Duke of Windsor) was, after 36 years in exile, flown home from his house in Paris, the one to which Diana was heading when she was killed. He was greeted like a King and buried with all the other royals at Frogmore, after what was ingeniously described as a “private royal funeral” at St George’s Windsor.

In 1986, his widow, Wallis, who also died in that same sad house, was flown to Britain to be buried with her husband. As she was buried, his niece, the now late Queen, a paragon of self-control, was said to have broken down and wept.

Now, another 36 years later, many, many tears are being shed for that niece, who surely deserves the epithet (first suggested by her 14th Prime Minister last week) Elizabeth The Great. Has there been a greater monarch since Alfred died in 899?

Operation London Bridge, regularly, scrupulously reviewed and revised for decades, spun into action on the Queen’s death at her beloved Balmoral on 8 September. Because she died in Scotland - so appropriate as she was both Queen of Scots and, through her mother, half-Scots – Operation Unicorn was also activated, affording its people a focal role in bidding farewell and paying tribute to this descendant of Mary, Queen of Scots and James VI.

Should one be surprised that even the organiser of the obsequies has inherited his role? The Earl Marshal is always the Duke of Norfolk and today Edward, the 18th Duke, will oversee the ritual. In 2002, he succeeded his father who had said: “I organised the crossing of the Rhine [in the Second World War] in 24 hours — the Queen’s funeral will be a piece of cake.” Miles, the 17th Duke, had been overseeing plans for the Queen Mother’s funeral, Operation Tay Bridge, for more than 20 years when Diana died and it was adapted for her.

The acres and acres of flowers laid down in homage since 8 September dwarf those for Diana 25 years ago. There is again a sense of shock, despite the inevitability of death at 96 but the depth of gratitude and devotion is profound.

So 19 September 2022 will be an historic - perhaps even a histrionic - day for many subjects. It will be not just a moving and memorable experience but a monumental one.

Having prayed for the Queen for seven decades, it will take some time to get used to praying 'GOD SAVE THE KING' but we should continue to say 'Thank God for The Queen', beginning with today’s service.