On a cold winter day in late January, 1965, my mother initiated one of my seminal moments of personal development without me recognizing it at the time. She asked me across our kitchen counter whether I knew who the gentleman was who passed earlier that day. I was just a little boy, and had no conception, but I remember in one of my first significant memories that she stated that the man with the cigar and angry face, Winston Churchill, was a great man, and was now gone. There was no way for me to know that as I defined my love of history and the story of the great achievements of western civilization, that my study of this man, whose presence in the world was announced to me by my mother at the day of his demise, would become one of my most important influences. With all Sir Winston Churchill’s achievements, I have always held most dear his sense that life was a special gift, and the opportunities presented, not to be wasted. January 30th is the occasion of the 41st anniversary of his state funeral on January 30th, 1965, and deserves a look back.
The state funeral for Sir Winston Churchill was the first for a commoner since the funeral for the Duke of Wellington, and captivated the nation with a special solemnity. Millions lined the streets to watch in eerie silence as the cavalcade brought the coffin through the streets of London, each with their own memories of how Churchill’s will, defiance, and courage held them together when all appeared lost. Three hundred thousand more viewed him as he lay in state in Westminster Hall, and six thousand of the gratified world leadership and family participated in the funeral mass at St. Paul Cathedral, including all of the living leaders from the tumult of the world war conflict that fought at his side. The coffin was then taken by barge down the Thames like the funeral of a great ancient warrior, where even insensate machines, the cranes along the Thames, bowed in respect. Then, like Lincoln, from Waterloo station across the English countryside viewed by hundreds of thousands more, to his final resting place to the little church in Blandon, where his parents and his brother were buried.
The enormous contribution and influence that Winston Churchill held over our interpretation of the role of the individual in western civilization is critical to our society’s spirit and intermittently a subject for this blog, but not for this particular essay. The most important memory of the purity of a nation’s love for this common man who achieved uncommon things, is inspiration for all who aspire to play their part. He remains the primary example of how individuals sustaining personal defeat after personal defeat, can ultimately triumph if they are true to the vigorous and clarifying defense of overarching principle.
Churchill’s biographer Martin Gilbert quotes Lord Chandos, as best describing Winston Churchill’s qualities as a statesman:
“He enjoyed a conflict of ideas, but not a conflict between people. His powers were those of imagination, experience, and magnanimity. He saw Man as noble, and not as a mean creature. The only people he never forgave were those, who, in words he often used, ‘fell beneath the level of events’. “