Wilson Eulogy to Churchill: ‘Pen and sword at rest’

By Chris McCarthy

That rare ability to call out from those who heard him, the sense that they were a necessary part of something greater than themselves. 

Prime Minister Harold Wilson, 24 January 1965

On the morning of 30 January 1965 a procession of mournful silence stretched through London from the Palace of Westminster to St Paul’s Cathedral. Thousands lined the route in stillness to pay final tribute to the man who had marshaled them in their finest hour; the finest example of a great statesmen.

Sir Winston Churchill had died six days prior having never recovered from a severe stroke several weeks before. His coffin would lie on a catafalque adorned by candle-sticks on each side made, and last used, for the state funeral of Wellington in 1852. His lie in state in Westminster Hall was an honour not accorded an English statesman since Gladstone in 1898. It was amongst such distinguished luminaries of British political and military history that Churchill would be afforded the same reverence.

Governing under his imposing shadow, Prime Minister Harold Wilson was tasked with paying tribute to “the greatest man any of us have known,” a rich, unparalleled life that spanned ten decades and conquered Britain’s gravest existential threat. Airing on BBC1 at 8pm on the day of Churchill’s death and followed by tributes from Sir Alec Douglas-Home, leader of the Conservative Party, and Jo Grimond, leader of the Liberal Party, Wilson’s comments would be amongst the first extended remarks transmitted to the nation paying homage to the life and career of the wartime leader.

The severity of Churchill’s final stroke on 15 January 1965 which left him gravely ill afforded Wilson and his speech-writing team some time in which to craft the nine-minute eulogy but it’s unlikely that the extended window made the task any less daunting. When it came to the specific act of leading the nation in mourning, however, the task had been made easier for him by the public displays of respectful compassion in Churchill’s final days:

The silent vigil of people outside his house for so many dark hours; the unstinted sympathy felt in every home in the land for Lady Churchill; these are perhaps more eloquent of our feelings than any words can be.

A chronological tour of Churchill’s working life – a young military officer, a Member of Parliament at 25, First Lord of the Admiralty, Chancellor, Prime Minister, historian and writer – allowed Wilson to showcase the dexterity of Churchill’s talent and his extraordinary commitment to public service.

Rising indisputably above all the reasons for remembering and recognising Churchill’s long, distinguished life was his courageous leadership of Great Britain and her Commonwealth at a time of dispiritedness and flagging hope. It was his leadership of “that great united team, ministers of all parties, commanders and fighting men…those who kept the going the essential home services, each of them willing to submerge his own identity and interest in a great cause under his lead” that “saved Britain and saved freedom.”

Upon becoming Prime Minister amidst the disasters of the battles of France, Churchill recalled in his memoirs: “I felt as if I were walking with destiny and as if all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and trial. Therefore, although impatient for the morning I slept soundly.” With a lovely turn of phrase Wilson elevated the eulogy beyond the formulaic platitudes – “The morning and all the mornings provided the proof” – before setting himself up for an exposition of Churchill’s defining attributes in a numbered list favoured by speech-writers but not typically employed in remembrance speeches.

“First, the quality of indomitable courage. Never in the hour of greatest peril doubting ultimate victory, he could at once rebuke and inspire fainter hearts than his own.” Churchill’s steadfastness and unflinching determination in the face of German expansion would stir the dispirited and characterised the nation’s gritty resilience. His speech in June 1940 promising to ‘fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets, to never surrender’ endures as an exemplar of Churchill’s fortitude and fearlessness.

“Second, his power to evoke an undeniable response…Churchill led through his power over words but still more through his power over the hearts of men…the ability to make each one feel just that much greater than he had been.” At times in this passage you can sense Wilson straining, not always successfully, to emulate Churchill’s inspiring, powerful rhetoric but the sentiment and analysis resonates with those familiar with his wartime speeches.

“Thirdly, the quality of humanity. The man who could move armies and navies… could himself be moved to uncontrollable and unashamed tears at the sight of an old soul’s cheerfulness.” An almost mythical figure, humanising Churchill illustrated the compassion which he held for his people, the motivation behind his public displays of mettle and the source of his own inspiration.

Wilson valiantly endeavoured to provide a tribute worthy of one of Britain’s most loved and most revered statesman. Its beautiful peaks are accompanied by the occasional contorted sentence and the piece would have been served better with some of the purple prose dialed back. On the whole, however, it is a touching eulogy to a man who enriched our nation and “the hearts of each of us which he touched with his greatness”:

Now his pen and his sword are equally at rest. The tempestuous, restless vitality of a man who would have scorned the ease of a peaceful retreat has ended today in quiet, in peace, in stillness.


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