Mrs Thatcher and State Funerals

12th April 2013

So, what is the difference between Mrs Thatcher’s and a state funeral?  Doing media interviews this week, I have confidently stated that a state funeral involves:

  • A vote in Parliament
  • The coffin lying in state in Westminster Hall
  • The gun carriage bearing the coffin being drawn by sailors rather than horses.

My reliable source?  An unusually authoritative and detailed entry in Wikipedia, titled State Funerals in the UK.

But now I am not so sure.  If the purpose of the vote in Parliament is to authorise the spending of public money on the funeral, how is it that Mrs Thatcher’s funeral will be largely funded by the state, but without any parliamentary authorisation?  (Someone from the Treasury please answer).  And can Parliament authorise expenditure by simple resolution, based on a humble Address?  Here is the text of the parliamentary approval for Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral:

‘That a humble Address be presented to her Majesty, humbly to thank her Majesty for having given directions for the body of the Right Honourable Sir Winston Churchill, Knight of the Garter, to lie in state in Westminster Hall and for the funeral service to be held in the Cathedral Church of St Paul and assuring her Majesty of our cordial aid and concurrence in these measures …’  (Hansard 25 Jan 1965).

The second element, lying in state, is clearly not a defining element of state funerals, since the Queen Mother had a lying in state in Westminster Hall in 2002, as part of her ceremonial funeral.

That leaves us with the third element, the gun carriage being drawn by sailors.  Wiki explains that the tradition dates back to the funeral of Queen Victoria, when ‘the horses drawing the gun carriage bolted, and so ratings from the Royal Navy hauled it to the Chapel at Windsor’.  That sounds alarming: a gun carriage careering out of control, the coffin sliding off …  The reality was less dramatic: the horses seemed restive, and so the sailors were substituted to be on the safe side.  The Buckingham Palace website records:  ‘The horses that were supposed to pull the gun-carriage became restless standing in the cold and were behaving in a dangerous manner, so  a team of sailors took over the task of pulling the gun carriage to St George’s Chapel’.

So, what is a state funeral?  I now think that it is a funeral for a head of state, a state occasion attended by other heads of state.

And who apart from the Sovereign has been accorded a state funeral?  Wikipedia gives a full list: remember these for your next Constitution Unit quiz.  It includes:

  • Four Prime Ministers (Wellington, Palmerston, Gladstone, Churchill)
  • Three Field Marshals (Napier, Roberts and Haig)
  • Two Admirals (Blake and Nelson)
  • Plus Sir Philip Sidney (1586), Sir Isaac Newton (1727), and that old rogue Lord Carson (1935).

About Robert Hazell
Professor of British Politics and Government & Director of the Constitution Unit

4 Responses to Mrs Thatcher and State Funerals

  1. The differences between state and ceremonial funerals seem rather unclear and proceed with a certain amount of British talent for Improvisation. According to the House of Commons sources the person in question is often asked beforehand. Whilst Thatcher declined a state funeral, Churchill apparently was emphatically in favour “guns, trumpets, soldiers, the lot!”. The planning then became known as “Operation Hope Not” see Brooke Little “Royal Ceremonies of State”.

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  4. Android Guru says:

    Great delivery. Solid arguments. Keep up the amazing spirit.

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