Funeral of Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill‘s funeral was on a scale befitting his place in history as the prime minister who guided Britain to victory during World War II. He died on January 24, 1965, having lived to the age of 90. The government had been planning extensively for his funeral in the years before his death, and it had to be revised several times as Churchill kept living, leading Lord Mountbatten to remark that “the pallbearers kept dying and Churchill kept living.”
It became the largest state funeral in history. Representatives from over 120 countries attended the ceremony in London, including Queen Elizabeth II, for whom Churchill was reportedly her favorite prime minister. The funeral itself was watched by 350 million people on television.
After his death on January 24, the Queen sent his wife Clementine Churchill a letter saying “The whole world is the poorer by the loss of his many-sided genius while the survival of this country and the sister nations of the Commonwealth, in the face of the greatest danger that has ever threatened them, will be a perpetual memorial to his leadership, his vision and indomitable courage”.
Vast numbers of dignitaries attended the funeral, including wartime colleagues Dwight D. Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle as well as several past British prime ministers.
Source: International Churchill Society
Sir Winston Churchill died on 24 January 1965, aged 90. His was the first state funeral for a non-royal family member since Lord Carson in 1935, and as of 2021 it remains the most recent state funeral in the United Kingdom. The official funeral lasted for four days. Planning for the funeral, known as Operation Hope Not, began 12 years before Churchill’s death. It was initiated after Churchill’s stroke in 1953 while in his second term as the prime minister of the United Kingdom. After several revisions due to Churchill’s continued survival (mainly because “the pallbearers kept dying”, explained Lord Mountbatten), the plan was issued on 26 January 1965, two days after his death.
By decree of Queen Elizabeth II, his body lay in state at Westminster Hall for three days from 26 January. On 30 January, the order of funeral was held at St Paul’s Cathedral. From there the body was transported by water along the River Thames to Waterloo station, accompanied by military salutations. In the afternoon he was buried at St Martin’s Churchyard at Bladon, the resting place of his ancestors and his brother. Attended by representatives from 120 countries, 6,000 people, and unusually by the Queen, more than 1,000 police and security personnel, involving nine military bands, 18 military battalions, 16 Royal Air Force English Electric Lightning fighter jets, a special boat MV Havengore and a train hauled by Winston Churchill, homage paid by 321,360 people, and witnessed by over 350 million people, it was the largest state funeral in history. It was remarked “as demonstrating the British genius for public spectacle
Background and funeral plan.
Main article: Operation Hope Not
Voted as the greatest Briton in a BBC poll in 2002, Sir Winston Churchill is remembered for leading his country (with the Allies) to victory as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. In June 1953, during his second term as prime minister, he had a severe stroke at a dinner party at Downing Street. Unknown to his guests, he collapsed and was left partially paralysed. The family kept the incident secret. Among the few who were informed of the news was Queen Elizabeth II, who had occupied the throne for just a year. She instructed The 16th Duke of Norfolk, who, as Earl Marshal, was in charge of state funerals, to make preparations in the event of Churchill’s death that should be “on a scale befitting his position in history”. A meticulous and confidential plan titled Operation Hope Not was prepared. Churchill survived the next 12 years, during which necessary modifications were frequently made. The final documents, titled State Funeral of the Late Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, K.G., O.M., C.H., were issued on 26 January 1965, two days after Churchill’s death. The documents dictated the entire course of the funeral down to the minutest detail.
Churchill died in the morning of Sunday 24 January 1965 in his home at 28 Hyde Park Gate, London, exactly 70 years after the death of his father. Since 1949, he had suffered eight strokes. The last was on 15 January 1965, from which he never recovered. After the stroke, he was mostly in a coma; his last words were to his son-in-law Christopher Soames: “I’m so bored with it all.” His physician Lord Moran first informed the Queen and the Prime Minister Harold Wilson of the death, and then made the announcement at 8:35 a.m. which was given to the press, saying, “Shortly after eight this morning, Sunday, Jan the 24th, Sir Winston Churchill died at his London home. [Signed] Moran.” The BBC relayed the news of the death at 9:00 a.m. and continued playing Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven, the opening theme with three short notes and a long note that indicated the letter “V” in Morse code to symbolise Churchill’s iconic wartime gesture, two fingers held aloft to show “V” for victory.
The Prime Minister announced:
Sir Winston will be mourned all over the world by all who owe so much to him. He is now at peace after a life in which he created history and which will be remembered as long as history is read.
On that day US President Lyndon B. Johnson issued an official statement, saying: WHEN THERE was darkness in the world, and hope was low in the hearts of men, a generous Providence gave us Winston Churchill. As long as men tell of that time of terrible danger and of the men who won the victory, the name of Churchill will live…
He is History’s child, and what he said and what he did will never die.
