LONDON — With stately solemnity and military honors, Margaret Thatcher’s body was borne through the streets of the British capital Wednesday morning to a funeral service where hundreds of world leaders, colleagues and friends paid their last respects to this country’s first and only female prime minister.
Inside imposing St. Paul’s Cathedral, more than 2,000 mourners gathered for a simple religious service in memory of the woman whose transformative but controversial premiership, from 1979 to 1990, was the longest Britain had seen since the early 19th century. Among those present in the church was Queen Elizabeth II, attending a funeral for a prime minister for the first time since Winston Churchill’s rites in 1965.
Thatcher’s coffin was draped in the Union Jack and graced with a spray of white roses. On it rested a card bearing the simple message: “Beloved mother, always in our hearts.”
“There is an important place for debating policies and legacy, for assessing the impact of political decisions on the everyday lives of individuals and communities. … Here and today is neither the time nor the place,” Richard Chartres, the bishop of London, said in a short homily.
“This is a place for ordinary human compassion of the kind that is reconciling. It is also the place for the simple truths which transcend political debate. And above all, it is the place for hope.”
Outside, under gray skies, spectators several rows deep crowded the sidewalks of the streets leading from the Houses of Parliament to the cathedral, along which Thatcher’s coffin was carried in a hearse and then atop a horse-drawn gun carriage. Some people burst into applause. Others threw flowers.
A handful of protesters were in evidence, but not as many as had been expected for a leader who polarized opinion as much as the “Iron Lady” did. About 4,000 police officers were deployed around London to keep the peace and maintain safety.
Members of the armed forces lined the route of the procession, bowing their heads as the cortege drew past in recognition of the woman who led Britain to victory in the Falklands War against Argentina in 1982.
Baroness Thatcher, as she was known after her retirement from politics, died April 8 at age 87, after years of failing mental and physical health. Her death immediately renewed the fiery debate over her political legacy, which supporters say was Britain’s restoration as an economic and military power, but opponents say was an unequal society that exalted greed.
Critics have questioned the decision to grant such a divisive leader a ceremonial funeral barely distinguishable from a full state funeral. The pageantry was similar to that surrounding the rites for Princess Diana in 1997 and the queen’s mother in 2002.
Prime Minister David Cameron, the current leader of Thatcher’s Conservative Party, said that a farewell full of pomp was appropriate.
“She was our first woman prime minister; she served longer than anyone in 150 years in the job,” Cameron told the BBC shortly before the funeral began. “Even those who opposed her policies were perfectly capable of saying this was a remarkable woman, a remarkable woman who impacted our history, so therefore it’s right to mark her passing in this way.”
The splendid interior of St. Paul’s was a sea of black worn by mourners who included Thatcher’s four successors as prime minister, members of her Cabinets and well-known figures such as actress Joan Collins and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was present, as were three former secretaries of state: Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Baker. Other foreign dignitaries included Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and F.W. De Klerk, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa.
In keeping with Thatcher’s request, there were no eulogies — only hymns she loved from her Methodist upbringing, readings of Scripture by her granddaughter and Cameron, and the address by Chartres, who drew laughter with his story of being told by Thatcher at a party to avoid eating the pate because it was fattening.
The funeral was conducted with a military precision and punctuality.
At exactly 10 a.m., her coffin was taken from the Palace of Westminster — home to Parliament, the scene of some of her greatest triumphs — for the short trip to St. Paul’s Cathedral. In a rare move, Big Ben was silenced.
The cortege traveled up Whitehall, past Thatcher’s old residence at 10 Downing St. A gun on the wharf at the Tower of London fired once per minute during the procession.
At the cathedral, a guard of honor in red suits and large black furry hats greeted the arrival of the coffin, which was carried in by pallbearers on the dot of 11 a.m. and out again an hour later to the pealing of bells.
A private cremation was to follow.