Royal state funerals in British history: From Mary II to George VI
To date, there have been eleven official state funerals in the UK. State funerals differ from ceremonial funerals (such as those for the Queen Mother, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher) as they are generally reserved for the sovereign.
On Monday 19th September 2022, Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral ceremony will become the UK’s twelfth official state funeral. Here Sky HISTORY reflects on royal state funerals throughout history:
Queen Mary II – Reign: 1689 - 1694
Queen Mary was a fit and healthy woman who was expected to live a long life. However, she contracted smallpox in 1694 and, after initially rallying, she rapidly deteriorated and died at the age of just 32.
Mary’s body lay in state at the Banqueting House in Whitehall before being taken through the streets in a procession to Westminster Abbey, accompanied by a choir. Her body was laid to rest in Henry VII’s Chapel.
Her funeral, which at the time cost £50,000, was the first to be attended by members of both Houses of Parliament - a tradition that has continued ever since. The composer Henry Purcell wrote ‘Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary’, which was performed during the service. The following year this music was used again at Purcell’s own funeral.
King William III – Reign: 1689 - 1702
In 1702, King William - who reigned alongside his wife, Queen Mary - fell from his horse after it stumbled over a mole’s burrow. The king suffered a broken collarbone and died shortly afterwards of pneumonia at the age of 51. For many years after his death, William’s enemies toasted the mole, referring to it as ‘the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat’.
In contrast to his wife Mary’s lavish and expensive funeral, William’s was a much simpler affair. His body was carried from Kensington Palace in a long procession through the streets of London before being buried in Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey, alongside his wife.
Originally, an ornate monument was planned for William and Mary, but it was never erected. Instead, the abbey acquired two remarkably lifelike wax effigies of the monarchs in 1725 which can still be seen.
Queen Anne – Reign: 1702 - 1714
Queen Anne was plagued with ill health throughout her life. On 30th July 1714 she suffered a stroke which left her unable to speak, and she died at Kensington Palace two days later at the age of 49. The composer William Croft wrote the anthem ‘The Souls of the Righteous’ for the occasion. Anne, like her sister and brother-in-law, was laid to rest in the Stuart vault of the Henry VII Chapel. Anne was succeeded by King George I whose funeral took place in Hanover, Germany.
King George II – Reign: 1727 - 1760
King George II died shortly after he was found collapsed on the floor of his chamber in Kensington Palace in 1760 at the age of 76. The king’s body was accompanied through the streets of London by twelve Yeoman of the Guard -the British monarch's bodyguards - before being laid to rest in a new vault he had had constructed in Westminster Abbey. His coffin was placed beside that of his beloved wife, Caroline. On George’s instruction, the sides of both coffins were removed so their remains could be connected.
King George III – Reign: 1760 - 1820
Suffering from dementia, the elderly King George III passed away from pneumonia in Windsor Castle on 29th January 1820 at the age of 81. George’s body lay in state in the Royal Apartments of Windsor for two days, with the public allowed to view the coffin of the king. George’s body was then taken in a procession to Windsor’s St. George’s Chapel: the final resting place for some of the nation’s most notable kings and queens, such as Henry VIII, Alfred the Great and Charles I.
King George IV – Reign: 1820 - 1830
King George IV suffered from increasingly poor health in his later life, largely due to his extravagant lifestyle. Blind in one eye, heavily dosed with laudanum (a mixture of opium and alcohol) to numb excruciating bladder pains, the unpopular king died on the morning of 26th June 1830 at Windsor Castle at the age of 67.
George’s body was placed in a lead-lined mahogany coffin and lay in state in the Royal Apartments for two days. George’s funeral took place on 15th July 1830. The town of Windsor was packed with onlookers hoping to get a glimpse of the many famous people who were in attendance, such as the Duke of Wellington and the new king. The funeral service took place in St. George’s Chapel, where George IV was laid to rest. It ended with William IV being proclaimed king with firework rockets launched into the air in celebration.
King William IV – Reign: 1830 - 1837
A popular king, William IV’s reign was short, lasting a mere seven years. He died at Windsor Castle on 20th June 1837 at the age of 71. His niece, Victoria, inherited the throne and went on to reign for the next 63 years.
