The death of Sir Winston Churchill and the top-secret plans for his funeral

The state funeral of Britain’s former prime minister and wartime hero Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 was a brilliant spectacle watched by more than 350 million people around the world. Here, ahead of the third season of The Crown, which dramatises Churchill’s funeral, author Piers Brendon explores the top-secret plans in place for the funeral and reveals the true nature of Churchill’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth II…

The state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill

How and when did Winston Churchill die?

Sir Winston Churchill died on 24 January 1965 – 70 years to the day after the death of his father. He was 90 years old and had suffered a series of strokes, and it had been apparent for some time that his life was drawing to a close. Reporters besieged his London house at Hyde Park Gate and the state of his health filled the newspapers. With characteristic good taste, the new satirical magazine Private Eye referred to him as “the greatest dying Englishman”.

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Actually, Churchill’s health had been in decline at least since the major stroke which felled him in June 1953. Then, the prime minister’s incapacitation was kept hidden from the public while he made a very slow recovery. This was a remarkable example of British official secrecy at work and a stark contrast to what happened in America after Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack two years later, when the White House press secretary issued regular bulletins about the president’s condition, right down to the nature and rate of his bowel movements.

Plans for Churchill’s funeral were initiated after his stroke and they too were a closely guarded secret. His funeral took place on 30 January 1965.

Operation Hope Not: what plans were in place for Churchill’s funeral?

Queen Elizabeth II instructed the Duke of Norfolk, who as hereditary Earl Marshal of England was in charge of important ceremonial occasions, to ensure that the wartime leader’s obsequies were “on a scale befitting his position in history”. A Whitehall committee was therefore established, on which Churchill’s private secretary Anthony Montague Browne sat, to work out a programme for a state funeral. Asked by Churchill’s son, Randolph, what a state funeral was, the Earl Marshal replied succinctly: “One for which the state pays.” (Churchill’s funeral cost £55,000, not counting the military expenditure.)

Winston Churchill in 1952
Winston Churchill in 1952, at the funeral of King George VI. (Photo by Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Drawing on precedents set during the last offices accorded to national figures such as Nelson, Wellington and Gladstone, the committee devised an astonishingly detailed programme for a gigantic funereal pageant – the last great imperial pageant – full of pomp and circumstance. The functions of all the participants were laid out with minute precision; their movements were orchestrated to the second and choreographed to the inch. The arrangements were embodied in a so-called ‘war book’, as though for another D-Day, and the entire procedure was code-named Operation Hope Not.

Lady Clementine Churchill (second from left) is escorted on the arm of her son Randolph as they follow the coffin of her husband, Winston Churchill
Lady Clementine Churchill (second from left) is escorted on the arm of her son Randolph as they follow the coffin of her husband, Winston Churchill. (Photo by Romano Cagnoni/Getty Images)

 

Did Churchill help plan his own funeral?

Contrary to myth, Churchill himself was not much involved in the planning. But he did express the hope that his send-off would be accompanied by plenty of bands (he got nine) and that the hymns should be lively – they were characteristically pugnacious: ‘Fight the Good Fight’; ‘He Who Would Valiant Be’; and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’. However, Churchill did manage to interfere with the arrangements by sheer longevity. According to the joke which Lord Mountbatten liked to repeat: “Winston kept living and the pallbearers kept dying.”

Churchill had also changed his mind in one significant respect: he originally wanted to be cremated and to have his ashes interred alongside the bodies of his beloved pets at Chartwell (you can read more about Churchill’s pets in my book Churchill’s Bestiary: His Life Through Animals); instead he decided that his corpse should be buried in Bladon churchyard, close to his parents’ graves and to his birthplace, Blenheim Palace.

Bladon also gave him an opportunity. Churchill was averse to the attendance at his funeral service of his infuriating wartime ally General Charles de Gaulle, who was engaged during the 1960s in frustrating Britain’s efforts to join the European Economic Community (EEC). However, Churchill agreed to the general’s presence on condition that the train taking his body to its final resting-place did not leave from Paddington but from Waterloo – a wicked posthumous putdown.

Winston Churchill's funeral cortege
Contrary to myth, Winston Churchill was not much involved in the planning of his own funeral. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

What was Churchill’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth II?

On Churchill’s death the Queen wrote to his widow, Clementine:

“The whole world is poorer for the loss of this 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.”

No doubt these were sincere sentiments, even if formulated by her private secretary.  Certainly, Churchill deserved the sovereign’s gratitude. Apart from his wartime achievements he was a fervent monarchist – the last true believer, according to Clementine, in the divine right of kings. Moreover, as Elizabeth II’s first prime minister he laid his vast experience at her feet, much in the manner of Lord Melbourne vis-à-vis the young Queen Victoria. Arriving at Buckingham Palace in top hat and frock coat for his weekly audience with Elizabeth, Churchill glowed with romantic loyalty. When asked what they talked about, he replied airily – and perhaps accurately in view of their common love of horses – “Oh, mostly racing.”

