This essay discusses the death of the Duke of Wellington on 14 September 1852, which is notable less for the fact or manner of his death than for the spectacular funeral that followed two months later, on 18 November. By the time of his death, Wellington was already a kind of living monument, a last grand hero of England’s bygone Romantic age. Consequently, and precisely because it followed on the heels of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Wellington’s death crystallized a pivotal cultural moment, when England’s Romantic past gave way finally and decisively to the pressures of commodity, celebrity, and spectacle that had been mounting for a half-century, and that would characterize the increasingly modern tone of Victorian England. First, this essay discusses the lavish arrangements for Wellington’s state funeral, then it attempts to describe the nation’s complex impulses simultaneously to mourn and commodify the great Duke. Finally the essay captures, as much as possible, the ways that Britons – from Queen Victoria to William Gladstone to Charles Dickens – responded to this moment, unlike any other in English history.
Accordingly, when Wellington died, the Crown decided immediately that nothing but a state funeral of unsurpassed pageantry could possibly do the great man justice. For two months, Prince Albert and others planned and schemed, and on 18 November 1852 Britons witnessed a spectacle of mourning beyond anything they had ever seen—one that filled many with profound sadness, but also left many appalled by its gaudy scale. Coming just a year after the extraordinary spectacle of the Great Exhibition, the events of autumn 1852 helped in many ways to demarcate past and present in nineteenth-century England. With Wellington’s death, a Romantic era of high Toryism and grand heroes acting on the European stage came to a close; with his funeral, crucial forces—of celebrity, of spectacle, and of commodity exchange—that had been gaining momentum since the previous century finally coalesced and, alongside the Exhibition gave tangible form to an increasingly modern and modernizing Victorian age.
Born Arthur Wesley to a comparably poor Irish peer in 1769, Wellington seemed during his early life singularly unlikely to become a national hero. He was shy, awkward, and often ill as a boy, and by all accounts he failed at school to distinguish himself as a leader, athlete, or scholar (Longford 1: 15). He was “the ugly duckling and the problem child of his family,” unfit for any gentlemanly post and destined apparently to be another strain on the family’s modest finances (Aldington 21). But a period of military study at the Royal Academy of Equitation at Angers in France helped the teenage Arthur mature, and he returned to his family confident and polished—so much so that his older brother purchased a military commission for him just before he turned eighteen. In March 1787, Arthur became an ensign in the 73rd Highland Regiment, and soon thereafter he began to rise through the ranks. In 1791, he became a captain, and in 1793 he purchased two more promotions, rising to lieutenant-colonel. In 1797, with England mired in uncertainty respecting its affairs on the continent, Arthur sought and gained the chance to go to India as a full colonel to help stabilize British colonial holdings. He distinguished himself there in at least a minor way by waging several successful campaigns, first against Tipoo Sultan and later against the Marathas, thus consolidating the Crown’s control over southern India. In the process, he gained a reputation for unflinching calm under fire and unwavering discipline among the troops he commanded. Then came his shocking string of victories—often against superior numbers—over Napoleon’s massive Grande Armée during the Peninsular War, his elevation to a peerage in 1809 for his military service, and his final victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. For many Europeans, Napoleon’s defeat had been utterly unthinkable, and it is fair to say that the Allied victory, coming principally under Wellington’s command, made him into one of the greatest heroes and most famous men in Europe.
