A DEAD lion may be a more impressive sight than a dead mouse, yet with the hand of death heavy upon them there is little to be said for any difference between the two, and even less when Nature has finished her task. As to the value of popular esteem and hero-worship even our own history shows us countries stifling their yawns at the death-bed of kings when the inevitable moment of dissolution seemed unreasonably delayed, and thinking only of their chances of ingratiating themselves in the favour of the successor to the throne. Deserted, save by such, and perhaps a few staunch and simple souls, the last moments of many a monarch has little enough to recommend it.
Few sovereigns have received a larger measure of popular devotion than Queen Elizabeth, yet the closing scene of her life was sad enough.
Of all our kings and queens the death of William the Conqueror was perhaps the most dramatic. Feared rather than honoured the fierce old king died in Rouen. Long before the body was cold his followers deserted him, leaving his corpse to the care of his servants, who, after stealing everything that was of value from his person and from the house where he lay, followed the example of their betters. Alone and dishonoured the clergy found him when they came to offer the last consolation of religion. The body was taken by water to Caen in the charge of the monks of St. Benedict, and with them walked Anselm, the Abbot of Bec, who had risen from a bed of sickness in order to hear the last confession of the Conqueror--but too late.
"In the midst of the solemn pomp there arose a cry of terror, flames burst from a house by which the procession was passing; it was unsafe to proceed as the whole quarter was threatened with destruction. Once more the body of the unloved Duke was deserted, only the monks followed it to the convent."
Even the actual burial at St. Etienne was attended by dramatic events. As the Bishop of Evreux ascended the pulpit to pronounce a funeral discourse, a rich burgher of Caen, who was present with a formidable body of sympathizers, demanded a hearing. "I forbid you to cover the body of the robber with my soil or to bury it in my heritage," he shouted--the ground on which the chapel stood, having been wrested from him by force. The commotion that ensued may well be imagined; peace was only restored when the Bishop handed sixty sous as an instalment of his claim and promised that the remainder of the price he demanded for the rights of interment should be made good to him. This episode was surely dramatic enough, but the final scene was full of horror. "The coffin was not large enough, or strong enough, and all the strength of incense smoke could not prevent the congregation from hurrying out of the church, leaving the terror-struck monks to finish the service as best they could, and then retire all trembling to their cells."
Many years later the Calvinistic mob broke into the tomb and took all the bones of the king. These, with the exception of the thigh-bone, were given to a monk, but were lost when the Abbey was a little later sacked. The thigh-bone, which passed into private hands, was brought back and is now all that remains of William the Conqueror.
A somewhat similar incident to that which scattered the mourners at the Conqueror's funeral occurred at the burial of Mademoiselle de Montpensier (first cousin to Louis XIV). In accordance with an old custom the heart had been removed for separate burial. Owing to imperfect scaling of the casket containing the relic, which was placed on the credence table, it burst in the middle of the service with a loud report. The intolerable odours sent priests and many eminent mourners flying from the church (of St. Denis).
The Bourbons were buried in the vaults of St. Denis, and it was customary for their bodies to be opened and the more perishable parts removed and embalmed.
Many instances are on record of this once common practice of burying the heart apart from the corpse. The tradition is still carried out by the Saxon royal family. Directly death is assured the body is opened and the heart and entrails removed. The heart is enclosed in a casket and placed on a white satin cushion on one side of the coffin, and the entrails in a white satin-covered jar on the other side. When the coffin is deposited in the vault these unpleasant objects repose on a bracket beside it.
The heart as the legendary seat of the emotions has often been buried in some favoured spot to which it has been impossible to remove the body. The usage is also connected with the desire that premature burial would thus be avoided.
In the year 1838 the heart of Richard I, "The Lion-hearted," was discovered in Rouen, enclosed in a case of lead, in which it had been placed at his death in 1199. His body was buried at Fontevand.
Other royal hearts were thus disposed of: that of Henry III in Normandy; Eleanor, Queen of Edward I, in Lincoln; Louis IX, XIII and XIV in Paris. An interesting story is told of the heart of Robert Bruce, which he desired should be buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
It was entrusted to Douglas, who carried it enclosed in a silver casket, which was suspended from his neck. On his journey he became involved in a fight with the Spaniards against the Moors, in which he was killed. The treasure was recovered and brought to Scotland, where it found a resting-place in Melrose Abbey.
Another "wandering heart" was that of James, the Marquis of Montrose, who was executed in the year 1650. Enclosed in a steel box it was sent to the exiled Duke of Montrose. The casket was stolen on the journey and was eventually discovered in an obscure shop in Flanders. Later it was taken to India by one of the family, where it was stolen by a native; finally it reached Europe once more, only to disappear at the time of the French Revolution.
The separate burial of the heart was forbidden by Pope Boniface VIII in 1294, but Benedict XI withdrew the prohibition.
The practice was common from the twelfth to the eighteenth century. The heart of the poet Shelley, it will be remembered, was snatched from the funeral pyre by his friend, Trelawney, and sent to England.
An account of the funeral of Henry VII will give some idea of the scale of magnificence considered appropriate to royal obsequies during the Tudor period.
The body of the King was broucht from Richmond and was met at St. George's Bar, Southwark, by the Mayor and Aldermen, accompanied by a body of commoners on horseback, appropriately dressed in black. The streets were lined by members of the various "companies" carrying torches, the lower crafts occupying the first place. After the Freemen of the City came the "Strangers," Easterlings, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Venetians, Genoese, Florentines and Lukeneres on horseback and on foot, also carrying torches. In Cornhill the lower crafts were so marshalled that the "most worshipful crafts stood next to St. Paul's."
On the day following the shrouded but uncoffined body of the King was taken from St. Paul's to Westminster. "The lowest craft" was placed nearest to the Cathedral and the "Most Worshipful next to Temple Bar, where the civic escort terminated. The Mayor and Aldermen proceeded to Westminster by water to attend "Masse and offering." The Mayor with his mace in his hand made his offering next after the Lord Chamberlain, those Aldermen who had passed the chain offered next after Knights of the Garter. It must have been a well ordered and imposing spectacle at which the crafts were honoured, an element strangely lacking in these days when royal processions are for the most part confined to a military display.
The chapel of Henry VII, containing his beautiful tomb by the Florentine artist Torrigiano, also enshrines the body of his consort, Elizabeth of York. Here, too, we are reminded of a much less pompous ceremony. For reasons of state the body of Charles II, which lies in a vault beneath the chapel, was buried with only the barest formalities "and soon forgotten after all this vanity," Evelyn tells us. Here, too, lies the great Duke of Marlborough, the magnificent pall which covered his remains--rightly the perquisite of the Dean of Westminster--being stolen after the funeral.
The city guilds of craftsmen loved to honour their dead with imposing processions.
Describing a civic funeral, Machyn says, "First the company to which the dcceased belonged appeared in their livery. The company of clerks attended the funeral of the better class and sang over the graves; black gowns were given to as many poor men and women as the condition of the deceased permitted." When a great citizen died like Master Husee Squire and Gutt Marchand Vintorer, of Muskovia, and haberdasher, he was followed by a hundred mourners, he had five pennons of arms and a "cotte armur," and two heralds of arms, etc.
"He was attended by the choir of St. Paul's and by the company of clerks. He was buried at St. Martin's, Ludgate Hill, the church hung with black and with escutcheons of arms; the Reader of St. Paul's preached both days."
The funeral oration or "funeral" as it was at one time called--denoted the obsequies generally, but more particularly the sermon.
Webster, in his dictionary, gives examples of the word used in both senses. "King James's 'funerals' were performed very solemnly in the Collegiate Church at Westminster"--also "Mr. Giles Lawrence preached his 'funerals.'"
