Overseas statesmen and a freezing British public alike came to pay their respects at Sir Winston Churchill's funeral, 50 years ago this month.
It was television’s finest hour. The broadcast of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral, which took place on January 30, 1965, united the nation, just as the Coronation had done 12 years before. Many readers will remember the grainy pictures on small screens, accompanied by Richard Dimbleby’s voice, as resonant as a funeral bell. Others will have been at the event itself. It was remarkable how many young people could be seen among the crowd lining the route from Westminster Hall to St Paul’s, in, as Dimbleby put it, the new haircuts, fashions and styles.
It was a bitterly cold day. Although the servicemen taking part in the procession showed iron discipline standing to attention as they waited for the coffin to be placed on the gun carriage, members of the public, wrapped in blankets, stamped their feet; some collapsed.
Everyone had a sense that the ceremony marked the end of an era and that seems even more the case now. The television pictures show a different London: soot-blackened, mostly low rise, its riverfront lined with wharfs rather than millionaire’s flats. Dimbleby’s sparse and dignified commentary speaks of an age before sound bites. Ladies going into St Paul’s are wrapped in furs.
When The Queen told the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, that she wanted Churchill to have a State funeral, Churchill was gratified. A State funeral was a rare honour for a commoner there had not been one on a grand scale since the death of Wellington in 1852. Indeed, the candlesticks that stood over Churchill’s coffin were those that had been specially commissioned for Wellington and not used since.
He didn’t take a keen personal interest in the arrangements, beyond hoping, as his daughter Mary Soames remembered, that there would be ‘plenty of bands’. No doubt he was confident that the full panoply of which the nation was capable would be deployed. He would not have been disappointed.
The committee, codenamed Hope Not, was chaired by the Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, and, meeting secretly at the Admir-alty, pulled out all the stops. One problem that they had to resolve was who would walk behind the coffin? This honour was accorded to the close male members of Churchill’s family and his loyal private secretary of 13 years, Anthony Montague Browne, representing those who had worked for him.
‘I feared marring things by weeping,’ recalled Montague Browne. However, the pain caused by the aftermath of an operation for a slipped disc proved, during a slow march of two miles, ‘a helpful distraction’. Even today, reliving the event through the medium of fuzzy television film, people of a susceptible disposition may find their eyes moistening.
The route presented many obstacles, starting with the narrowness of the gate from New Palace Yard, through which the gun carriage and its escort had to pass at the beginning of the procession. This was followed by the physical difficulty of carrying the coffin up and, particularly, down the steps of St Paul’s. The precision with which all the necessary manoeuvres were performed, to the accompaniment of solemn music, emphasised the feeling of the day: everything that could be done to show honour to the memory of a great Englishman was done.
Old men came, including the frail Earl Attlee. So did many people, such as representatives of the Danish Resistance, who had been inspired by Churchill during the Second World War. All together, six sovereigns, 15 heads of state and representatives from more than 110 countries attended. Towering over Levi Eshkol, Prime Minister of Israel, came President de Gaulle. ‘In the great drama,’ the sometimes immovable French-man wrote to The Queen on Churchill’s death, ‘he was the greatest of all.’
They were greeted on the steps of St Paul’s by the heralds, ancient and bareheaded, in tights and tabards—a rare splash of colour on a sombre day. No tradition was neglected, however arcane. The Lord Mayor of London was accompanied by his Swordbearer, in the fur Cap of Maintenance, and the City Remembrancer. The Lord Mayor carried the Sword of Mourning, wrapped in black velvet, before The Queen.
However, if anyone’s memory evokes the funeral as a great imperial or Commonwealth occasion, like the Coronation, it plays him false. Churchill loved the British Empire. He came to manhood reporting the South African wars, during which he escaped imprisonment by the Boers. He invoked ‘our Empire beyond the seas’ during the Second World War and adamantly resisted the attempts of Gandhi, ‘a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir’, to get independence for India. But no Commonwealth troops took part in the procession.
Nor, for that matter, was there more than one woman. Churchill had opposed female suffrage; he could not imagine them fulfilling a useful purpose in public life and growled disparagements at the first sitting female MP, Nancy Astor. The sole female who marched in the procession was a representative of the Westerham branch of the British Legion.
Instead, the funeral expressed another facet of Churchill’s personality. His mother was American and he saw Britain’s post-War destiny as allied with the United States. He wanted the Union Flag to alternate with the Star Spangled Banner on the flagposts of the Mall. Alert to the theatre of the occasion, as well as knowing a good tune when he heard one, Churchill had The Battle Hymn of the American Republic included as one of the hymns. To American commentators, the seat of Empire a selfish despotism, as they had previously seen it was forgiven, having been transformed by a different narrative: the bulldog nation that stood alone in 1940.
To Dwight D. Eisenhower, paying tribute during the BBC broadcast, ‘Winston Churchill was Britain’. And so the funeral helped shape a new identity for Britain, subverted, Churchillians might think, eight years later, when Britain joined the European Economic Community.
Not everything that Churchill hoped for in his obsequies came to pass. His wish was to be buried on the croquet lawn at Chartwell. That caused consternation in some quarters, in the belief that such a resting place would lack reverence. Instead, a steam locomotive, Winston Churchill, took the coffin to the little station of Hanborough, Oxfordshire, and thence to the churchyard at Bladon, the village to the south of the park at Blenheim Palace.
Hanborough, however, is on the Worcestershire line, for which the usual railway station would be Paddington. How was it that the Port of London Authority launch went instead to Waterloo? Churchill is supposed to have insisted that it was the only station that could be used, if President de Gaulle outlived him. I would like to think that story is true.