This brilliant military career was followed by a stormier one in politics, for Wellington returned to England after two decades of almost continuous service abroad to find an England that he scarcely recognized, transformed as it was by the combined effects of steam power, urbanization, and working-class unrest. In 1818, he accepted a seat in the Tory cabinet, and for the rest of his life he remained one of the leaders of the party, his name associated particularly with dogged opposition to extending voting rights to workers and the middle class. As Leonard Cooper remarks, “Wellington was essentially a man of the eighteenth century, of the old aristocratic tradition, and it was his fate to be called to high political office at the time when Britain was breaking with the eighteenth century and all that it meant and that he represented” (260). When British forces fired upon workers demonstrating at
St. Peter’s Field, Manchester in August 1819, sympathizers quickly dubbed the incident the “Peterloo Massacre.” Wellington was aligned with the government forces that shot on the demonstrators; largely as a result, the following year Wellington was the target of a failed assassination. He nevertheless succeeded George Canning as Prime Minister in 1828. But his unshakable opposition to suffrage for British workers—coupled with his championing of the Catholic Emancipation in 1829, which gave that right to Catholics in England—undid his ministry, which ended after a vote of no confidence in November 1830. For the next two decades of his life, he continued to serve in the House of Lords, and by the early 1850s both the Catholic Emancipation and the 1832 Reform Act were so long past that his reputation with the public had even rebounded. During 1848, as England watched the summer of revolutions on the continent and the last gasp of Chartism at home, the Crown asked Wellington to organize London’s defenses against the possibility of revolt, and three years later he repeated that service as England braced itself for the massive influx of tourists it expected for the Great Exhibition. Though 82 years old, Wellington often rode his horse through the Hyde Park crowds during the Exhibition, ostensibly keeping the peace but also attracting wild cheers, as if he were himself a part of the magnificent show. His death the following year could not have come as a real surprise: he had, after all, suffered from intermittent ill health since at least 1839 (Longford 2: 330). But no one mourned any the less for that. On the contrary, the festival of grief that followed suggests that Britons saw in Wellington’s death the end of not just a man but also the era he epitomized.
That Wellington should have an extraordinary funeral surely seemed natural to the Crown. From the early years of the century, despite his reputation for stoicism and austerity, Wellington had always been an object of considerable fanfare because of the patriotic fervor his military exploits inspired. His first victory over Napoleon in 1814 provoked innumerable celebrations of his excellence in the British press, and upon returning from France he was met at Dover by an “immense crowd” in which the men removed the horses from his carriage and “fought and shoved for the honor of dragging it through the streets” (Cooper 224). During 1810–1815, in fact, the Iron Duke underwent what Peter Sinnema calls a “mass reification,” appearing on every conceivable kind of merchandise—snuff-boxes, tea services, barometers, clocks, and door-stops, among other things—and in artistic reproductions that ranged from miniatures to full-length portraits and from busts to bronze reliefs (52). Forty years later, he became an even greater cause célèbre by dying amid a Victorian commodity culture that was expanding and maturing, that had been invigorated by the Great Exhibition, and that anyway treated death generally as an occasion for commerce no less than for grief and mourning. The deaths of public figures had for centuries been marked by lavish funerals in England, and this was as true during most of the nineteenth century as it had ever been. In 1806, both the military hero Lord Nelson and the statesman Charles Fox were laid to rest in elaborate state funerals, and the burial of the Duke of Northumberland at Westminster Abbey in 1865 was, Pat Jalland writes, “another great public spectacle” featuring more than 100 private carriages, fifteen mourning-coaches and six, pages decked out in black feathers, and mutes on horseback (Death 197).
