Queen Victoria knew how to do death. Her final decline in January 1901 was rapid; her funeral procession, regal yet restrained; her internment alongside her beloved husband, romantic. Rarely has the theatre of death gripped a nation and an empire with such force.
Although the queen was 81 years of age when she fell ill with “cerebral exhaustion”, the possibility that she might die seemed astonishing to many people. Hearing of her illness, Church of England believers stood to sing the national anthem, rabbis offered prayers “beseeching divine support for the queen”, and members of the Muslim Patriotic League gathered in Bedford Place, London to offer prayers to Allah “for the recovery of… the sovereign of the greatest number of The True Believers of the world”.
When the queen’s death on the evening of Tuesday 22 January was announced, people gathered anxiously on street corners, traffic came to a halt and bells tolled. This was the end of an era.
Pious and feminine
Just 10 days later, the remarkable funeral pageantry began, with Victoria’s body being taken from Osborne House on the Isle of Wight to the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, some 100 miles away. You can see the moving images of this procession on British Pathé’s newsreel.
The film clearly demonstrates the influence of royalty (five reigning monarchs, as well as many other members of royal families, accompanied Edward VII in the procession), as well as the prestige of the empire, navy and army. It also testifies to the imagery surrounding Queen Victoria, as both pious and feminine, yet a formidable leader.
The funeral was prolonged. The coffin had to be transported from Osborne House to the port of Cowes, then across the Solent on the royal yacht Alberta.
One reporter recalled looking at the new king (who was aboard another yacht) through his telescope. Although he was a quarter of a mile away, the reporter observed that Edward’s face was “so white and very set, the real king, unaware that any man could see him, intensely melancholy, intensely sad”. It was, he added, a “sacrilege to gaze, and I turned the glass and looked no more”.
Victoria’s coffin remained on board the yacht that evening but the following day it was paraded through London, decorated with the imperial crown, orb, sceptre and the collar of the Order of the Garter.
Despite the chilly weather, crowds lined the streets in respectful silence. Although there were some dissenting voices (the Social Democratic Federation ridiculed the procession for being a display of “blatant barbaric militarism”), most commentators were reverential. Even the writer GK Chesterton cried. Chesterton had loathed the drama of the Boer War with its shrill chorus of gung-ho patriotism, but the queen’s death led him to renew his vow “to do my best for this country of mine, which I love with a love passing the love of Jingos [jingoistic individuals]”.
A particularly moving part of the funeral was unintended. When Victoria’s coffin was taken to Windsor, the horses broke their traces. As a result, a team of sailors pulled the gun-carriage to St George’s Chapel at Windsor.
Once the service was over, her body was taken to the mausoleum at Frogmore. As The Times reported, “all that was mortal of our beloved queen now rests beside her husband whose love was her solace and support during his lifetime, and whose memory was cherished with such touching fidelity”. The ‘Empress of Hearts’ was no more.
Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of What it Means to be Human (Virago, 2011).
This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine