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St Paul's Cathedral at heart of Britain's national life
Bearer Party from the three military services carry a coffin up into St Paul's Cathedral during a rehearsal for the ceremonial funeral of former British Prime Margaret Thatcher in Central London on April 15, 2013. Thatcher, who died on April 8 following a stroke at the age of 87, will receive the high honour of a ceremonial funeral with military honours on April 17. AFP PHOTO/CARL COURT.

By: Robin Millard

LONDON (AFP).- St Paul's Cathedral, the centrepiece of London, stages Margaret Thatcher's funeral on Wednesday, adding to a historic line of landmark national events held within its walls.

Rising 366 feet (112 metres) above the capital, Christopher Wren's masterpiece has been at the heart of national life in England for centuries.

Some of Britain's greatest heroes are entombed inside, while royal weddings, state funerals, memorials and celebrations have all taken place underneath its giant dome.

"St Paul's is London's cathedral and embodies the spiritual life and heritage of the British people," the Anglican Church says.

Its last great funeral was that of wartime prime minister Winston Churchill in 1965, the last of the few British subjects afforded a state funeral.

Previous war heroes Horatio Nelson, killed in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, and Battle of Waterloo victor the Duke of Wellington also had state funerals at St Paul's.

A million people watched Wellington's funeral procession in 1852.

Thatcher did not want a state funeral, so hers is a ceremonial funeral with full military honours -- though the differences are technical.

St Paul's famously staged the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Diana, chosen because it has more space than Westminster Abbey and offers a longer processional route through London.

More recently it staged the official celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II's golden and diamond jubilees in 2002 and 2012.

Wren's cathedral was built in the Renaissance style from Portland stone, the grey-white limestone used for many of London's major buildings, such as Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, the Bank of England and the National Gallery.

Sitting atop Ludgate Hill, the highest point within the historic city walls, certain sightlines of the cathedral are protected so that it can be seen across London.

The 555-feet (169-metre) long icon is on the site of previous St Paul's cathedrals.

The first, built in 604, caught fire and was rebuilt in stone in 902, which happened again under the Normans in 1087.

Four of Guido Fawkes' fellow Gunpowder Plotters were executed in the churchyard in 1607.

The Norman cathedral was destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire of London, after which Wren was commissioned to design its replacement.

His plans were approved in 1675, and construction was completed 35 years later in 1710.

Wren's own tomb lies in the crypt. It reads in Latin: "Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you."

Nelson and Wellington's tombs are also in the crypt.

St Paul's miraculously escaped major bomb damage during the Blitz in 1940, despite being hit 28 times. A picture of it unscathed amid the smoke proved inspirational.

US civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King preached there in 1964.

Services were held to remember victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and the July 2005 London bombings.

A 15-year, £40 million programme of internal and external restoration was completed in 2011, cleaning up its blackened exterior.

St Paul's was back in the news in October that year when anti-capitalist protesters pitched tents outside and refused to leave for four months.

Thatcher, the churchgoing daughter of a Methodist preacher, was no stranger to the giant cathedral.

She attended the service remembering September 11 victims, and one in November 2004 for the inauguration of the cathedral's Churchill memorial gates.

Thatcher also attended a low-key service in April 2007 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War, one of the defining moments of her premiership.

© 1994-2013 Agence France-Presse

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