The ancient Greeks and Romans employed their finest orators for this purpose, the procession generally stopping on its way to the pyre in some important public place to listen to a lengthy panegyric on the virtues of the dead.
In this country it was a common practice to leave by will a specified sum of money to defray the cost of a funeral sermon. In later days the "mortuary"--a charge levied on the estate of a deceased person by the Church--became associated with the post-mortem oration.
Master Flammock, who died in 1560, was apparently a Puritan; many gowns were bestowed by his executors. He was taken to the church without singing or clerks, and was buried with a Psalm "After Genevay," and a sermon.
Master Hulson Scrivener was one of the masters in Bridewell, so the masters of Bridewell attended his funeral with green staves in their hands, and all their children, "and there was great syngyng as ever was heard."
Such elaborate functions nearly always finished with a repast, "and all dune, to the place fir there was a great diner."
With much pomp and civic honours the City Fathers loved to bury their dead, especially the members of their own Guilds. The bearing of torches on these occasions reminds us that burial by night--a custom which added very considerably to the dramatic effect of the proceeding--was considered as a special honour to persons of rank or distinction. Those of the Aldermen of London who had passed the chair were thus interred. The practice gradually fell into disuse, partly because of the opportunity it afforded for riotous behaviour on the part of the sightseers; it was prohibited in the time of Charles I. The prohibition was, however, frequently disregarded, the tradition being retained by some families and in certain districts. The last English king to be buried by torchlight was George I.
Something of the cost of great public funerals may be gathered from the following extract from Evelyn's Diary (1695). He says, "I saw the Queen (Mary) lie in state--the Marquis of Normanby told me King Charles had a design to buy all King Street and build it nobly, it being the street leading to Westminster." "This," he adds, "might have been done but for the expense of the Queen's funeral, which was fifty thousand pounds--against her desire."
After the burial a paper was found expressing a wish that her body might not be opened, and that no expense might be incurred at her funeral.
Macaulay gives a picturesque account of this funeral:
"While the Queen's remains lay in state at Whitehall the neighbouring streets were filled every day from sunrise to sunset by crowds, which made all traffic impossible; the two Houses with their Maces followed the hearse--the Lords robed in scarlet and ermine, the Commons in long black mantles. No preceding sovereign had ever been attended to the grave by a Parliament, for till then, the Parliament had always expired with the sovereign. The banners of England and France, Scotland and Ireland were carried by great nobles before the Courts. The pall was borne by the chiefs of the illustrious houses of Howard, Seymour, Grey and Stanley. On the gorgeous coffin of purple and gold were laid the crown and sceptre of the realm. The sky was dark and troubled, and a few ghostly flakes of snow fell on the black plumes of the funeral car. Within the Abbey, nave, transept and choir were ablaze with innumerable wax lights. The body was deposited under a sumptuous canopy in the body of the church, while the Primate (Tenison) preached. Through the whole ceremony the distant booming of canon was heard every minute from the batteries of the Tower. It was rumoured at the time that a robin which had taken refuge from the cold in the same building was observed to perch incessantly, and, as it were, affectionately and sadly upon the Queen's hearse, a touching incident greatly appreciated by the spectators."
As in the case of Queen Mary elaborate obsequies are often given in honour of a person who has previously expressed a desire to be buried in a simple and decent manner, and much of the vulgar ostentation of the modern survivals is for the aggrandizement of relatives rather than the honour of the departed.
Such was the fate of the great Italian composer, Verdi, who gave the most strict and definite instructions to his friends that his body was to be laid to rest without any sort of public display whatever. Despite this, he was buried in Milan in 1901, in an ornate marble tomb, and it was computed that no less than a hundred thousand people lined the streets to witness the procession.
We can hardly conceive that the elaborate funeral ceremonies afforded to Oliver Cromwell were such as would have been desired by a man of such simple and unostentatious habits.
