Linda Parker

Walmer Castle. English Heritage

On the afternoon of Tuesday, 14th September 1852, just after 15.00, the Iron Duke died — from complications after a stroke — sitting in his armchair at Walmer Castle, Kent. He was aged 83, and the Castle was his official residence as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, a role he carried out from 1829. He lived there every Autumn, mostly in a single room, and it was there that his embalmed body lay for eight weeks. Wellington’s body was sealed inside four coffins; the inner pine coffin was placed inside a lead one, which was inside a coffin of hand finished English Oak and the final outer coffin was of Spanish Mahogany, covered with velvet and 6 feet 9 inches long (2.06m).

On 9th and 10th November the family opened the Castle to mourners, and by the end of the second day around 9,000 of them had filed by the coffin, which was draped in crimson velvet and surrounded by an honour guard, black wall hangings, and a forest of candelabra.

The death mask of the Duke; a plaster model of his face taken on the day he died.

News of Wellington’s death didn’t reach Queen Victoria and Prince Albert until 16th September as they were holidaying at Balmoral. As soon as they heard, they began to discuss funeral plans with Lord Derby, the Prime Minister. The Duke hadn’t left any instructions for his funeral and the Queen, Prince and PM wanted him to have an extravagant public occasion — which the Prince took the lead in arranging — but this meant the event would have to wait until Parliament reconvened in November so it could approve the expense. The final cost was circa £80,000, including £11,000 on the wagon for the coffin.

At 16.00 on 10th November Walmer Castle was closed to the public and the Duke’s coffin was prepared for removal to the Chelsea Hospital in London for the official lying-in-state. The hearse travelled by train from Deal Station to the Bricklayers Arms Station (Old Kent Road, Southwark), arriving after midnight on 11th November. From Southwark the Duke was accompanied by a troop of the First Life Guards to the Chelsea Hospital, where he lay in state in the Great Hall until 17th November. It was estimated that 200,000 people paid their respects during that week, including Queen Victoria who visited on the first day and nearly 56,000 on the last day.

On the evening of 17th November the Duke’s coffin was moved, under escort by a squadron of the First Life Guards, to Horse Guards in preparation for his funeral on 18th. The route was lined by hundreds of onlookers, braving the persistent rain to pay their respects.

Astonishingly, I think, the design for the car to carry the Duke’s coffin in the funeral procession was finally agreed by Prince Albert as late in the planning process as Saturday, October 24th — just 24 days before the funeral date. The job of designing the car had originally been offered to the Royal Household’s undertakers, Messrs Ranting of St James’s, but their designs were not to the Prince’s liking and so the commission was redirected to the new Government Department of Practical Art (coincidentally set up by the Prince and Henry Cole, who became the first Director of what would eventually be the V&A Museum). Henry Cole and the designer Richard Redgrave took sketches to Windsor Castle to show the Prince, and they were approved.

The construction of the funeral car started immediately. Six foundries, employing more than 100 men, used over ten tons of bronze cannon, which had been captured at Waterloo, to cast the wagon in just 18 days. They must have worked shifts 24/7 to achieve this within the very tight timescale. The finished car weighed 18 tons, measured 27ft (8m) long, 10ft (3m) wide and 17ft (5m) high and needed 12 dray horses to pull it through London’s streets — it would have been very noisy over the cobbles!

After the funeral, the car was stored in the crypt at St Paul’s until 1981 when it was removed to Stratfield Saye.

It was an early start for the military procession to St Paul’s Cathedral on Thursday, 18th November. The weather in November 1852 was exceptionally wet, with extensive flooding, and these conditions contributed to the funeral car getting stuck in mud in a gutter in Pall Mall — finally getting released with the combined effort of the police, military and members of the public.

The funeral procession was estimated to have been watched by over a million people on its way from Horse Guards to St Paul’s Cathedral. Just like today, the commercial possibilities of the event didn’t escape the notice of owners of residences and shops along the route who made money by selling observation space. Individual seats sold for a guinea (£1.05) and whole rooms for much more. There was also a roaring trade in souvenirs including “official” programmes, daguerreotypes of the Duke, swiftly written biographies and blatant scams such as ‘Duke of Wellington Funeral Wine’. It was estimated that approx. £80,000 changed hands in the lead up to the funeral day.

The massive funeral car is shown passing between Apsley House and the Wellington Arch (before it was moved to its current position at the top of Constitution Hill). By Louis Haghe, Royal Collection Trust.

The two mile route from Horse Guards to St Paul’s Cathedral took just under three hours, but there was an hour’s delay getting the coffin into St Paul’s because the automatic transfer (the coffin to the bier) mechanism on the car failed. This meant that the West Door of the cathedral was propped open for all that time with the wind and rain soaking some of the 10,000 invited distinguished guests — who, I suggest, must have been really fed up with both the long wait and getting their fine clothes wet.

The funeral service featured some wonderful music, including If We Believe That Jesus Died, Anthem in D Minor composed by Sir John Goss especially for the event — there are several versions on YouTube, but I have chosen one sung by the St Paul’s Cathedral choir as it seems appropriate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mHFniGvbrhI . There were also pieces composed by Wellington’s father Garrett Wesley, the First Duke of Mornington; William Croft and George Frideric Handel (who was a friend of the family).

Despite the delays, the service was over by 15.00 and the Duke’s coffin was lowered into the cathedral’s burial crypt, to be interred adjacent to the magnificent tomb for Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (resident since January 1806). Every parish church throughout England tolled their bells and that marked the end of the official day of mourning.

Wellington’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral. @StPaulsLondon.

Apsley House and the Wellington Arch are home to outstanding works of art, and are cared for by an enthusiastic team of staff and volunteers.