LONDON — Britain bade a final farewell to Margaret Thatcher on Wednesday, silencing the bells of Big Ben and mounting a trademark display of sober pageantry for the funeral of a towering leader who, in death as in life, deeply divides the nation.
Although not a state funeral — an honor reserved largely for monarchs — the military honors and pomp unfurled for the event marked the most elaborate goodbye for any elected leader here since Winston Churchill. As the Union Jack flew at half-staff over No. 10 Downing Street, the hearse carrying the flag-covered casket of the Iron Lady wound along a historic two-mile route. For the final leg of the procession, the casket was transferred to a gun carriage drawn by six horses.
Tens of thousands of mourners and 4,000 police officers lined the route, which stretched from the Gothic spires of the Palace of Westminster, through Trafalgar Square and over to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where a service was later attended by more than 2,300 dignitaries and others.
Well-wishers waved flags, both of Britain and the Falkland Islands, the British territory Thatcher went to war to recover after an Argentine invasion. They had come, they said, to honor Britain’s longest-ruling prime minister of the 20th century, a woman whose steely will is credited with rebuilding the country’s global status, accelerating the fall of the Berlin Wall and modernizing the domestic economy.
“She truly was an Iron Lady. She is what made Great Britain great,” said Maureen Mann, 71, whose husband and son fought in the 1982 Falklands War. Mann’s family traveled hours from central England to stand along the procession route. “Thatcher fought fiercely for that little island and the people on it. We feel a great sense of pride in that.”
Margaret Fowler, who, like Thatcher, is a grocer’s daughter, left Oxford for London at 5 a.m. to find a good spot along the route. “She put Britain back on its feet. When you see the people turning out here, you can see the support for her still,” Fowler said.
Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic came to pay their respects, with former U.S. secretaries of state George Shultz, James A. Baker III and Henry Kissinger joining British Prime Minister David Cameron and John Major, one of Cameron’s Conservative predecessors.
In accordance with Thatcher’s wishes, the service was quintessentially British, including pieces by English composers Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, delivered a blessing. Cameron and Thatcher’s American-born granddaughter, Amanda, offered readings.
Amanda Thatcher, 19, drew particular accolades for her composure as she read a New Testament verse that spoke to her grandmother’s strength: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
The Rev. Richard Chartres, a family friend and the bishop of London, told the mourners that Thatcher had requested not a typical eulogy, laced with her political accomplishments, but a more simple and personal address. He delivered just that, reflecting on a young boy who had once written Thatcher asking whether prime ministers, like Jesus Christ, never made mistakes. Thatcher’s life, Chartres acknowledged, had been stormy. But as her remains rested in the church, he said, now “there is a great calm.”
“At such a time, the parson should not aspire to the judgments which are proper to the politician,” he said. “Instead, this is a place for ordinary human compassion of the kind that is reconciling.”
After the service, the coffin was carried to a hearse waiting at the foot of the cathedral’s west steps. A private cremation was held later in the day. Thatcher’s remains will be interred next to the spot at the Royal Hospital Chelsea where her husband, Denis Thatcher, was laid to rest in 2003.
Ed Miliband, head of a Labor Party that was forced to shift to the center after Thatcher’s 11 years in office, led those from the opposition who were present at St. Paul’s. But not all of Thatcher’s opponents were as forgiving. Furious Labor lawmakers sought to block a move to delay the start of Parliament on Wednesday so members of the House of Commons could attend Thatcher’s funeral. Several also railed against the decision to silence Big Ben for the event and to have taxpayers largely foot the 10 million pound ($15 million) bill for the funeral procession; Thatcher’s estate was to cover at least some of the costs.
“This is over the top,” said John Mann, a national Labor lawmaker. “Not even the German Luftwaffe could silence Big Ben. And I would be surprised if Margaret Thatcher herself would approve of the 10 million pound bill.”
Cameron defended the scale of the funeral, telling the BBC that the plans were made long ago. “She was an extraordinary woman, and it was right to mark her passing in this way,” he said.
On Tuesday, a more intimate service was held at the Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft in the House of Commons for family, friends and lawmakers.
British authorities reviewed security plans after the bombings this week in Boston. But Scotland Yard said no additional precautions were taken for the funeral, which was always going to be a massive security operation.
Police had feared rowdy protests, along the lines of one in London over the weekend. But Wednesday, Thatcher’s supporters far outnumbered the small groups of protesters peppering the route. Anti-Thatcher chants by some prompted sharp retorts from nearby mourners. At one point, protesters appeared to throw something at the horses pulling the hearse. A cluster of Thatcher opponents turned their backs on the parade.
“We lived through Thatcher destroying this country,” said Bryony Nierop-Reading, a 68-year-old retired teacher. “We used to be a rich, powerful, industrial nation, and she destroyed the working class.”
In Goldthorpe, a town in the South Yorkshire region hit hard when Thatcher broke the coal miners unions in the 1980s, an open coffin containing an effigy of the late prime minister was set ablaze Wednesday as hundreds watched.
“In death as in life, Margaret Thatcher has drawn both praise and opposition,” William Hague, Britain’s foreign minister, said in a speech Tuesday evening, noting that Thatcher would not have minded the divergent views about her legacy.
“She, who prized freedom above all things, would not be in the slightest bit upset by the disagreement,” Hague said. “Some of us, including me, will always be inspired and shaped by her achievements, while others may never reconcile themselves to her policies or to her character. The right to form our own opinions on that count is fundamental to our democracy.”
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, her husband, attended Wednesday’s service despite long-standing reports of differences between the nation’s two most powerful women.
“I think the queen is making quite a big statement by going,” said Jane Tate, 48, a dressmaker from Kent who watched the procession on the Strand with her two young daughters. “Despite what people might say, the queen respected Thatcher because of the position she reached and all of the works she did for this country.”