Until recently, photography was banned in both Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral. For a collector of Prime Ministerial graves, this proved a bit of a problem. Not only that, but accessing both – while straightforward enough in logistical terms – wasn't exactly easy on the wallet.
The abbey is the final resting place for no fewer than eight Prime Ministers of Great Britain or the United Kingdom: William Pitt the Elder; William Pitt the Younger; George Canning; Viscount Palmerston; William Ewart Gladstone; Andrew Bonar Law; Neville Chamberlain; and Clement Attlee. St Paul's is home to just one: The Duke of Wellington.
Last year, however, I lucked out on both fronts. Not only did I discover that St Paul's offered free entry on the day of the Lord Mayor's Show (9 November 2019) but last June it dropped a photography ban that no-one had really paid attention to anyway. 'Respectful' non-flash snaps were now permitted, which suited me just fine.
I suppose Arthur Wellesley, the 'Iron Duke' of Wellington, was the first celebrity Prime Minister. A national hero following his defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, he went on to serve as premier twice, from 1828-30 and in 1834. He died in 1852 and the funeral was a lavish affair. Special stands were erected inside St Paul's to accommodate 13,000 mourners; the Dean likened the sound of them all reciting the Lord's Prayer to 'the roar of many waters'.
After the service, Wellington was lowered into the crypt and buried in a sarcophagus fashioned from luxullianite granite, just yards from that of Nelson. Wellington's tomb is guarded by four lions, 'sleeping as there is no need to fight any longer'. Later, a large monument was erected on the cathedral floor. At its top, Wellington is riding his steed, Copenhagen; at its bottom, he is shown lying in death.
Westminster Abbey only lifted its photography ban in October this year, but last October I got wind of a one-day relaxation so made a point of visiting after work, an added bonus being that parliament pass-holders get free entry. There is no 'Prime Minister's Corner' (although there is a 'Statesmen's Aisle'), rather its eight premiers are dispersed throughout the abbey. Finding them, however, is made more complicated by a plethora of statues, memorials and rather worn gravestones.
Fortunately, the abbey has an excellent website, complete with precise locations and explanatory text. The Pitts are in the north transept. The senior of the two, the Earl of Chatham, was twice Prime Minister and was interred following a large public funeral. Initially, only a small stone with his initials marked the burial vault, although later a slightly larger stone was laid which included dates and those of his son William, who joined his father on 22 February 1806. Only a small part of their inscription remains visible.
Also in the north transept are three statues commemorating George Canning (Prime Minister for a few months in 1827), his son Charles John, Earl Canning, and George's cousin Stratford Canning. The inscription on their gravestone (which is next to that of William Wilberforce) reads:
GEORGE CANNING BORN 11th APRIL 1770 DIED 8th AUGUST 1827 AND HIS SON CHARLES JOHN, EARL CANNING, FIRST VICEROY OF INDIA. BORN 14 DECEMBER 1812. DIED 17 JUNE 1862
Close by is Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston, Prime Minister from 1855-1858 and again from 1859-1865. Like William Pitt and Gladstone (see below), Palmerston had the honour of a state funeral, something usually reserved for monarchs. His red granite gravestone was designed by the Gothic Revivalist Sir George Gilbert Scott. There's an over-sized statue of William Gladstone in the same aisle, the last standing statue to be erected in the abbey before it ran out of space.
His gravestone, with brass letters and a cross at the base, was only added following the death of Gladstone’s wife and reads: 'Here are buried William Ewart Gladstone Born Dec 29 1809. Died May 19 1898 and Catherine his wife the daughter of Sir Stephen Glynne Eighth Baronet of Hawarden Castle. Born Jan 6 1812. Died June 14 1900'. One can't help noticing the curious prominence granted to Gladstone's father in law…
Gladstone's career does not require reiteration, although I believe I'm right in saying that his four separate premierships (1868-1872, 1880-1885, 1886 and 1892-1894) were unparalleled in the three-century history of the office. As if by contrast is the 'Unknown Prime Minister', Andrew Bonar Law, whose ashes are buried in the abbey's nave. He served just once as Prime Minister and for only a year.
Nevertheless, Bonar Law is to me one of the most intriguing premiers of the 20th century. Canadian by birth (Kingston, New Brunswick) and Ulster Scots by descent, he spent much of his career resisting the Irish Home Rule first pledged (but not delivered) by Gladstone. Bonar Law and his wife were to be buried in Scotland, but the Dean of Westminster offered the abbey, supported by parliament. His modest gravestone reads simply:
Neville Chamberlain's ashes are buried next to those of Bonar Law. His ill-fated premiership is well known: he resigned in May 1940 and died in November. A similarly modest grave marker states:
Finally, in the nave's north aisle rests Clement Attlee. An Indian black marble slab reads:
His ashes were buried here on 7 November 1967 during his memorial service. Interesting that Attlee's two decades as party leader almost trump his six as premier.
David Torrance is
an author and contemporary historian