A couple of weeks ago I started looking for details about Prince Albert’s funeral, to check whether his coffin had a fabric covering or not. While reading newspaper reports, I came across a tiny, fascinating detail which highlighted the role of ten anonymous men who were crucial to his funeral: the coffin bearers.
The funeral of the Prince Consort, on 23rd December 1861, took place at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, which had been prepared for the occasion by enveloping the walls and floors with black drapes and carpets, with the edges of steps and the of the open vault marked in white. ‘Only one thin narrow strip of white broke the darkness of the centre of the floor,’ reported The Times. ‘This was laid to guide the assistants who, when covered completely by the pall, would have to move the heavy bier up the centre of the Chapel to the platform, where it was to be lowered to the passage leading to the Royal vault.’
The term ‘pallbearer’ is usually used, these days, to describe the people who carry the coffin, but when an actual pall was used, the role of the supporters of the pall was ceremonial, while that of the coffin bearers was practical. Multiple-shelled coffins, heavily embellished with high quality metal, were incredibly heavy, requiring more than the usual number of bearers. The coffin of the Prince Consort had at least two layers – one newspaper report mentions an inner lead case and an outer mahogany coffin – and probably more. Three layers were standard for aristocratic coffins destined for interment in a vault, and the Duke of Wellington (buried in 1852) had four.
It included a silver plate on the lead shell and the outer case was mahogany, covered with crimson velvet. The inscribed plate, described as ‘massive’ by the Morning Chronicle, was silver gilt, with a crown and other ornaments made from the same material. For the procession, this huge, heavy and richly-decorated coffin was draped in a pall, covering the ten bearers and the bier, and supported by eight distinguished pallbearers. The bearers are, as usual, not named in the newspaper reports. They carried the coffin to the porch, where it was transferred to a wheeled bier. They pushed this very slowly, ‘with a stiff, creeping motion’, according to the Manchester Guardian, taking 20 minutes to reach the choir.
Those men, huddled in the dark under the heavy pall, wheeling the bier slowly through the nave along a thin white line, are a reminder that the visual spectacle of expensive, multiple-shelled coffins, their ‘mournful gorgeousness’, in the words of the Manchester Guardian, was only part of their impact. What they also afforded the families of the wealthy was the suitable gravitas of a procession slowed by the literal weight of the coffin.
‘The Funeral of the Late Prince Consort’, The Manchester Guardian, 26 December 1861
‘The Funeral of His Late Royal Highness The Prince Consort’, The Times, 24 December 1861
‘The Funeral of the Prince Consort’, Morning Chronicle, 23 December 1861