50 Years since the Death of Churchill

Winston Churchill, one of the greatest leaders in British history, passed away aged 90 of a stroke on 24th January 1965. A nation mourned, and his funeral, one week later on 30th January, was a massive affair. Not only did people line the streets, as his coffin was carried in procession and by train far and wide, but the whole event was televised – a first for the BBC at that time. That meant that everybody, young or old, rich or poor, exulted or humble, had a chance to witness the solemnities and reflect upon his great deeds and importance to Britain. The following is an account of Churchill’s funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral, printed in the Sunday Times on 31st January and taken from our Historic Documents archive:

“Here, beneath the very centre of the dome, all sorrows meet… When Churchill was brought into St Paul’s yesterday morning, we stood up and the choir sang of the Resurrection and of the Life. There were in all about 3,500 of us living, and the one men dead in his draped coffin. St Paul’s makes ants of men; but it exalts our creation – arts and music – and our dead.

“We gazed at the tilted coffin as it was borne up the knave into the stone-and-gilt heart of the Cathedral, overlooked by the domed galleries inscribed in mosaic with words applying to God; “praise Him according to His excellent greatness”, “praise Him upon the sound of the trumpet.” We watched as it was gently placed by its straining bearers, eight guardsmen, upon the simple black catafalque, corded and rimmed with silver, between its six massive, golden wax candlesticks.

“Then the congregation, with this small symmetrical thing in its midst, that had been preceded by all the symbols of Government, by the Mace and Lord Chancellor, by the dignitaries from abroad, by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops and ecclesiastical hierarchy, by the Queen herself and her family, poured our love, our overwhelming love, upon him in prayer and hymn.

“For that half hour, that magical point where the crosses of our flag met, at the crux of St Paul’s transept beneath the dome, was the world’s centre. The worshippers had converged from the ends of the earth to do him homage, from the Commonwealth of every clime and colour, and from the nations of former enemies no less than allies.

“But it was in the great mass a British congregation. Although Churchill meant personally so much to many nations, above all our once-conquered allies, it was a supremely British gathering, and not necessarily so much in its panoply and conduct as in its unashamed patriotism.

“Our own Queen’s inversion, because of simple gratitude, of the customary direction of obeysance, Monarch to Commoner, helped to make it so. She had filed in, with her husband and son, and her immediate family – Gloucesters, Kents, Snowdons and Ogilvies – after the other heads of States from the Commonwealth and Foreign countries, and was visibly in deep mourning at the loss of a friend and a personal inspiration of nationhood. Like almost the whole of the rest of the British congregation Churchill had belonged to her life since childhood.

“The whole service played upon that same elevated patriotism without which Churchill knew his people could not long survive, war or peace – Purcell and Croft, Elgar and Bunyan, drawing from two or three centuries past, of which Churchill was avowedly heir in character and inspiration. And when the Dean, Dr Matthews, spoke his Bidding Prayer, he addressed us boldly:

“Brethren, we are assembled here, as representing the people of this land and of the British Commonwealth, to join in prayer on the occasion of the burial of a great man who has rendered memorable service to his country and to the cause of freedom.

“We shall think of him with thanksgiving that he was raised up in our days of desperate need to be a leader and inspirer of the nation, for his dauntless resolution and untiring vigilance and for his example of courage and endurance.

“We shall commit his soul into the hands of God, the merciful judge of all men and the giver of eternal life, praying that the memory of his virtues and his achievements may remain as part of our national heritage, inspiring generations to come to emulate his magnanimity and patriotic devotion.”

“We prayed to our patron Saint, George, who, if there is justice beyond, has been awaiting to lead Churchill up the hard slopes to “the sunlit uplands” in the Churchillian phrase. It was in his memory no less than in honour of the Queen that we sang the national anthem.

“It was a patriotism, fetching out of the future, as the mighty traditionalist in his lifetime had always flung his branches across the future: this Cathedral service around the coffin of the departed, girded with international esteem, the climax of a week of mourning, therefore became less a lamentation than a thanksgiving, a masque of the winter solstice, an act of faith in national renewal.

“It was done with a complete ease and naturalness, such as only the passing of so huge a figure whom it is unnecessary to praise or adulate can achieve. Churchill dying in 1965 gave us time to peruse faults and errors, and we have no doubts about him. Here, in death, the clarification of his life and our immovable pride in him.

“The sense of national renewal was the earthly mirror of the Christian message of rebirth throughout the service. Because of this, we missed the presence of the younger generation. It was a congregation mostly of middle-aged and elderly, apart from the Churchill offspring and the Royal families, and the military ushers in their scarlet uniform and the civilian ushers with their purple sticks.

“The post-war generation who had queued for hours in their thousands outside Westminster Hall, not in any Kremlinesque curiosity but pure homage, were unrepresented.

“Being so obviously of his own choice, the hymns were taken up by the congregation with unusual vigour – “Who Would True Valour See, Let Him Come Hither”; The American Republican anthem with its swinging rhythm, “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord”; “Fight the Good Fight With All Thy Might,” and lastly “Oh God Our Help In Ages Past.”

“It was all Churchillian – “hobgoblin, nor foul fiend can daunt his spirit”, and the second verse of the Republican hymn smacked of South African evenings 65 years ago:

“I have seen him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps;

They have builded him an alter in the evening dews and damps;

I can read his righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps.”

“And even the Pauline lesson from one Corinthians XV might have been drawn from some Churchillian speech: “Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, death is swallowed up in victory, O death where is thy sting. O grave where is thy victory?” Then it was over, with the Last Post and Reveille and all at once we realised that it was farewell. As the family came so very slowly down the aisle behind the man who had been with them always, and the women heavily veiled of whom he had written “and so I married, and lived happily ever after,” tears broke out on many strong faces.


“The Guardsmen struggled down the nave with their burden, Churchill dead among us, who was always so much larger than life, followed by eight of his closest surviving colleagues among his pall bearers – Harold Macmillan and Robert Menzies, Field Marshall Sir George Templar and Lord Normanbrooke, Lord Bridges and Lord Ismay, Field Marshall Viscount Slim and Lord Portall, The Earl of Avon and Earl Attlee, Earl Alexander of Tunis and Earl Mountbatten of Burma.

“And so our comrade leader was led out by us.”

You can watch the BBC footage of the funeral here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/churchill/11024.shtml, or visit our Historic Documents library to view the original Sunday Times article or the Sunday Telegraph Memorial Edition, printed the same day. 

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