Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Mourning and Merchandising: Wellington's London Funeral and the Case of the Illustrated London News

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Mourning and Merchandising: Wellington's London Funeral and the Case of the Illustrated London News

Article excerpt

The Duke of Wellington's state funeral in November 1852 is a cultural moment worth revisiting, not only as an unparalleled funerary spectacle that was read by the Victorians themselves as an unforgettable moment of heroic commemoration, but also as an event that solidified London's reputation as a global metropolitan center. Wellington's impressive funeral procession from the Horse Guards to St. Paul's Cathedral functioned as a celebration of London's main thoroughfares, while the laying-to-rest of the Hero of Waterloo served also as an opportunity for one and a half million spectators to converge on the capital and mark the autumn of 1852 with a tribute (directly in the wake of the previous year's Great Exhibition) to London's dominance.

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At the time of his death in the fall of 1852, Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington (born Arthur Wesley to Anglo-Irish peers in 1769) was widely regarded as Britain's greatest war hero and one of the nation's most notable statesmen. With the passing of Wellington the Victorians could commemorate with saturnalian eclat the career of an 82-year old who had been instrumental in securing English military and administrative control over central India during the so-called Marhatta Wars (1797-1805), in pushing the French forces back over the Pyrenees during the Peninsular campaigns (1808-1814), in destroying Napoleon's hastily assembled army on the fields of Waterloo in 1815, and in achieving the highest civic honors in nearly four decades of post-military political activity that saw Wellington appointed Commander of the Forces and lead a short-lived Tory ministry after George Canning's death. Half a century after the Duke was buried with state aplomb, his most famous biographer felt obliged to comment on his subject's enormous historical influence: "It is hardly possible to open a book dealing with civil, military, or social affairs in England during the first half of the nineteenth century, without finding constant allusion to Wellington" (Maxwell 1: xii).

Curiously, the eminence Wellington continues to enjoy in England's military-heroic pantheon is not matched by historical interest in the remarkable--indeed, the unprecedented--obsequies that laid him to rest. Several compelling arguments, I would suggest, could be offered to justify a reconsideration of the Iron Duke's funeral procession and burial in London--a celebration of the hero's death in peaceful old age that drew some 1 1/2 million spectators to the metropolis and inspired one Victorian clergyman to comment on the "funereal solemnity ... without precedent amongst us, whether in the magnificence and splendour of its own mournful pageantry, or (still better far) in the spontaneous tribute of deepest sympathy, felt and expressed throughout the length and breadth of the land" (Boutell 3-4). Renewed examination of this much overlooked event, for example, could contribute in significant ways to what might be called the "death industry" in Victorian studies, a field of inquiry into death and representation that had its roots in the early 1970s with the publication of John Morley's Death, Heaven and the Victorians (1971), and which now finds itself a legitimate and burgeoning sub-discipline, producing studies such as Olive Anderson's Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England (1987) and Pat Jalland's Death in the Victorian Family (1996).

Critical analysis of this moment could also go some way toward accounting for the counter-discourses--the challenging, even subverting memoirs and caricatures that threatened from the margins (most notably from the nationalist Irish and Scottish presses) of the seemingly unanimous, positive legacy of the British hero. Such narratives, which tended to downplay the "real importance of the subject" of Wellington's death by suggesting that obsessive coverage of this event resulted from "the dearth of other topics susceptible of being written about" (The Scotsman, 22 September 1852: 4), remained largely unacknowledged by the massive biographical enterprise solidifying around the figure of Wellington in the decades after his death--an enterprise that reified, as did the anonymous author of a representative 1861 tract, "the illustrious Hero of Salamanca" as "a guardian angel to his country during his lifetime, and a memento of noble pride to his relations and all his countrymen after his death" (Two Great Men 5). …

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