Wednesday 17 April 2013

Thatcher and the Sufragette -- For One Night Only

Lying-in-State in Westminster Hall for
Sir Winston Churchill. A hallmark of a State Funeral
As we now know, Lady Thatcher expressly stated that she did not wish to have a full state funeral. This honour, traditionally reserved for the Sovereign but, in exceptional cases, an honour to be conferred upon Britain's Praetorian Guard, was deemed inappropriate for one who, despite her global stature and almost unparalleled charisma and cult of personality, remained, nevertheless, a divisive rather than unifying force in the nation. The distinctions between a state and a ceremonial funeral are technical and unlikely to be noticed by the general public. However, whether ceremonial or state, the funeral of Thatcher has been marked by two major omissions: 1. The absence of a formal "lying-in-state" (which normally occurs in Westminster Hall, England's greatest and most historic secular building) and the refusal to have a military "fly past" -- a truly thrifty Thatcherite decision. And so, instead, we have ceremonial funeral lite. But, this has been counterbalanced by the presence of HM The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh (the first time they have attended a PM's funeral since that of the Great Man himself, Sir Winston Churchill in 1965). Some have declared that their attendance elevates this to "state" level -- nice, but wrong. Ditto the decision to silence Big Ben (the principal bell inside the Elizabeth Tower -- until the Diamond Jubilee previously known as the Clock Tower) and its sister bells for the duration of the funeral service -- a scene (sound?) not heard since that same funeral of Sir Winston in 1965. Impressive but, however grand, not part of the definition of a state funeral.

Baroness Thatcher resting in the Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft
And so, instead of a multi-day lying-in-state in that most glorious of locations, Westminster Hall, which stands, ever ready to bear witness to the thousands of sympathetic souls who feel duty bound to doff their caps and pay sincere respects to an individual who shaped so much of our modern life, we are instead informed that Lady Thatcher wished to have no such displays of emotion -- far too foreign. No, she is to rest in the crypt of St. Mary Undercroft located in the bowels of her true home, the Palace of Westminster, there to be honoured by a select few from within the political establishment.

St. Mary Undercroft is itself a very special building. Small, intimate and atmospheric, it is a "Royal Peculiar", a status that befits a chapel located in the royal residence otherwise known as the Palace of Westminster (a.k.a. the Houses of Parliament). It may lack the melancholic grandure of Westminster Abbey or the sombre simplicity of St. Margaret's Westminster; but that matters not -- for it is Pugin at his best. The walls scream with echoes of the glories of Britain's spiritual past, are filled with sentiments of chivalry, nobility, truth, piety and the desire for spiritual elevation. It's atmosphere is almost unequalled in the chapels of this land.
Sufragette Emily Davison trampled by the horse of
HM King Edward VII

My first visit to the Undercroft occurred many years ago, when I was but a slight, svelte, naive swot. Late one evening, after a lengthy and jovial dinner in the Lords, a senior peer led me on my own into this dark, unlit crypt. Turning on a faint light, he opened the door to a broom cupboard and invited me to follow him in. My gut instinct was predictable but, being British, one did not wish to seem churlish or in any way unappreciative of the kind hospitality one had thus far been afforded. Therefore, with considerable trepidation, I followed said peer into this small broom cupboard. Once inside, "His Lordship" asked me to read the brass plaque that had been affixed to the inside of the door. Having read it, I relaxed immediately and any suspicions were well and truly banished. For this was the cupboard in which that famed suffragette Emily Davison had hidden on 1 January 1911, the day of the official national census. The consequence of her audacious act, was that she listed her address as the Houses of Parliament, a building in which she asserted her right to sit and sleep -- despite the fact that this was denied to all other members of her sex. Tragically it was Emily who was the sufragette now forever remembered for running to be trampled under the horse of King Edward VII at the Derby (pictured supra).

To commemorate Emily Davison's life and passion, the 2nd Viscount Stansgate (otherwise known as "Tony Benn") erected a small plaque to Emily, which is located on the inside of the door to the broom cupboard (and therefore rarely seen by anyone other than the most keen).

The Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft, a Royal Peculiar in the
Palace of Westminster
Whether Thatcher and Davison would have shared much in common is impossible to know. However, I, for one, think it absolutely fitting that two such towering and powerful female figures should now be united through the fact that they are, I believe, the only two women to have rested over night in the Chapel of St. Stephen Undercroft.

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