The next day, members of the House of Commons paid tribute. In the meeting, the Prime Minister moved a motion that was a request from the Queen regarding the places for lying in state and funeral service, and was resolved as:
J. H. Kenyon Ltd, of Paddington, London, the funeral directors to the Royal Household since 1928, were tasked with preparing Churchill’s remains for the funeral. Desmond Henley, the company’s chief embalmer, went to Churchill’s Hyde Park Gate home to oversee the process. Churchill’s body was embalmed in the same room where he had died. When the process was completed, the remains were dressed in his silk pyjamas and dressing robe and placed back into his bed. Churchill would lie in repose in private at his home until 9:00 p.m. Tuesday evening when Kenyon’s staff transported his remains to Westminster Hall for public viewing.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty humbly to thank Her Majesty for having given directions for the body of the Rt. Hon. Sir Winston Churchill, K.G., to lie in State in Westminster Hall and for the funeral service to be held in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul and assuring Her Majesty of our cordial aid and concurrence in these measures for expressing the affection and admiration in which the memory of this great man is held by this House and all Her Majesty’s faithful subjects.
Lying in state
The funeral started on Tuesday 26 January 1965. By 8:30 p.m. police and security personnel had taken up their positions in what The Daily Telegraph reported as “the most extensive security operation of this sort ever undertaken in England.” At 9:15 p.m. Churchill’s body was transported from his London home to Westminster Hall for the lying in state. It was led by Cameron Cobbold, 1st Baron Cobbold, the Lord Chamberlain in the company of family members. He was placed on a catafalque before Lady Churchill and the Earl Marshall. At 9:00 p.m. the first watch was mounted in the hall by the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards. In the subsequent days the Royal Navy and five regiments of foot guards also took turns.
The lying-in-state lasted from Wednesday 27 January to 6:00 a.m. on 30 January, during which Westminster Hall was kept open for 23 hours daily. An hour was reserved for cleaning. The queue was most times more than one mile long, and the waiting time was about three hours; 321,360 people came to pay their respects.
Order of service
The funeral service on Saturday 30 January began with the chiming of Big Ben at 9:45 a.m. It was broadcast live on BBC, presented by Richard Dimbleby. The clock was muted for the rest of the day. Ninety cannon salutes were fired at Hyde Park to mark the ninety years of Churchill’s life.
The coffin was placed on a gun carriage and draped with the Union Flag upon which was the insignia of the Order of the Garter on top of a black cushion. It was carried from the hall by a bearer party of eight guards from the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards. The procession started upon a drum beat by the Royal Navy and was then led by the Royal Air Force and the Foot guards. Following the gun carriage were Randolph Churchill and his son Winston side by side, followed by male members of the Churchill family and Churchill’s private secretary, Anthony Montague Browne, all on foot. Lady Churchill and two daughters followed in the Queen’s town coach. As the procession was leaving the New Palace Yard of the Palace of Westminster, a single gunshot was fired at St James’s Park. The march processed through Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, the Strand, Fleet Street, and up Ludgate Hill. A marching band consisted of three officers and 96 soldiers of the Scots Guards 2nd Battalion. Banners of the Danish resistance movements were lowered in respect at the Cenotaph. Altogether 2,500 soldiers and civilians took part in the procession, while four half-companies of soldiers lined the streets. Four majors of the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars were assigned to carry Churchill’s medals, orders and decorations. A single gunshot was fired every minute until they arrived at St Paul’s.
After an hour, the service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral. 3,500 people attended, including the Queen, who did not normally attend funerals of commoners. Protocol also dictated that the Queen be the last to arrive at an event, but on this occasion she put royal etiquette aside, arriving before Churchill’s coffin was in the church. There were 12 pallbearers in the cathedral, including Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the Prime Minister of Australia Robert Menzies, and the former British Prime Ministers Clement Attlee, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. Aged 82, Attlee was frail with ill-health but insisted he be the pallbearer as Churchill had asked him to do the honour. He stumbled on the steps to the entrance of the cathedral, the coffin was almost dropped, and only saved by two soldiers, “pushers”, from the back.
With officials from more than 112 countries attending, it was the largest gathering of dignitaries in history until the 1980 funeral of Josip Broz Tito, the 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II and the 2013 funeral of Nelson Mandela. Guests included the French President Charles de Gaulle, the Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson, the prime minister of Rhodesia Ian Smith, the former US president Dwight D. Eisenhower, many other past and present heads of state and government, and members of multiple royal families. Churchill had expressly objected to inviting de Gaulle as he believed, although they were allies in the war, was anti-British and was pleaded by the Duke of Norfolk on the ground of political amnesty; to which Churchill agreed on the condition that London Waterloo train station should be used instead of Paddington, as planned. Sir Robert Menzies, then the longest-serving Commonwealth Prime Minister, who had known Churchill well in wartime, paid tribute to his colleague as part of the funeral broadcast, as did President Eisenhower. Churchill’s favourite hymns were sung, including “Fight the Good Fight“, “He Who Would Valiant Be” and “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord.”
At the thanksgiving, Menzies recited a eulogy:
In the whole of recorded history this [the Second World War] was, I believe, the one occasion when one man, with one soaring imagination, with one fire burning in him, and with one unrivalled capacity for conveying it to others, won a crucial victory not only for the Forces (for there were many heroes in those days) but for the spirit of human freedom. And so, on this day, we thank him, and we thank God for him.”