Whilst his body was being embalmed his effigy was exhibited to the public, decked with royal robes, crown and regalia. His remains were afterwards removed from Somerset House on a state bed of velvet, drawn by six horses, the pall being borne by various noblemen. Knights and heralds, guards of honour, and a noble procession of notable persons accompanied him to Westminster Abbey. Evelyn describes the event as "the joyfullest funeral I ever saw, for there were none that cried but dogs, which the soldiers hooted away with a barbarous noise, drinking and taking tobacco in the street as they went"--a description which, if it gives something in the way of local colour, is clearly prejudiced.
The same chronicler, who never missed any public occasion of interest, particularly a funeral, in describing the obsequies of Ireton under date March 6th, 1652 writes: "Saw the magnificent funeral of that arch rebel Ireton carried in pomp from Somerset House to Westminster, with divers regiments of soldiers, horse and foot, then marched the mourners, General Cromwell (his father-in-law), his mock Parliament men, officers and forty-four men in gowns; three led horses in housings of black cloth, two led in black velvet and his charging horse all covered over with embroidery and gold on crimson velvet: then the Guidons, ensigns, four heralds carrying the arms of state (as they called it), namely the red cross, and Ireland with the casque wreath, sword and spurs, etc., next a chariot canopied of black velvet and six horses, in which was the corpse. The pall held up by mourners on foot, the mace and sword, with other marks of his charge in Ireland (where he died of the plague), carried before it in black scarves.
"Thus in a grave pace--drum covered with cloth, soldiers reversing arms--they proceeded through the streets in a very solemn manner."
Attempts were made at various times to curtail by law extravagance at public funerals, but with very little result.
In the year 1681 the Scottish Parliament restricted the number of persons who might attend the funeral of a person of rank to one hundred, prohibiting at the same time the using or carrying of branches, banners and other honours at church except "the eight branches to be upon the pall or upon the coffin where there is no pall." The funeral sermon was also condemned.
Despite this Act the funeral of Sir William Hamilton, who died in 1707, was so costly that it dissipated the sum equal to two years of his salary as a judge.
Whilst, especially in modern times, it has been customary to accompany the funerals of kings and those of exalted rank with a display of military, rather than civic honours, this has been more reasonably done in the case of famous military leaders. The burial of Napoleon occurs at once as an example. The Warrior-Emperor died at St. Helena on May 5th, 1821. He had previously selected a beautiful spot on the island, where he desired that his body should be interred in the event of permission being refused to take it to France. Here, in the presence of a few faithful friends who had cheered his exile, and the military authorities on the island, his body was carried by British Grenadiers on May 8th. He was clothed in the dress he had worn during his many campaigns--his head covered by his historical three-cornered hat-volleys were fired over his grave, and a huge stone was afterwards placed to mark the deserted spot where the remains of the great soldier lay.
It was not till the year 1840 that the British administration restored the relics of Napoleon to the French. Before being placed in the frigate Belle Poule, the coffin was opened, when it was found that the body was not decayed and the features were still recognizable. All that remained of the great Napoleon was thus conveyed to the scene of his former triumphs, to be interred in the company of other illustrious warriors in the church of the Invalides. Though it was winter time, and bitterly cold (December 15th, 1840), some six hundred thousand persons assembled in the streets of Paris to do honour to Napoleon. Louis Philippe was present at the service, which was the occasion of much pomp and magnificence; a touching tribute to the memory of a great leader, and one which was not witnessed without the deepest emotion, was the appearance of a guard of honour composed of war-scarred veterans, who had fought by his side in many a famous battle. Napoleon's favourite charger also followed the body to its final resting-place.
The funeral of Wellington was hardly less magnificent than that of the vanquished Emperor. It took place on November 18th, 1852. The body was interred by the side of Nelson in St. Paul's Cathedral.
During the procession the streets presented a remarkable sight; enormous crowds were assembled many hours before the ceremony, and every possible point of vantage had been occupied where even a distant glimpse of the cortege might be expected. Both rich and poor were dressed in deep mourning. Whatever the popular feeling might have been at some periods of the life of Wellington, there can be no doubt that at his death a generous and heartfelt sorrow was displayed. With great military ceremony, arms reversed and drums muffled, the enormous structure on which the body was carried rumbled through the streets to the sound of the "Dead March."