Only a few men got such funerals during the nineteenth century, to be sure. But the first two-thirds of the century constituted a sort of high-water mark in England for excessive funeral pageantry and expenditure, from the very highest class almost to the lowest. The middle class was growing rapidly by the time Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, and it used some of its new-found wealth to imitate, as best it could, the lavish mourning practices of its social betters (Jalland, “Victorian Death” 242). In novels from Oliver Twist (1837–8) to David Copperfield (1849–50), Charles Dickens attacked the costly mummery associated with middle-class funerals, and the problem was pronounced enough even by the early 1840s that Edwin Chadwick noted it in a supplementary portion of his 1843 Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great-Britain. Remarking principally the health hazards of continuing to inter the dead in London’s old and abominably overcrowded churchyards, Chadwick noted that, while such interment constituted a public health hazard, the considerable expense of putting on a “proper” funeral was an additional threat to those who survived, and the need to satisfy social expectations in this regard drove some widows and children to the poorhouse. Working-class funerals, he reported, often featured mutes, pages with wands, and profuse displays of black feathers, silk hatbands, and silk gloves, all of them based (whether or not the bereaved or the undertaker knew it) upon the long-outmoded “heraldic array of a baronial funeral” (Jalland, Death 195). Where the Crown or an aristocratic family might spend a thousand pounds or more on a funeral, even the average middle-class funeral cost between £50 and £70, and working-class funerals—though less costly—constituted a serious financial burden for those who scarcely had money to survive (Chadwick 186). Since the late 1600s, royal ceremonies like baptisms, weddings, and funerals had gradually become “private” affairs, not in the sense that they were closed to the public, but in the sense that they were turned over to private enterprise rather than remaining under the control of the Earl Marshal or the College of Arms (Fritz 74-7). A class of professional undertakers had thus come into being, and England’s mourning rituals had become increasingly entangled with the commercial sphere. By Victorian times, according to David Cannadine, the funeral was unabashedly “a bonanza of commercial exploitation. . . more an assertion of status than a means of assuaging sorrow” (191).
Wellington’s funeral was the pinnacle of that bonanza, not just because of his unique stature in England but also because he died at this precise moment in time: a moment when, conceptually speaking, England’s commodity culture had reached its first significant peak and when, practically speaking, the Crown had two months before any public funeral could take place and so had all the time it required to plan an unprecedented show. News of Wellington’s death reached Victoria and Albert at Balmoral on September 16, and the two began immediately to settle with the Prime Minister, Lord Derby, the details of the government’s response. They agreed quickly on successors to various public posts, and Victoria also made clear that she “wish[ed] the Army to mourn for the Duke as long as for a member of the Royal family” (Victoria 392). But plans for the funeral itself proved much more complex. Though Victoria, Albert, and Derby all wanted a lavish public pageant, no such thing could take place before Parliament reconvened in November since, among other things, that body had to give formal approval for the expense. While the Duke had left no particular instructions for his funeral—and in theory the Crown could do as it liked—his family wanted to have a “proper ecclesiastical sanction for leaving the body unburied for so long” (Wolffe 31). Victoria therefore suggested having two funeral services read, one immediately for the family at Walmer Castle and the other at the time of the public event. When the prospect of reading two funeral services over the body became a clerical tangle, all parties agreed instead to reserve the formal religious service for the public funeral on 18 November. For eight weeks, Wellington’s body remained at Walmer, where it was embalmed and sealed inside four coffins of lead, oak, mahogany, and pine (Morley 81). On 9 and 10 November the family opened Walmer to mourners, and by the end of the second day some 9,000 of them had filed solemnly by the coffin, which they found draped in black and surrounded impressively by an honor guard, black wall hangings, and a forest of tall candlesticks (Longford 2: 401).
Meanwhile, Prince Albert took the lead in planning a funeral of unparalleled magnificence. Working closely with Derby and the Home Secretary Spencer Walpole, Albert arranged a lavish lying-in-state at Chelsea Hospital, followed by a brief transfer of the body to the military headquarters at Horse Guards and then, on the day of the funeral, a meandering two-mile procession (lengthened artificially to allow for more spectators) from Horse Guards to the funeral service at St. Paul’s. At the Hospital, Wellington’s coffin lay for two days in the Great Hall, perched atop a massive catafalque and draped to resemble a “sable tent,” with the room itself hung entirely with black velvets and silks and divided into five parts by rows of enormous candelabra, one for each of the Duke’s 83 years (Longford 2: 401-2). At St. Paul’s, meanwhile, workers from the City of London Gas Company worked frantically to install three mains and 5000 lights, and carpenters erected some 2000 temporary seats inside the Cathedral (Wolffe 45; Morley 83). Temple Bar, too, underwent a transformation: in the hands of Messrs. Herring and Son of Fleet Street, Upholsterers to the City, it became a giant Roman funeral arch suitable for the heroic procession that would pass beneath it (Morley 84). But the pièce de résistance was undoubtedly the funeral car, a bronze monstrosity weighing more than eleven tons, bearing an impossible mass of trophies, velvets, coronets, and other finery, and equipped even with a canopy that could be lowered mechanically to allow the vehicle to pass beneath Temple Bar (Morley 83). Under normal circumstances, the car would have taken months to construct, but Albert and his intermediaries persuaded the crafters and artists to work around the clock and finish it in only a few weeks. On the day of the funeral, twelve horses were needed to draw the car through the streets, and even then the ponderous load sank into the mud once at Pall Mall and could be made to move again only by the pulling of sixty men (Longford 2: 403).