A wreath and note from Queen Elizabeth II on Sir Winston Churchill's grave in Bladon, Oxfordshire.
A wreath and note from Queen Elizabeth II on Sir Winston Churchill’s grave in Bladon. (Photo by McCabe/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On the other hand, there was a vast gulf of years between monarch and minister. Churchill had been elected to parliament in the lifetime of Queen Elizabeth’s great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria (he was first elected to parliament in 1900, the year before Victoria died). He regarded Elizabeth as a child (an uneducated one at that) and she could hardly avoid seeing him as the doughty champion of her uncle Edward VIII during the abdication crisis and the charismatic leader who had eclipsed her father during the war.  George VI, indeed, had been a staunch opponent of Churchill over the appeasement of Nazi Germany and wanted Lord Halifax, another appeaser, to succeed Neville Chamberlain as prime minister in May 1940.

Furthermore, Churchill plainly disliked the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip. In his final term as prime minister he kept him out of the political loop and made him “live over the shop” in Buckingham Palace. In addition Churchill would not permit the royal offspring to be called Mountbatten because the dynasty’s name was Windsor, thus turning the consort into what Philip referred to as “a bloody amoeba” – by which he perhaps meant sperm-donor. There are strong suggestions, too, that the Queen found Churchill stubborn, anachronistic, unwilling to listen and apt to mistake monologue for conversation.

These tensions occurred behind the scenes, and no scenes are more opaque than those which conceal the monarch from the sovereign people. So, to all appearances, propriety reigned.

How many people attended Churchill’s funeral? Did the Queen attend?

By royal decree Winston Churchill’s body lay in state for three days in Westminster Hall – he was the first commoner to do so since William Gladstone in 1898. The Queen and her family paid their respects to him there, as did some 320,000 of her subjects (about the same number as had thus bidden farewell to George VI).

Underground trains ran all night; Westminster Hall stayed open for 23 hours a day; and in bitterly cold weather people waited for three hours in mile-long queues before passing the catafalque on which rested Churchill’s coffin, Union flag-draped, lead-lined and made of Blenheim oak.

Churchill himself had always been easily moved to tears and, belying the British stiff upper lip, many of the mourners wept. Watching them shuffle past, Richard Dimbleby, the BBC’s original ‘Gold Microphone in Waiting’, concluded that “this is simply the nation, with its bare heads, and its scarves, and its plastic hoods, and its shopping bags, and its puzzled little children”.

The funeral itself took place at St Paul’s Cathedral on 30 January 1965. Dimbleby, despite being mortally ill with cancer, presented the television coverage of the funeral with mellifluous dignity. Twenty-five million Britons and more than 350 million people around the world watched the ceremony. The American TV audience was higher than that for John F Kennedy’s funeral two years earlier.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at the funeral of Winston Churchill
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at the funeral of Winston Churchill in St Paul’s Cathedral. (Photo by John Waterman/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

No doubt part of the attraction was the attendance of Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the royal family. Normally the monarch does not go to commoners’ funerals, for the obvious reason that it would be invidious to choose whom thus to honour. But Churchill was, in the historian AJP Taylor’s celebrated summation, “the saviour of his country”. So she made an exception for him. (US President Lyndon Johnson was widely blamed for not coming on the grounds that he had a cold.) The Queen, who invariably appears last at any ceremony, also broke with convention by yielding pride of place to Churchill’s family, who were permitted to enter the cathedral after her.

Today the moving pictures of Churchill’s funeral are marvellously evocative: Big Ben striking at 9.45am on 30 January and then silent for the rest of the day; the gun carriage which had borne Queen Victoria’s body drawn by sailors to St Paul’s (an invented tradition resulting from the fact that the horses’ traces broke at Victoria’s funeral); the magnificent procession, uniforms gleaming, boots marching, gloved hands saluting, bands playing, minute guns firing, muffled bells ringing.

The coffin of Sir Winston Churchill is carried to St Paul's Cathedral.
The coffin of Sir Winston Churchill is carried to St Paul’s Cathedral. (Photo by Brian Seed/Getty Images)

Then there was the arrival of dignitaries from 200 countries; the Grenadier Guardsmen struggling up the cathedral steps under the weight of the coffin; the rousing melodies and solemn threnodies under the dome; the trumpet call from the Whispering Gallery and afterwards the skirl of bagpipes; the screaming flypast of RAF Lightnings; the embarkation on the Port of London launch Havengore; the hissing locomotive, watched by huge crowds at specially opened stations along its route.

All told, it was a brilliant spectacle, impeccably executed. Yet its most poignant element was unplanned and apparently spontaneous. As the Havengore made its way down the Thames, dockside cranes dipped their jibs in homage to the saviour of the nation, bowing their long necks like metal plesiosauruses and, incidentally, facing extinction as London (still scarred by the war) ceased to be what it had been, the trading hub of the workshop of the world and the entrepot of the British empire. Later that evening an exhausted Clementine said to her youngest daughter: “You know, Mary, it wasn’t a funeral, it was a Triumph.”

But was it? Churchill’s death coincided with the end of the empire, something he had feared and resisted all his life. De Gaulle therefore had some reason to declare (with relish) upon Churchill’s death: “Now Britain is no longer a great power.” Actually, Britain’s power had been waning for years. However, Churchill’s passing dramatised the country’s relative decline and even perhaps presaged its fall. The Labour politician Richard Crossman wrote: “It felt like the end of an epoch, possibly even the end of a nation.”

At Churchill’s funeral the British people were not just mourning a national hero. They were grieving over a potent symbol of their lost greatness and their finest hour.

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Piers Brendon is the author of 16 books, three of them about the British monarchy. Formerly Keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre, he is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.