LONDON -- More than 2,000 mourners filled St. Paul's Cathedral and church bells tolled as crowds and troops lined London's streets Wednesday for the final journey of Margaret Thatcher, with Britons still divided over the legacy of their only female prime minister.
Queen Elizabeth II, dressed in black, led those mourning the premier known as the Iron Lady. Thatcher's successors, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and the current prime minister, David Cameron, were among them, as were political leaders from around the world. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne cried as the congregation sang hymns and heard the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, praise her achievements and personal kindness.
"In a way, we're all Thatcherites now," Cameron, who now leads Thatcher's Conservative Party, told BBC Radio 4's Today program before the service. "One of the things about her legacy is: Some of those big arguments we had everyone now accepts."
The ceremonial funeral, with more than 800 troops lining the capital's streets and 4,000 police on duty, was the biggest such event for a British political leader since Winston Churchill in 1965.
Thatcher's death at the age of 87 on April 8 after a stroke revived the debate about the nature of her premiership, which lasted from 1979 to 1990. Supporters say she turned around a country in decline. Opponents say her free-market policies pushed many manual workers out of jobs and left businesses, especially those in the finance industry, too powerful.
"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," Chartres said in his address to the mourners. "Parliament held a frank debate last week -- but here and today is neither the time nor the place. This, at Lady Thatcher's personal request, is a funeral service, not a memorial service with the customary eulogies."
The order-of-service booklet carried a picture of Thatcher's Order of the Garter, with her motto, "Cherish Freedom."
A number of those invited chose not to attend the funeral. Police had warned protesters not to disrupt the occasion.
"I'm here to pay my respects to Maggie; she was a moral compass," said Gregory Ridout, 54, a hairdresser from Basingstoke, southwest of London, who was at the front of the barriers opposite St Paul's where the biggest crowds were gathered. He said he'd arrived at 6:30 a.m., 31/2 hours before the service began. People around him murmured in agreement as he spoke.
"The most wonderful thing she did was to sell council houses," Ridout said, recalling Thatcher's decision to let social-housing tenants buy their homes. "It empowered two million families."
Some protesters turned their backs on the funeral procession. Wesley Burrage, 46, a product developer for Lush Cosmetics Ltd. from Bournemouth on the south coast, was one.
"I'm here to remind people that there's an opposing opinion to the one being displayed by this event today," he said. "There are benefit cuts being enacted, welfare reforms hitting people hard, a time of austerity. They're willing to spend millions of pounds on an ostentatious event like this for a woman who doesn't have united support behind her. I find the whole thing bizarre."
As Big Ben, the bell in the clock tower of the British Parliament, fell silent, the coffin, draped in the red, white and blue of the Union Flag, travelled by hearse from Westminster to the Church of St. Clement Danes, the Royal Air Force chapel on the Strand originally built in 878. There it was loaded onto a horse-drawn gun carriage pulled by the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery.
Amid applause from many in the crowd, the coffin was borne in procession to St. Paul's, led by three military bands whose drums were covered in black cloth. They played funeral marches from Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Chopin. Soldiers, sailors and airmen lined the 1.1-kilometre route, nine paces apart. Simultaneously, there was a gun salute at the Tower of London in the east of the city.
As the procession passed through Ludgate Circus, though, a group of about 300 protesters turned their backs, blew whistles and booed. They also chanted "Maggie Maggie Maggie, dead dead dead," and "what a waste of money." As the coffin passed, there was a chant of "Tory scum."
Of the international dignitaries who attended, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Canada's Stephen Harper and Mario Monti of Italy were among the most prominent.
As the coffin left the cathedral, it drew cheers from mourners grouped outside. A hearse then took it to a private cremation in southwest London.
-- Bloomberg News