As the service as over, Handel’s Dead March was played on the organ while the pallbearers were getting ready. The congregation sang Our God, Our Help in Ages Past as the coffin was carried out through the Great West Doors.
Winston Churchill’s funeral train passing Clapham Junction
After the church service, Churchill’s coffin was carried to the Tower of London. The bearer party was led by 60 pipers. The Royal Artillery fired a 19-gun salute acknowledging Churchill’s positions (as head of government and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports). The procession moved to Tower Pier, where the coffin was taken on board the MV Havengore. Naval ratings ‘piped the side’ and the Royal Marine band played the musical salute Rule, Britannia! to the former First Lord of the Admiralty. Sixteen Royal Air Force English Electric Lightning fighter jets also flew above in formation as the boat sailed.
As the coffin passed up the River Thames, more than 36 dockers lowered their crane jibs in a salute on the south side of the bank. It was not part of the plan and was initially disapproved by the New Scotland Yard as an unnecessary private tribute. The cranes were under the Hay’s Wharf (now Hay’s Galleria) and the homage was praised as a gesture of respect in an unrehearsed and spontaneous action. Nicholas Soames, grandson of Churchill, remarked this unexpected activity as one that “undid us all.” But when Jeremy Paxman aired his BBC documentary Churchill: A Nation’s Farewell in 2015, he created a controversy. In it, Paxman interviewed one of the surviving dockers John Lynch, who claimed that the workers were paid to show up for work and did the gesture only because they were paid to do so as it was a Saturday, their day off. Lynch further went on to say that the dockers hated Churchill. In response, David Freeman reported that way back in 1965, David Burnett, the then managing director of Hay’s Wharf, had publicly revealed that the gesture was voluntary. Talking to the Daily Mail, Burnett had stated: “We thought we should add our own little tribute to Sir Winston. The dock workers concerned immediately agreed to give up their time off… Our men have not asked for any overtime. They will be paid something to cover their expenses.” Rodney J. Croft also described in his 2014 book Churchill’s Final Farewell that the crane drivers voluntarily did the job “without any resort to asking for overtime pay.”
From the MV Havengore, the coffins was picked up by a black Austin Princess hearse at Festival Pier. The hearse was escorted only by a large limousine for the Churchill family. The coffin arrived at Waterloo Station at 1:23 p.m. and was picked up by ten soldiers from the Queen’s Royal Irish hussars and was placed in a specially prepared train, the locomotive of which was named Winston Churchill that was to carry it to the final destination in Oxfordshire. The hearse van, No. S2464S, had been set aside in 1962 specifically for the funeral train. In the fields along the route, and at the stations through which the train passed, thousands stood in silence to pay their last respects. Churchill was interred in St Martin’s Churchyard in a private family ceremony. He was laid in a grave near to his parents and his brother.
The Queen’s reactions
Queen Elizabeth II immediately sent a letter of condolence to Lady Churchill after hearing Churchill’s death on 24 January 1965, saying:
The whole world is the poorer by the loss of his many-sided genius while the survival of this country and the sister nations of the Commonwealth, in the face of the greatest danger that has ever threatened them, will be a perpetual memorial to his leadership, his vision and indomitable courage.
The Queen sent a message to the House of Commons concerning the procedures for Churchill’s funeral, and was read on 25 January, which ran:
I know that it will be the wish of all my people that the loss which we have sustained by the death of the Right Honourable Sir Winston Churchill, K.G., should be met in the most fitting manner and that they should have an opportunity of expressing their sorrow at the loss and their veneration of the memory of that outstanding man who in war and peace served his country unfailingly for more than fifty years and in the hours of our greatest danger was the inspiring leader who strengthened and supported us all. Confident that I can rely upon the support of my faithful Commons and upon their liberality in making suitable provision for the proper discharge of our debt of gratitude and tribute of national sorrow, I have directed that Sir Winston’s body shall lie in state in Westminster Hall and that thereafter the Funeral Service shall be held in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul. – ELIZABETH REGINA
The Queen broke certain royal protocols at Churchill’s funeral. Firstly, it was a common royal etiquette for the monarch to not attend funeral service outside of the royal family. Secondly, she not only attended the service but was among the first officials to arrive at St Paul’s, making her presence even before the coffin and Churchill family arrived. It is a royal custom in any event that the monarch is always the last to arrive. Additionally, it is a royal convention that the monarch is also the first to exit or end an ongoing event. As the funeral service was over, the Queen followed the Churchill family out of the cathedral. To these unusual deeds by the Queen, Nicholas Soames commented: “It is absolutely exceptional if not unique for the Queen to grant precedence to anyone. For her to arrive before the coffin and before my grandfather was a beautiful and very touching gesture.”
Churchill’s funeral was the largest gathering of world leaders during the 1960s—and, at that time, in history. Representatives from 112 countries and many organisations attended, including 5 kings, 2 queens, 1 emperor, 1 grand duke, 2 queen consorts, 15 presidents, 14 prime ministers and 10 former leaders. The only notable absentee was Lyndon B. Johnson, President of the United States, who was ill at the time. The official representative of the United States was Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States.