This funeral car is interesting as it resembled the later examples of the hearse proper. Mounted on a substantial wagon, the enormous superstructure, decorated with banners and weapons, bore an altar-like erection covered by a magnificent velvet pall. On the top rested the coffin, on which the Duke's celebrated "cheese-cutter" hat reposed with the other insignia of his rank. Over the whole car a canopy was erected, supported by four ornamented poles. A large team of horses was required to drag the heavy structure, all of which wore nodding plumes on their heads whilst velvet saddle-cloths covered their flanks in the orthodox manner.
Large bodies of troops representing all the picked regiments in the British army lined the route or followed in the procession.
Not only in this country, but abroad, on the day of his funeral honour was accorded to the "Saviour of Europe," as Wellington was called.
In Austria a grand parade of the whole army was ordered, at which the Emperor was present in person to direct the salute of artillery.
In all the ceremonies which accompany the soldier to his grave, whether he be a general of renown or a trooper of humble rank, we see much the same forms resorted to, which we shall find presuppose that he has been slain and is to be buried on the field of battle.
Even in modern warfare, where conditions are so widely changed from the old order of things, the earliest practices are still in vogue. The identity disc may take the place of the tattoo mark, but the purpose is the same.
The art of tattooing--if it be art--was used, if not originated, for the purpose of identification of the dead and the wounded on the battlefield. By this means did Edith the Swan Neck discover the body of Harold on the field of Hastings.
William of Malmesbury (1066) says, "The English adorned themselves with punctured designs." Kingsley says, "May not our sailors and soldiers fashion of tattooing the arms and chest with strange devices be a remnant of the very fashion kept up if not originated by the desire that the corpse be recognized after death."
The forms prescribed for the burial of soldiers are set down with military punctiliousness and regard for detail. The uniformity of the proceedings and such enforced simplicity as burial on the field of battle dictates, adds a dignity to all things based on essential principles which never fails to awaken the sympathetic interest of the observer.
The regulations provide for different escorts according to the rank of the deceased, but otherwise the same honours are paid irrespective of degree.
The "firing party" consists of a sergeant, corporal and twelve privates. To those selected as pall-bearers falls the duty of seeing that the flag which covers the body, and the headdress and accoutrements are tied on the coffin in such a manner as will prevent their falling off when the coffin is "shouldered." The arms of the escort are reversed, that is to say, the muzzle of the rifle is directed to the rear under the soldier's left arm, the right hand holding it in position behind his body.
The coffin is placed on a gun-carriage prepared for the purpose (that used on the occasion of Queen Victoria's funeral may be seen in the London Museum). The procession moves off at the slow march, followed by the riderless charger in appropriate circumstances, with his master's boots reversed in the stirrups. The firing party leads the cortege, followed by the band and drummers. After the gun-carriage march the bearers in attendance, the mourners following. The band plays the "Dead March," and when it ceases the pace is quickened till the burial ground is within sight, when the slow march is resorted to again. At the entrance to the cemetery the firing party leading, halt and open out, in order that the procession may pass between them as they stand with heads bent and arms reversed. The coffin is then lifted from the gun-carriage by the bearers and carried feet foremost to the grave, where the firing party follow, remaining with covered heads. The ceremony is concluded by the firing of three volleys, and the sounding of the bugle call known as the "Last Post." A lively march is played by the band on the way home.
Such a scene as this is a common enough incident in any garrison town, but it never becomes commonplace, for it has history behind it.
The use of the gun-carriage as an improvised hearse has an obvious origin in the time of war.
The reversed arms were once a recognized signal to the enemy that a truce was called whilst the dead were buried. The three volleys fired over the grave announce that the ceremony is over, and that the burial party is prepared to accept battle again.
The wailing notes of the "Last Post" is the sound that nightly lulls the camp to rest.