After lying in state at the Royal Apartments, William’s body was taken to St George’s Chapel through a line of royal guards, one in four of whom held a burning torch. The guards were accompanied by regimental bands who played Handel’s ‘Dead March in Saul’ as the coffin was borne into St. George’s Chapel, where William was laid to rest. Throughout the funeral ceremony, gun salutes rang out every five minutes in honour of the late king.
Queen Victoria – Reign: 1837 - 1901
Unlike her predecessors, Queen Victoria left strict instructions for her funeral. She wished it to be a military funeral, befitting the daughter of a soldier, and she wanted her coffin to be draped in white. She died on 22nd January 1901 at the age of 81 and was laid to rest in a white dress with her wedding veil. Accompanying her were various mementoes of friends and family, including the wedding ring that once belonged to the mother of her favourite servant, John Brown.
Victoria’s funeral procession differed from those of her predecessors in several ways. Firstly, peers, the judiciary and privy counsellors did not take part in the procession, being replaced by soldiers and sailors. Secondly, her pallbearers were equerries rather than dukes. Lastly, the coffin was carried on a gun carriage - a tradition that continues to this day in both state and ceremonial funerals.
During the procession, the gun carriage broke and could not be pulled by the horses. Sailors from HMS Excellent were ordered to transport the carriage the rest of the way to St. George’s Chapel with ropes. This, too, became a tradition at subsequent state funerals.
King Edward VII – Reign: 1901 - 1910
King Edward VII suffered a series of heart attacks before his death in Buckingham Palace on 6th May, 1910 at the age of 68. His wife, Queen Alexandra, refused to let his body be moved for eight days. During that time, Edward’s body was laid in a large oak coffin and finally taken to Westminster Hall on the 17th May. It was the first time a monarch had lain in state in the hall, and this would be the same for both Edward’s son and grandson.
Edward’s state funeral took place on 20th May 1910. Enormous crowds turned out to see the funeral procession make its way from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall on a route lined by 35,000 soldiers. After a short ceremony in the hall, the procession made its way through central London to Paddington station, where his body was taken by train to Windsor and interred in St. George’s Chapel.
Edward VII’s funeral service at Windsor was attended by the largest assemblage of royalty of its day, including the Emperor of Germany, the King of Spain and the King of Norway. Such a gathering has never been repeated because many of the monarchies in attendance that day were swept away by the events of the First World War.
King George V – Reign: 1910 - 1936
A heavy smoker who suffered from chronic bronchitis, King George V died on the 20th of January, 1936 at the age of 70. He was given a lethal injection of morphine by his personal physician, Lord Dawson, to ease his suffering on his deathbed.
During the procession which took George’s body to lie in state in Westminster Hall, the Maltese Cross fell off the Imperial State Crown that rested on the coffin. George’s eldest son and heir, the ill-fated Edward VIII, witnessed the incident and wondered out loud if it was a bad omen for his reign. Within a year he had abdicated in favour of his brother, George VI.
The king’s four sons, Edward, Albert, Henry, and George held an all-night vigil for their late father in Westminster Hall. This became known as the ‘Vigil of the Princes’. The following day, huge crowds turned out to wave goodbye to the king as his funeral procession made its way through the streets of London and then by train to Windsor, where the king’s body was laid to rest in St. George’s Chapel.
King George VI – Reign: 1936 - 1952
King George VI - the late Queen Elizabeth II’s father – died from a coronary thrombosis at the age of 56 on 6th February 1952 at Sandringham House. The king’s coffin was first taken to lie in state in St. Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham for five days. It was then conveyed to London by train and then in procession to Westminster Hall. The crowds that lined the route to watch the procession were so large that the rhododendron bushes in Parliament Square were pulled up to accommodate them.
While lying in state in Westminster Hall, an estimated 304,000 members of the public filed past the king’s coffin. On 15th February, the coffin was carried on a gun carriage pulled by members of the Royal Navy to Paddington Station and then processed through the crowded streets of Windsor before the king was laid to rest in St. George’s Chapel. The funeral of King George VI was the first to be televised, which led to a boom in the sale of television sets.