All told, the Crown spent some £80,000 on this pageant, £11,000 of it on the car alone. And had this been all, Wellington’s funeral might be remembered as the most opulent example of the long tradition of glorious burials for England’s great men. But Wellington’s death also provoked an unprecedented frenzy of other commercial activity, very little of which had anything to do with the Crown. According to the Observer, at least £80,000 more changed hands just between those who wished to see the procession and those who owned or occupied space along the route, and the Times estimated that “more than 200,000 seats had been constructed and offered for sale” (Morley 85; “London, Friday” 4). Shops along the Strand rented out their storefronts and even their roofs and upper stories, and ads appeared in the Times, the Morning Chronicle, and other newspapers offering individual seats for a guinea and entire rooms for much larger sums. A network of “Wellington Funeral Agency” offices also sprang to life, selling seats, “official programmes,” and “interpreters for the convenience of foreigners” (Times, 10 November 1852 1). During the nine weeks between the death and funeral, in fact, London newspapers and storefronts brimmed over with the Duke, just as they had during his Waterloo days. By 15 September—the day after he died—ads for daguerreotypes of Wellington were already appearing on the front page of the Times, and a day later Simpkin and Co. began hawking the Life of the Duke of Wellington in three volumes by John Montmorency Tucker. Beginning on 24 September, Victorians were invited to yet another novelty: twice-daily showings of the diorama “The Wellington Campaigns.”
By keeping the Duke before the public eye, the long delay between his death and funeral rather whetted this commercial appetite, which intensified throughout the autumn of 1852. Late in September, ads for Wellington-related items typically occupied less than one column on page three or four of the Times, but by mid-November they appeared on the front page and took up two full columns—scores of ads offering to sell every kind of Wellingtoniana. So voracious was the public’s appetite for Wellington that his death was practically the making of the Illustrated London News, which devoted more than 100 pages of print and high-quality wood engravings to him between mid-September and late November and eventually sold two million copies of the “Wellington funeral” issues of 20 and 27 November (Sinnema 12; Wolffe 46). Amid this frenzy, the most valuable items were relics that purportedly came directly from the great man—locks of hair and autograph letters—which were advertised heavily in the Times for sums ranging up to £30. Some retailers (and charlatans) even tried to capitalize on Wellington’s name to sell items that had only the most nebulous association with the great man: “Duke of Wellington funeral wine,” for instance, and “the Wellington Funeral Cake” (Morley 88). During these strange weeks in September, October, and November 1852, Victorians hovered uncertainly between grief and trade, and Wellington was anatomized, textualized, objectified, and commodified. He could be had in almost any form, at almost any price. He became, in short, a new Great Exhibition unto himself. For weeks even after the funeral, ads continued to place relics of England’s great departed hero alongside tooth powder, new editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and economical ocean passages to Australia. However unconsciously, Victorians were welcoming a new age—of celebrity and commodity culture—in the very act of mourning the passing of the old.
