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Prince Charles, Princess William & Harry walk behind the coffin of Princess Diana

5 famous funerals from history: From Lord Nelson to Princess Diana

The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Walking behind the coffin are Prince Charles, Princes William & Harry and Earl Charles Spencer | Image: John Gomez /

The way the British public has reacted to deaths and funerals has changed a lot over recent centuries. This has been equally true for both personal and high-profile losses. When it comes to grieving for a much-loved icon, some Brits choose the ‘stiff upper lip’ approach, while others go for a passionate outward pouring of emotion.

Here are four funerals of high-profile figures from British history that united the nation in mourning.

1. Lord Horatio Nelson

Nelson was a legend in his own lifetime, but it was his untimely death that confirmed his permanent place in the people’s hearts. In 1805, aboard the flagship Victory at Trafalgar, he was killed by an enemy sharpshooter. While dying in the arms of captain Hardy he famously said, ‘Kiss me Hardy’. The Victorians were so embarrassed by Nelson’s last affectionate appeal that they changed the story and decided the hero was rambling in Turkish, professing instead ‘Kismet Hardy, Kismet’.

The public was devastated by the loss of their hero. They exhibited their devotion by buying memorabilia, from ceramic bulb holders for flowers to pink heart-shaped scent containers.

As plans were drawn up for Nelson’s elaborate funeral, it was imagined that the scene would be a model of British decorum with the public waiting patiently and queuing in an orderly fashion. But there was chaos when the gates were opened on the first day. 10,000 people pushed in a jostling heaving mass that the Times newspaper called a scene of ‘confusion beyond description’.

The mood changed, however, when sailors who had served with Lord Nelson arrived. In contrast to the crowd, their behaviour was widely praised and described as ‘melancholy respect while their manly tears glistened in their eyes’.

2. Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria died on 22nd January 1901. The 83-year-old peacefully passed away surrounded by members of her family at Osborne House, her seaside home on the Isle of Wight.

The funeral was held on 2nd February. Three years earlier she had instructed her funeral to be a military one, befitting a soldier’s daughter. Because she died at Osborne House, her coffin was transported by ship to Gosport. It remained there overnight before traveling by train to Windsor.

Despite becoming frustrated with the ever-mourning queen, the British public was both devastated and relieved by her death which signalled a new dawn for the country.

Queen Victoria’s nine children had married into foreign royal families making the late Queen a relative of six monarchs in Europe. Somewhat prophetically, two of the mourners, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand, became significant characters relating to WW1.

3.John F. Kennedy

Shot in Dallas while he and his wife Jackie Kennedy drove in an open car, President John F Kennedy’s assassination on 22nd November 1963 was one of the most shocking moments seen around the world. The deceased president was buried just three days later at Arlington National Cemetery, where his wife lit an eternal flame alongside his grave.

The public’s reaction reflected the raw shock and hurt of people which witnessed the atrocity, while the sombre, respectful atmosphere of the funeral signified the nation’s trauma.

Kennedy’s body was borne on a gun carriage from the Capitol along streets lined with silent, weeping people. Mrs Kennedy, heavily veiled, walked behind her husband along with representatives of 93 nations, their presence representing the respect in which JFK was held.

Six grey horses pulled the gun carriage. Behind them, a soldier led a riderless horse with boots reversed in the stirrups, the traditional military symbol of a fallen warrior. Just the sound of muffled drums and the plaintive melody of the pipes of the Black Watch intoned the solemn funeral hymn, followed by the solitary bugler sounding the ‘Last Post’.

4. Lord Earl Mountbatten

Like the events of JFK’s assassination in 1963, the murder of Earl Lord Mountbatten by an IRA terrorist bomb on 29th August 1979 shocked the world. Mountbatten, who was cousin to Queen Elizabeth II, was onboard his fishing boat with family members and friends near the harbour of Mullaghmore, County Sligo, Ireland.

The IRA claimed responsibility and the outrage was condemned throughout the world with one British tabloid brandishing the headline ‘Bastards’ in relation to terrorists.

A week after the devastating assassination, the British Royal Family gathered with foreign dignitaries at Westminster Abbey for Lord Mountbatten’s funeral. Amongst the mourners were Prince Rainier of Monaco and his wife, former Hollywood star, Princess Grace. The state funeral was uniquely sombre. Less of a celebration of a life, but rather a dignified response to an attack on both the Royal Family and Britain as a whole.

5. Princess Diana

Millions of people in the UK and around the world have personal memories of Lady Diana’s funeral. It was watched on television by 32 million British people on 6th September 1997, making it the UK’s highest ever viewing figure for a televised event.

The dramatic death of the ‘People’s Princess’ after a paparazzi car chase through Paris, unleashed a tsunami of national grief. As a much-loved national treasure, Diana's sudden tragic death gave the public permission to come together and show emotion in a unique experience.

Televised around the world the melancholy and poignant funeral was attended by her young teenage sons, Princes William and Harry, along with members of the Royal Family. It signified that the famous British ‘stiff upper lip’ of restraint and reserve had been vanquished in a new era of live television.