Prime Ministers’ Funerals

A look back at the different Prime Ministers who received public funerals…

Tomorrow former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s funeral will take place at St Paul’s Cathedral. Public funerals for Prime Ministers have been fairly rare in recent years, but Baroness Thatcher is by no means alone in receiving this honour from the state.

William Pitt the Younger, (c) National Portrait Gallery

The first Prime Minister to have a public funeral was William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778). The Commons agreed unanimously that the funeral should take place in Westminster Abbey, despite some calls for him to be buried in St Paul’s, and the cost covered by the public. Pitt lay in state for two days at Westminster and thousands came to pay their respects. His son, William Pitt the Younger, was honoured in the same way; after his sudden death in 1806 he too lay in state before being buried with his family in Westminster Abbey. In addition to the cost of the funeral itself, the public purse also covered his debts, which came to £40,000.

George Canning (c) The National Portrait Gallery
George Canning (c) National Portrait Gallery

Westminster Abbey was also the venue for George Canning’s funeral in 1827, again attended by huge crowds, and for that of Lord Palmerston, who died from pneumonia in 1865.  You can view an image of his hearse leaving Brockett Hall on the St Albans museums website and read a full account of his funeral from the Brisbane Courier. The four-time Prime Minister William Gladstone, who died from cancer on 19 May 1898, was also buried in Westminster Abbey after three days of lying in state; simultaneous services were held across the Empire and world to mark his death. (For a full account of his funeral, see this article from H.C.G. Matthew).

Some of the largest state funerals were reserved for Prime Ministers who were also war leaders, such as Winston Churchill (1965) and the Duke of Wellington (1852). Both lay in state for several days, Churchill in Westminster Hall and Wellington at Walmer Castle and Chelsea Hospital, and millions turned out to pay their respects to both men. Wellington’s funeral was considered ‘probably the most ornate and spectacular funeral ever seen in England’, and he was buried at St Paul’s (for a longer account of Wellington’s ceremony and several images, see this article on the Victorian Web). After his state funeral, Churchill was buried in a private family service in the village of Bladon.

Other twentieth-century Prime Ministers honoured with a public funeral include Henry Campbell Bannerman, who died in 10 Downing Street in 1908. He received generous tributes in the House (you can read these in Hansard) , an ‘impressive’ service at Westminster Abbey and, again, crowds of mourners paying their respects before he was buried in Meigle churchyard. Parliament honoured his memory with a memorial in Westminster Abbey. Andrew Bonar Law, who died in 1923 after a short period as Prime Minister, was given a service in Westminster Abbey against his wishes (he had wanted to be buried with his wife in Helensburgh). This was not an uncontroversial move, as his old enemy Herbert Asquith was said to remark ‘we have buried the Unknown Prime Minister by the side of the Unknown Soldier.’

Finally, the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was given a public funeral in Westminster Abbey after he died at sea in November 1937. Although his family were offered a place in the Abbey for his interment, his ashes were taken to Scotland and buried with the body of his wife. A memorial now stands in Westminster Abbey.


All quotations thanks to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and thanks to Dr Paul Seaward and Dr Kathryn Rix for links and suggestions.

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