The use of the flag as a pall is an obvious makeshift in circumstances where coffins are unobtainable.
As we have noted in a previous chapter, the custom of leading the warrior's horse to the grave is a remnant of the days when it was considered necessary to slaughter the animal there in order that its master might have a charger in the spirit world to carry him to fresh fields of victory.
The hoisting of a flag half-mast high, though a common usage, is essentially of military origin. It typifies the victory of death over life, the victor's flag being at one time flown over the flag of the vanquished, which was lowered for this purpose.
Of naval funerals there is little to tell. When they take place on land, they follow the military custom--at sea, the uncoffined body is commonly sewn in a hammock or in sailcloth, to which shot or a weight is attached, in order that it may sink in the deep waters to which it is committed.
We cannot claim to have dealt even briefly with the subject of public funerals without making some mention of the burial of the murderer or his victims. Morbid curiosity and an inherent and ghoulish love of tragedy renders such occasions dear to vulgar minds. Thousands will gaze with intense interest at the shabby ending to a squalid drama.
In comparatively modern times, when the public execution of criminals took place outside Newgate Prison, long hours before the condemned man was brought out in the chill morninor air to be hanged, dense crowds of the lowest elements of society swarmed in thousands from the slums of the city to gloat over the horrid sight which the execution afforded.
Even in these enlightened days, when an execution takes place a crowd assembles outside the prison walls in order to enjoy--we can use no other word--the sound of the tolling bell, and to see the black flag hoisted.
The prison officials who receive the unhappy victim of passion and take his life, are also responsible for the disposal of his body.
With a haunting suggestiveness Wilde tells the sordid story in the "Ballade of Reading Gaol."
"Only a stretch of mud and sand
By hideous prison wall,
And a little heap of burning lime,
That the man should have a pall."
Whilst at the present time there undoubtedly exists a growing strength of public opinion against the death-penalty, the cause of the murderer often on the slightest pretext has very generally been supported. "Release unto us Barabbas" is a cry not confined by any means to the ancient Jews.
A remarkable case of this kind occurred in the year 1815.
A girl named Eliza Fenning was accused of attempting to poison the family with whom she was employed as a servant. Her innocence was supported by one of those curious waves of intense popular feeling which arise in some such cases. Amongst the advocates of her cause were numbered many celebrated people of the day. The girl's character--if one may judge it from the evidence given at the trial--was anything but blameless.
Despite numerous petitions and the serious reconsideration of the facts at the last moment by the Lord Chancellor and other officials, she paid the full penalty of the crime which she was said to have committed. A public funeral was accorded to her, the body being handed over to her relatives for the purpose. The streets through which the procession passed were thronged with sightseers the whole day. A strong body of guards was on duty to keep the peace. The pall was borne by girls dressed in white, as a symbol of her innocence, the relatives walking behind the hearse. Difficulty was experienced in forcing a way for the procession to the cemetery through the dense crowds of people.
It is remarkable that the name of this woman of very humble origin appears, with detailed particulars of the event, in the Dictionary of National Biography.
Reference has been made to the custom of burying murderers at the cross-roads. Many curious beliefs have been held in this relation. Jewish law forbade the cutting down of a body which had been hanged, for at least a day after the execution, in order that the ground might not be rendered "unclean."
Hanging in this country was only substituted for burning alive as late as the year 1790.
At Portsmouth in 1784, Mary Bayley, who murdered her husband, was drawn to the place of execution on a hurdle and was then burnt alive.
If special precautions were considered necessary in order that the spirit of the dead might not annoy the living, certainly the dread of the ghost of a murderer or his victim presented special horrors to the superstitious mind.
For this reason, a stake was driven through the heart of the criminal, and other means adopted to prevent unpleasant reappearances.
Webb records the fact that during the Arran murder case in 1889, it transpired that the boots of the murdered man had been removed by the local constable, who according to tradition buried them on the sea-shore "between high and low water level" to prevent this ghost from walking.