The Crown: Did the Queen visit Winston Churchill before his death and attend his funeral?

The real-life history behind the Crown season 3 as John Lithgow makes a final appearance as Winston Churchill

John Lithgow as Churchill in The Crown

Season three of The Crown sees the Queen and the nation say goodbye to Winston Churchill, who makes one final appearance on screen before his death in 1965.

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Here’s what you need to know about the real-life history behind The Crown season 3.

Did the Queen visit Winston Churchill to say goodbye?

John Lithgow as Churchill in The Crown

By 1964, when The Crown season three begins, Winston Churchill was in very poor health. He had stepped down as Prime Minister in 1955, and was now 90 years old and living in retirement at Chartwell House in Kent (and at his Hyde Park Gate house in London) with his wife Clementine and his beloved marmalade cat, Jock, who had a white bib and white paws and kept him company through his illness.

In The Crown, we see Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) pay a visit to her ailing former Prime Minister (played by John Lithgow) in October 1964 and discuss the election chances of Labour leader Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins), fretting over whether she will be able to trust him.

“You were my guardian angel. The roof over my head,” she tells Churchill while he dozes. “The spine in my back. The iron in my heart. You were the compass that steered and directed me – not just me, all of us. Where would Great Britain be without its greatest Briton?”

It is hard to establish whether the Queen did visit him in his final months, as we see in the Netflix series; this may be dramatic licence. But she was certainly very fond of him and determined to honour him for his contribution to the nation.

How did Winston Churchill die?

Winston And Clementine Churchill in 1963
Winston And Clementine Churchill at their London home in 1963 (Getty)

The statesman had suffered a series of strokes over the years, and in January 1965 he had a very serious stroke – this time a cerebral thrombosis, which left him gravely ill. Relatives gathered by his bedside. His granddaughter Celia Sandys later recalled: “We went straight to Hyde Park Gate and found Grandpapa sleeping peacefully with his cat Jock curled up beside him. I don’t know if Jock ever left the bed, but every time I was there the cat lay curled up by his master. It was clear that the inevitable was about to happen. We were all sad — for ourselves, not for him. Anyone who had spent time with him during the last few years knew that he was ready to go.”

The Crown

After a couple of false alarms (“each time he rallied”), Churchill died on the morning of the 24th of January 1965. Celia remembered: “We all sat down to a subdued breakfast and listened to the radio as the announcement of his death was broadcast to the world.”

The Queen immediately sent a letter of condolence to Clementine Churchill, saying: “The whole world is the poorer by the loss of his many-sided genius while the survival of this country and the sister nations of the Commonwealth, in the face of the greatest danger that has ever threatened them, will be a perpetual memorial to his leadership, his vision and indomitable courage.”

What happened at Churchill’s funeral?

Winston Churchill's funeral in The Crown season 3
Winston Churchill’s funeral in The Crown season 3 (Netflix)

After Churchill’s stroke in 1953 (an event which was kept quiet while he was still Prime Minister), the Queen had decided that Winston Churchill should have a Lying-in-State and a state funeral – the first time the honour had been granted to a “commoner” for more than a century.

The Queen conceived of “Operation Hope Not” to plan the dreaded event, and preparations began in 1958. Reportedly, Churchill himself was gratified to be recognised in this way by his monarch. However, the organisers had to keep changing their plans; he kept outliving his would-be pallbearers.

State funerals are usually reserved for the monarchy, and require assent from both Parliament and the Crown. That’s why, the day after Churchill’s death on 24th January 1965, the Queen sent a message to Westminster: “Confident in the support of Parliament for the due acknowledgement of our debt of gratitude and in thanksgiving for the life and example of a national hero, I have directed that Sir Winston’s body shall lie in State in Westminster Hall and that thereafter the funeral service shall be held in the Cathedral Church of St Paul.”

Churchill’s body lay in state for three days, while mourners queued through night and day to pay their respects – with the queue stretching for more than a mile. The funeral itself then took place on 30th January.

A service guard of honour outside St Paul's Cathedral during the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965), 30th January 1965. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Churchill’s coffin arrives at St Paul’s Cathedral (Getty)

Did the Queen attend Winston Churchill’s funeral?

The Queen herself went against all custom and precedent by attending the funeral in person. The monarch does not normally attend funerals, but sends a personal representative to pay respects on her behalf; the only other Prime Minister whose funeral she has attended is Margaret Thatcher.

At Churchill’s funeral, the Queen herself provided a wreath of white flowers with the message: “From the Nation and the Commonwealth. In grateful remembrance. Elizabeth R.”

The Queen goes to Churchill's funeral in The Crown

Also in attendance were representatives from 120 countries and 3,500 guests. Richard Dimbleby (in one of his last events before his own death later that year) provided the BBC commentary, and Churchill’s final journey was watched by 350 million.

The day began with the chiming of Big Ben, and 90 cannon salutes at Hyde Park. There was a 19-gun salute, and Royal Air Force fighters flew overhead.

Churchill’s huge, lead-lined coffin made its way up the steps of St Paul’s, with his old adversary Clement Attlee as one of the pallbearers (despite his own frailty) as well as Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan.

The coffin was then taken along the River Thames from Tower Pier to Waterloo Station, where the dock workers bowed their cranes in salute as the boat passed by.

The statesman’s body was then transported by steam train to the cemetery where he was to be buried with his family in Oxfordshire.

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The Crown season 3 is available on Netflix now