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The final resting place of Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill is in a quiet corner of a peaceful English churchyard. It was his own decision to be buried in Bladon, just a long stone’s throw from Blenheim Palace, where he was born. He is buried with his wife, Clementine Ogilvy Spencer Churchill. Close to him are the graves of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, his mother, Jennie Jerome, his brother, Jack, and three of his children, Sarah, Diana and Randolph. It is something of a Churchill plot; nearby is the grave of the glittering American heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Churchill’s cousin.
Churchill is best known as Britain’s wartime Prime Minister and inspirational leader from 1940-45. But for most of his life he effectively played a part in the transition from imperial, Victorian, Britain to the more egalitarian – and infinitely less powerful – nation that emerged from the Second World War. Born on 30th November 1874 at Blenheim Palace, into the aristocratic Spencer-Churchill family, he was educated at Harrow and Sandhurst, took part in one of the last British Cavalry charges at the Battle of Omdurman in 1889, was an adventurer, war correspondent, was captured by the enemy in the Boer War (1899-1902), escaped – and was a Member of Parliament from 1900 pretty much without break until just before his death. He served in the trenches in the First World War, held great offices of state such as Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and First Lord of the Admiralty. He painted, was a successful author and built a brick wall at his home, Chartwell. He was blamed, unfairly in my view, for the failure of the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915, is still classed as a reactionary by many on the left of politics and was mistrusted by many of his contemporaries – who saw him as ‘unsound’, an unprincipled opportunist – partly because he switched from the Tory Party to the Liberals and then back again. As he said himself, “Anyone can rat; but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”
Churchill was certainly no saint: for a start, he could be inconsiderate, selfish and a bully; but it strikes me that his genius lay in his rare strategic vision and the ability to mobilise people; he was a natural leader. Though undeniably a man of his time, he had the imagination and intelligence to see beyond the end of his nose, taking a longer view of history and future events than most people care to, or are capable of. He didn’t always get it right, of course, but few question that he was the right man in the right place in 1940. Churchill died aged 90 following a massive stroke, exactly 70 years after his father, on 24th January 1965. His wife, Clementine, followed him in 1977, aged 92.
Amongst the 3,000 people that attended Churchill’s state funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral were 6 monarchs, including Queen Elizabeth II, and 15 heads of state. US President Johnson did not attend – allegedly because Churchill had missed President Roosevelt’s funeral; if so, proving that there is nothing new about playground politics. But ex-President Eisenhower was there, as was French President de Gaulle and ex-Prime Ministers Atlee and Eden. Churchill’s coffin was taken by barge up the Thames, where the organisers were surprised to see the cranes dip in salute, a tribute from the dockyard workers, and then to Waterloo Railway Station. From Waterloo, the steam locomotive Winston Churchill journeyed to Long Hanborough in Oxfordshire, from which it is a short distance by road to St Martin’s Church, Bladon. There is a story that Churchill specifically wanted his coffin to pass through Waterloo Station, if de Gaulle outlived him; the obvious, more direct route from London to Hanborough is via Paddington Station. It was a final dig at his old ally.
Winston Churchill was a master wordsmith and one of the most quoted men in history. When celebrating his 75th birthday, he is reputed to have said, “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” You can’t help wondering how they’re getting on.