With former PM Margaret Thatcher’s funeral held in London today, we take a look at five prominent funerals in the city’s past…

Queen Eleanor of Castile: King Edward I was lavish in his funeral for Queen Eleanor (perhaps in an effort to restore her reputation given suggestions she had been unpopular among the common people although it may well have simply been because of the king’s level of grief) and when she died at Harby, a village near Lincoln, on 28th November, 1290, he ordered her body to be transported from Lincoln Cathedral to Westminster Abbey where the funeral was held, with a series of elaborate memorial crosses to be built close to where-ever her body rested for the night. Twelve of these were built including at Westcheap in the City of London and Charing (hence Charing Cross, see our earlier post here), the latter thanks to her body “resting” overnight at the Dominican Friary at Blackfriars. Her funeral took place on 17th December, 1290, with her body placed in a grave near the high altar until her marble tomb was ready. The tomb (one of three built for the queen – the others were located at Lincoln – for her viscera – and Blackfriars – for her heart) still survives in the abbey.

St-Paul's-CathedralVice Admiral Lord Nelson: Heroic in life and perhaps seen as even more so after his death, Nelson’s demise at the Battle of Trafalgar was a national tragedy. His body, preserved in brandy, was taken off the HMS Victory and transported to Greenwich where he lay in state for three days in the Painted Hall. Thousands visited before the body was again moved, taken in a barge upriver to the Admiralty where it lay for a night before the state funeral on 9th January, 1806, more than two months after his death. An escort said to comprise 10,000 soldiers, more than 100 sea captains and 32 admirals accompanied the body through the streets of the city along with seamen from the Victory to St Paul’s Cathedral (pictured)  where he was interred in a marble sarcophagus originally made for Cardinal Wolsey located directly beneath the dome. The tomb can still be seen in the crypt of St Paul’s.

Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington: Given the last heraldic state funeral ever held in Britain, the Iron Duke’s funeral was held on 18th November, 1852, following his death on 14th September. His body, which had been brought to London from Walmer where it had laid in state by rail, lay in state a second time at Chelsea Hospital. On the morning of the funeral, the cortege set out from Horse Guards, travelling via Constitution Hill to St Paul’s. The body was conveyed in the same funeral car used to convey Nelson’s and accompanied by a guard of honour which included soldiers from every regiment in the army. Masses – reportedly more than a million-and-a-half people – lined the streets to watch funeral procession pass through the city before a service was held in St Paul’s Cathedral under the great dome and he was interred in a monumental sarcophagus alongside that Vice Admiral Lord Nelson. Like Nelson’s, it can still be seen there today.

Sir Winston Churchill: Widely regarded as one of the great wartime leaders of the 20th century, the former British Prime Minister died in his London home on 24th January, 1965, having suffered a stroke nine days earlier. His funeral (plans for which had apparently been code-named ‘Hope-Not’), was the largest state funeral in the world at the time of his death with representatives of 112 nations attending and watched on television by 25 million people in Britain alone. His body lay in state for three days (during which more than 320,000 people came to pay their respects) before on 30th January, it was taken from Westminster Hall and through the streets of London to a funeral service at St Paul’s Cathedral. After the service, a 19 gun salute was fired and the RAF staged a flyby of 16 fighter planes as the body was taken to Tower Hill and then by barge to Waterloo Station. From there it was taken by a special funeral train (named Winston Churchill) to Bladon near Churchill’s home at Blenheim Palace.

Diana, Princess of Wales: Having died in a car crash in Paris on 31st August, 1997, her body was flown back to London and taken to St James’s Palace where it remained for five days before being transported to her former home of Kensington Palace. More than a million people crowded London’s streets on 6th September, 1997, to watch the funeral procession as it made its way from the palace to Westminster Abbey. Among those present at the funeral (which was not a state funeral) were members of the royal family as well as then Prime Minister Tony Blair, former PMs including Margaret Thatcher and foreign dignitaries and celebrities, the latter including Elton John who sang a rewritten version of Candle in the Wind. After the service, Diana’s body was taken to her family’s estate of Althorp in Northamptonshire where the “People’s Princess” was laid to rest.

Our new series will be launched next week due to this week’s events…

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The London Underground’s first railway journey took place on 9th January, 1863, and to celebrate we’re taking a look at 10 great Victorian-era projects in London. First up is Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington.

Royal-Albert-HallOpened on 29th March, 1871 (and in continuous use ever since), Royal Albert Hall was built in fulfilment of Prince Albert’s dream of creating a hall that would stand in the heart of the South Kensington estate and provide a focal point for the promotion of the arts and sciences.

It was on the back of the success of the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park in 1851, that Prince Albert, Prince Consort to Queen Victoria, proposed the creation of a permanent arts and sciences precinct in South Kensington and advised the purchase of land for that purpose (the hall is located on land once occupied by Gore House). But it wasn’t until after his death in 1861 that his vision was actually realised.

Construction of the hall – which was to serve as the centrepoint of the cultural precinct which became known, somewhat derisively, as Albertopolis – started in April 1867 (initially to be known as The Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, the hall apparently had its named changed to the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences by Queen Victoria while she was laying the foundation stone on 20th May that year – around 7,000 people attended the event). It was designed by engineers Captain Francis Fowke and, after his death, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Darracott Scott, based on concepts put forward by the man described as the “driving force” behind the project, Henry Cole (later the first director of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum). He had been inspired by the Roman amphitheatres he had seen while touring in southern France.

While initial proposals had suggested the hall would accommodate as many as 30,000 people, this was later scaled back to about 7,000 (and today the figure is apparently about 5,500 thanks to fire regulations).

The central auditorium, measuring 185 feet by 219 feet, is covered by a glazed dome constructed of wrought iron girders and was the largest structure of its kind in the world at the time of its building. The hall’s exterior was built from about six million red bricks and features an 800 foot long terracotta frieze showing figures engaged in a range of cultural pursuits. Much of the interior decorative detail was added later.

So overcome was Queen Victoria at the building’s opening in 1871 that Edward, the Prince of Wales, had to speak in her place, declaring it open on her behalf before a crowd which included then Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Her only reported comment on the hall was that it reminded her of the British constitution.

The Grade One listed hall – which thankfully only suffered minor damage during World War II bombing raids (the German pilots apparently used its bulk as a navigation aid) – has since undergone substantial modifications including works undertaken to improve the hall’s acoustics, the replacement of gas lighting (electricity was first demonstrated in the hall in 1873) and demolition in 1889 of an adjoining glass conservatory to its south. A massive programme of improvements was carried out between 1996 and 2004 at the cost of more than £69 million.

The list of those who have performed or spoken at the hall reads something like a who’s who – among them are classical composers Wagner, Verdi, Elgar and Rachmaninov, singers and musicians including Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Who, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Adele, and Jay Z as well as sports personalities including boxer Mohammed Ali and tennis player John McEnroe, explorers like Sir Ernest Shackleton, world figures such as Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Winston Churchill, former South African president Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and former US president Bill Clinton and other high profile personalities such as Albert Einstein, Alan Ginsberg and Paul Robeson.

Among the other events held in the hall have been a marathon race, Greco-Roman wrestling and two Welsh National Eisteddfod’s (in 1887 and 1909). One of the most popular series of events now held there each year are the BBC Promenade Concerts, known as The Proms they include more than 70 events, which have been held in the hall since World War II.

A Victorian masterpiece. For more on the hall, see www.royalalberthall.com.