On the evening of 10 November, Wellington’s coffin was removed finally from Walmer and taken to the train station at Deal, and from there to the Hospital for its lying-in-state. Victoria and Albert visited the next day, and on the 12th—a Private View day for members of the upper class—a line of carriages two miles long blocked the streets and thousands of ticket-holders never even got inside (Morley 82). Then the hospital opened to the general public and things turned dangerous: the enormous crowd, though orderly, crushed to death two women waiting outside (Morley 82). By 17 November, when the coffin was finally moved to Horse Guards, an estimated 260,000 people had paid their respects (Wolffe 45). The day of the funeral, the 18th, dawned stormy and raw, but even the rain and piercing wind did not deter the 1.5 million people who watched the procession in the streets or the 10,000 distinguished guests who packed St. Paul’s. Drawn by a dozen magnificently caparisoned black horses—so “surmounted by nodding plumes that they looked quite elephantine”—the funeral car left Horse Guards just before 9:30 a.m. and meandered past Buckingham Palace to Piccadilly and then across the Strand to St. Paul’s, covering the two-mile route in just under three hours (Morley 86). At the church, the mechanism for transferring the coffin from the car to the bier at the west door malfunctioned, causing a delay of more than an hour while the guests were assailed by the wind rushing in at the open doors (Longford 2: 403). Even so, by three o’clock, the funeral service was complete, every parish church in England began tolling its bells, and the coffin descended slowly and somberly into the cathedral’s burial crypt accompanied by “the sublime music of the Dead March in Saul” (Morley 87). England’s national day of mourning was over.
For the hundreds of thousands of Victorians who watched that day, Wellington’s funeral was unforgettable. But whether it was unforgettable because of the solemn feelings it inspired or because it made a gross and gaudy show depended, in large measure, upon who was doing the watching. The crowds, though enormous, were orderly and still, and whatever they may have thought of the massive car and lavish procession, “[t]hey wept as the catafalque passed by,” according to Elizabeth Longford, and showed “that they did not need great art to mediate their feelings for the Great Duke” (2: 404). Victoria, too, was deeply moved, for she wrote to her uncle Leopold a few days later, “I cannot say what a deep and wehmtühige impression it made on me! It was a beautiful sight. In the Cathedral it was much more touching still!” (402). The future Prime Minister William Gladstone, too, wrote in his diary of the “solemn & magnificent procession” in which “the most nobly & touchingly conceived part of all was the slow lowering of the coffin, surmounted by the Duke’s coronet & baton, his Military hat & sword, while the organ played the dead march” (4: 469). Lord Hardinge, who succeeded Wellington as Commander-in-Chief, stood particularly in awe of the funeral car, which he called (apparently without irony) “a most beautiful specimen of art,” and so, too, did the Times, which called the extraordinary vehicle “the most magnificent and interesting feature of the procession” (qtd. in Hibbert 401; “Funeral” 5).
Not everyone shared this view, either of the car or the other spectacular features of the day. For Lady de Ros, whom Wellington had known during his Waterloo days, the car was too “frightful” for words: “I can’t describe it. I must leave it to the Morning Post,” she wrote to a friend (qtd. in Longford 2: 403). Noted Victorian diarist Sir Charles Greville responded similarly in his entry for 21 November, where he wrote, “I saw the Duke’s funeral from Devonshire House. Rather a fine sight, and all well done, except the Car, which was tawdry, cumbrous and vulgar” (6: 370). Greville also objected to the showy lying-in-state at Chelsea, which he considered “too gaudy and theatrical,” an opinion shared by Sir Robert Morier, who added that the catafalque there had “too much the look of a ‘buffet’”—a hint that Morier sensed the grim consumerism that turned Wellington into an object for public consumption (Greville 6: 369; qtd. in Wemyss 1: 118). Thomas Huxley, who would rise to fame later because of his own scientific work and his tenacious public defenses of Charles Darwin, attended the funeral, too, and although he found the interior of St. Paul’s “impressive enough,” he called the entire effect “but stage trickery compared with the noble simplicity of the old man’s life. How the old stoic, used to his iron bed and hard hair pillow, would have smiled at all the pomp—” (1: 111). Meanwhile, what troubled future Prime Minister William Gladstone most was the lack of Christian evidences, or as Lord Shaftesbury put it, the fact that the funeral and its trappings carried all the “signs of mortality, but none of resurrection (Gladstone 4: 468; qtd. in Hodder 2: 388).
