After news of Nelson’s death had reached London at the beginning of November plans began for his funeral, with various parties involved, including King George, the Admiralty, the Home Office, the Office of Works, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dean of St.Paul’s and Nelson’s brother William. The King chose the royal undertaker, the ironically named Mr. France, to carry out some of the arrangements. (His successors in the undertaking business, A. France & Son, remain proud of their association with the event as can still be seen by the window display at their branch at 45 Lambs Conduit Street). When it was decided that Nelson would be laid to rest at St. Paul’s its Surveyor, the engineer Robert Mylne, swung into action with plans for the funeral service and burial.
At Greenwich the lead coffin was placed inside a much grander outer coffin made from mahogany and decorated with ten thousand gilt nail-heads forming pictures of Nelson’s achievements, specially constructed in London. For three days, from 5th to 7th January 1806, it lay in state in the Painted Hall of the Royal Hospital at Greenwich, surrounded by captured French and Spanish flags, and with the hall’s walls shrouded in black drapes. Thirty thousand people filed past.
On 8th January the coffin was taken in a ‘Grand River Procession’ up the Thames to Whitehall, accompanied by naval dignitaries and a large flotilla of gilded Livery Company barges. It was carried on the royal barge originally built for Charles II, with the gilding covered in black velvet and the canopy decorated with black ostrich feathers. (The barge is today preserved at the Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth). Cannons were fired from along the way as the funeral barge passed and ordinary people crowded on to the bridges and riverbanks for a view of the passing spectacle. The disembarkation took place at Whitehall Stairs, between Charing Cross and Westminster, and then on to the Admiralty building where the coffin lay overnight.
The following day Nelson was taken in procession through the streets of London to St. Paul’s Cathedral on a horse-drawn funeral cart designed to look like the Victory. (After the funeral it remained at the Painted Hall until dismantled in 1840. The figurehead is now at the National Maritime Museum). The procession, led by the Duke of York, was so long that those at the front had already reached the cathedral before the rear had departed from Whitehall. It included the Prince of Wales, the Dukes of Cumberland, Kent and Clarence, thirty-two admirals, over one hundred captains, forty-eight seamen from HMS Victory, forty-eight pensioners from the Royal Hospital at Greenwich and thousands of troops. Huge numbers of people lined the streets to watch the parade – possibly hundreds of thousands if contemporary pictures are accurate – with stands for spectators erected at advantageous points. There were however some notable absentees: nineteen Admirals declined the invitation to attend, including Earl St.Vincent who had been Nelson’s commander at the Battle of the Nile. They were probably amongst those in the naval hierarchy who felt that Nelson had achieved his successes through disobedience to his superiors, or perhaps disapproved of his well-known affair with Emma Hamilton.
There was also some controversy and diplomatic manoeuvring regarding the attendance of the Prince of Wales. King George was anyway precluded from attending by the long-standing convention that monarchs do not take part in the funerals of commoners. The Prince had therefore requested to lead the funeral but during his lifetime Nelson had a rather low opinion of him. Additionally, the procession was passing into the City of London where the Lord Mayor has precedence over all bar the sovereign.
Arriving at St. Paul’s the coffin was carried into the cathedral by twelve seamen from HMS Victory. It was placed under the great dome where large stands had been erected for the multitude of attendees admitted by ticket: perhaps as many as seven thousand. Suspended from the dome was a huge lantern, specially made from 130 individual lamps, illuminating the ceremony below. Those captured French and Spanish ensigns hung from the galleries. Hymns were sung by men and boys from the choirs of St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, St. George’s chapel at Windsor, and the Chapel Royal. Among those attending was the French Admiral Villeneuve – commander of the French and Spanish forces at Trafalgar who had been captured during the battle – and Nelson’s estranged wife Fanny. His relationship with his mistress Emma Hamilton was always controversial and she was not invited.
The Archbishop of Canterbury had decided that Nelson should be buried above ground in the crypt immediately below the dome. No doubt due to the large size of the triple-coffin it was impractical to walk it down the stairs so a hole was cut in the cathedral’s floor through which it could be lowered at the end of the lengthy service. In the crypt the coffin was encased in a sarcophagus, made of granite slabs.
The funeral was something of a windfall for staff at the cathedral. In the days prior to the ceremony they had been charging large numbers of curious visitors to witness the preparations. More money was to be made after the event. The coffin was lowered to just below floor level to give the impression it had been placed in the sarcophagus but was instead left hanging for the next two weeks while the enterprising staff made further profit from sightseers until a complaint was published in the letters column of The Times.
The tomb as it stood immediately following the funeral was not as it now remains today, however. The government’s Surveyor General, James Wyatt, produced some designs for further embellishment, none of which found favour. Two hundred and fifty years earlier Cardinal Wolsey had commissioned the Florentine renaissance sculptor Benedetto Rovezzano to create a sarcophagus, to eventually be used for his own tomb. When Wolsey fell foul of Henry VIII the work was expropriated and kept at Windsor Castle but failed to find a purpose. About ten years after Nelson’s funeral a black and white marble plinth was added to his simple granite tomb, on top of which was added Wolsey’s sarcophagus surmounted by a marble cushion holding a viscount’s coronet.
Nelson’s death coincided with existing plans to honour politicians, naval and military heroes with statues in the otherwise rather bare interior of St. Paul’s. The Royal Academy made recommendations but at the request of Nelson’s family a lucrative commission was given to the talented sculptor and former Wedgewood designer John Flaxman who produced the statue in the cathedral’s south transept, completed in 1808.
A tomb under the great dome of St. Paul’s and an impressive statue in the body of the cathedral remain as lasting memorials to the greatest British naval hero. Yet they were hardly on the grand scale of what was yet to come in the following decades, with which I shall continue in the second part of this article.
First published by London Historians, August 2011.
Reprinted in The Journal of the Nelson Society, January 2013