The Last Burial of a King in Westminster Abbey

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has meant the revival of a practice that had in effect been suspended for over two centuries: the funeral of a monarch in Westminster Abbey. The last king to have his funeral there was George II on 11 November 1760, and even though this was technically a ‘private funeral’, thereafter more private – though still very public – ceremonies have taken place at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, instead. Here Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our House of Lords 1715-1790 project, considers the ‘spectacular’ and ‘solemn’ event…

George II’s funeral, which took place just over a fortnight after his death on 25 October, has been described as having been ‘particularly spectacular’ [Black] and carried out ‘with respect and reverence’ [Brooke]. Unsurprisingly, Horace Walpole left a colourful account of what it was like to be there. In a letter to George Montagu he remarked ‘I had never seen a royal funeral’ so resolved to go along, walking as ‘a rag of quality, which I found would be… the easiest way of seeing it’.

Portrait oil painting of King George II sat on a throne with a table to his right on which the crown sits. He is wearing white lace cravat and ruffles, blue ermine robes of state. white hose, and grey shoes. He has a long grey wig on. The backdrop is scarlet red drapes.
King George II
by Thomas Hudson, 1744
NPG 670
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Prior to the ceremony, the king had been carried from Kensington Palace, where he died, to lie in state in the Prince’s Chamber within the Palace of Westminster. Walpole described it as:

absolutely a noble sight. The prince’s chamber, hung with purple, and a quantity of silver lamps, the coffin under a canopy of purple velvet, and six vast chandeliers of silver on high stands…

Speedy preparations had been made to ensure all was ready for receiving the king’s remains, which were conveyed on a hearse ‘of a new construction’. Scaffolding was erected from the Prince’s Chamber to the north gate, an additional organ installed in Westminster Abbey and files of soldiers lined the route to keep ‘the mob off’. The arrival of those intending to walk in the funeral procession was carefully choreographed, the chaplains arriving at six in the evening, nobles and gentry at seven – it was customary for funerals to take place at night. Once all were assembled, the procession set out, though according to one newspaper by mistake it began in darkness before the torches had been lit. Walpole clearly did not notice, as he reported approvingly:

The procession, through a line of foot-guards, every seventh man bearing a torch, the horse-guards lining the outside, their officers with drawn sabres and crape sashes on horseback, the drums muffled, the fifes, bells tolling, and minute guns, – all this was very solemn.

For Walpole, though, the true ‘charm’ was the entrance to the Abbey. The funeral party was greeted by the dean and chapter with members of the choir and almsmen holding torches, so that ‘one saw it to greater advantage than by day’. There was further illumination from rockets sent up at certain points so the artillerymen knew when to start firing the minute guns.

Here things began to unravel. Following the elegant procession and the magical flickering of the torchlight, people pushed forward to get a decent view of the burial vault, sitting or standing ‘where they could or would’. The Yeomen of the Guard, borne down by the weight of the coffin, appealed for assistance, and the anthem, specially composed for the event by William Boyce, ‘The Souls of the Righteous are in the Hand of God’, was dismissed by Walpole as ‘immensurably [sic] tedious’: he thought it might have worked better at a wedding.

In the midst of all of this were two prominent figures: the late king’s son, the duke of Cumberland, wearing a long dark wig known as an ‘Adonis’, his great bulk ‘heightened by a thousand melancholy circumstances’, and the Prime Minister, the duke of Newcastle, by turns weeping uncontrollably and tearing around the chapel trying to see who else was there. Cumberland, present as ‘chief mourner’, had recently suffered a stroke and was in poor health. Walpole could not resist observing how hard it must have been for him to stare into the vault, as he might well expect to be joining his father there quite soon. The papers noted that Cumberland, so often reviled as the brutal victor of Culloden, was seen to shed tears several times during the proceedings.

A sheet of paper titled: Plan, section and perspective view of the royal vault under King Henry the 7th's Chapel, Westminster Abbey, built 1737. Depicts plans of where coffins lie.
View, cross section, and plan of the vault in the King Henry VII chapel,
including marble sarcophagus and urns of George II and Queen Caroline at the far end,
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Even though these were strictly speaking private affairs, royal funerals in the period were very public events and often criticized for their lack of decorum. That of George II’s heir, Prince Frederick, nine years previously, is often held up as an occasion when especially little respect was shown to the departed – notably by members of his own family, who did not trouble to attend. On that occasion there had also been muddles on the day. Where Walpole had experienced a magical welcoming of George II’s cortege by the dean and chapter, at Prince Frederick’s funeral there had been a brief embarrassing stand-off as the Abbey authorities and heralds quarrelled about rights of access. Despite this, it has been indicated more recently that Prince Frederick was not snubbed in the way that is frequently repeated (largely because of a particularly partial account by George Bubb Dodington).

In terms of overall solemnity combined with occasional hiccoughs, George II’s funeral followed a well-worn pattern of similar royal events in the 18th century. As Walpole experienced, there was true drama and theatrical solemnity in the way the procession was guided by torchlight, and the added mystery of the vault illuminated by just a few lights held by attendants. But there were also less decorous moments. Events like these were, after all, by their very nature under-rehearsed. One newspaper, The Gazetteer and London Daily Advertiser of 13 November 1761 reported that some ‘peace-officers’ observing the ceremony from scaffolds outside the abbey, had forgotten to wear mourning. It was noted too that neither Cumberland’s coachmen nor footmen were in mourning either. There were also the inevitable reports of problems within the crowd with some papers carrying stories of serious injuries and even deaths by people being crushed.

However, if there were occasional lapses in protocol, and some dreadful accidents among those watching the proceedings, all the indications are that George II was accorded considerable respect in his final journey. There was certainly no scrimping in making sure that everything was furnished as it should be. The cost of lighting Westminster Hall and the Abbey was said to have run to £1,000, and the cost of the entire funeral around £50,000 [Lloyd’s Evening Post, 12-14 November 1761]. The London Chronicle of 11-13 November reported that only five peers (barring those excused for various reasons) were missing from the ceremony. It also seems clear that London as a whole made a point of marking the king’s demise. Starting with St Paul’s Cathedral at six o’clock, all the London parishes followed suit in ringing their bells until 11 at night, joined by the sounding of guns firing through the evening.


Further Reading:

Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. C.B. Lucas [pp.297-8]

Jeremy Black, George II: Puppet of the Politicians? (Exeter, 2007)

John Brooke, King George III (1972)

Robin Eagles, ‘ “No more to be said?” Reactions to the death of Frederick Lewis, prince of Wales’, HR lxxx (2007)

Andrew Thompson, George II (Yale, 2011)

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