But here as in so many things Victorian, no one addressed the matter more pointedly or presciently than Dickens, who vented his outrage in “Trading in Death” in the 27 November 1852 issue of Household Words. The essay begins with Dickens’s general complaint regarding Victorian funerals, or what he calls simply a
system of barbarous show and expense. . . [that has] gradually erected itself above the grave, which, while it could possibly do no honor to the memory of the dead, [does] great dishonor to the living, as inducing them to associate the most solemn of human occasions with unmeaning mummeries, dishonest debt, profuse waste, and bad example in an utter oblivion of responsibility. (96)
Having thus addressed generally the problem that Chadwick had written of a decade before, Dickens moves on to the particular example of Wellington’s funeral, giving the most fulsome praise to the Duke but offering, too, the proposition “that the more truly great the man, the more truly little the ceremony” and remarking that the recent spectacle “has been, from first to last, a pernicious instance and encouragement of the demoralizing practice of trading in Death” (98). Dickens was rightfully—or at least self-righteously—appalled at the prodigious traffic in Wellingtoniana, and he quotes entire advertisements from the Times in order to show their grotesquerie: “precious remembrances” parted with for ready money; autograph letters traded in publicly and stripped of the privacy under which they were written; the Duke, raised mind and body upon a gaudy platform from which the living man would undoubtedly have shrunk (102). Calling the whole a “Public Fair and Great Undertakers’ Jubilee,” Dickens closes by hoping fervently that the Great Duke’s last “enduring service to the country” will be to disabuse all of England of the notion that such a spectacle does any good (104; 105). In this sense, Dickens’s writing about the great Wellington festival and bazaar presages the increasingly ferocious social critiques he would level at Victorian England throughout the 1850s and 1860s, in novels from Bleak House (1852-3) to Our Mutual Friend (1864-5).
Wellington’s remarkable funeral on 18 November 1852 was, then, remarkable not only for the life it commemorated but also for what it revealed of English culture at mid-century. Surely Wellington was a great man, and England’s extravagant outpouring of grief stemmed primarily from that greatness, both because of what he had done for the nation in the past and what he could never be called upon to do again. On the very day that Wellington died, the Times reported grimly on the rise in France of a new Napoleon, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of Wellington’s old nemesis, who had instigated a coup d’état in 1851 and stood poised in September 1852 to ascend to the French throne. Such a turn of events across the Channel awakened old English fears about French imperial ambitions: “No sooner have we explored one portion of the gloomy gulf in which the past, the present, and the future of France seem to be buried,” the Times observed, “than we are aware of lower depths and darker shadows” (London, Tuesday 5). In the grieving for the Duke, there was, therefore, a powerful undercurrent of anxiety regarding who in England would rise to protect queen and country. But here Dickens and the other skeptics of the state funeral seem to have had it right. England had less to fear from a new Napoleon than from the ongoing—and unsettling—transformation of its own society, seething with new economic and ideological forces that many Victorians neither particularly liked nor understood. Perhaps this explains why, despite months of planning, the ghastly expenditure, and the unprecedented pageantry, most observers agreed later that the most elegant and affecting sight had after all been the simplest: the Duke’s horse led along riderless by an old groom, a reversed pair of Wellington boots hanging from its sides. And it is here, or at least somewhere between the Duke’s absence and his insistent presence as a countless array of commodities, texts, and paraphernalia, that we find Victorian England taking a critical early step toward the modern age.
HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)
published April 2012
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 The advertisements I refer to here appeared in the Times on 15, 16, and 24 September 1852, on pages 1, 3, and 1, respectively, but many others also ran during these (and other) days.