This day in 1852, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was laid to rest in St Paul’s, having died on 14 September, aged 83. Nearly half a century after Nelson’s ceremony and almost four decades of relative peace across land and sea following Waterloo, Wellington’s state funeral was the most extraordinary street procession that Londoners could remember. It even caused the Lord Mayor’s parade to be cancelled for the only time ever.
Prior to tranquil semi-retirement in Kent, the Iron Duke had become a deeply unpopular politician and Prime Minister. During a period characterised by Reform, Wellington – deeply conservative – set is face against the inexorable tide of popular emancipation. He genuinely felt that the existing settlement could not be further perfected and famously was stoned in his house and in his carriage. Even the equestrian statue of the hero of Waterloo for the Wellington Arch had been laughed at by the public and mocked in the newspapers.
But now all was forgiven and forgotten as over a million lined the route of Wellington’s funeral cortege which ran through the City to St Paul’s. It seemed to extend forever; in its midst was the extraordinary 12 ton, six wheeled funeral car. One can only imagine the racket it made over London’s old cobbles. The car has survived and is at Stratfield-Saye House.
To get some idea of the sheer size of this parade, have a look at the British Library’s full-length colour diagram.
The preparation of St Paul’s took six weeks. Scaffold-borne tiered seating increased its capacity to over 13,000 as the cathedral was festooned in black crepe. The service was delayed by an hour owing to the slow progress of the vast cortege through the streets of London. Eventually, the Duke’s coffin was lowered into the crypt of the cathedral where it remains to this day in a Cornish porphyry sarcophagus.
A most extraordinary eye-witness account of Wellington’s funeral was recorded in 1940. An elderly retired magistrate, Frederick Mead, recalls attending the event as a young boy accompanied by his parents.
finally, Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington. Not Tennyson’s finest hour, I’m thinking!