Until very recently, photographs were not permitted inside Westminster Abbey; I surmised that the late Queen took a dim view of people taking selfies draped over the myriad tombs and monuments.
But something clearly changed because people clicked away with impunity when we visited the Abbey during the family trip to England and Scotland late last year. So let’s explore the wonderful building in which thirty-nine monarchs have been crowned, since Christmas Day, 1066, the date of the coronation of William the Conqueror.
Westminster Abbey is a Royal Peculiar and thus does not “count” among the 42 English Anglican Cathedrals. St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, is another. They’re called Royal Peculiars as they are outside the jurisdiction of the diocese; the monarch sits at the head.
As its name suggests, Westminster was originally a small abbey founded by Benedictine monks under the patronage of King Edgar and St Dunstan around 960 AD. On what was then Thorney Island, the site was deliberately chosen to be apart from the disease, dust and dirt rife in the City of London.
In 1040, King Edward, later St Edward the Confessor, began building a palace nearby. A devout man, he re-endowed the monastery and built a large stone church dedicated to St Peter the Apostle, known as the “west minster” to distinguish it from St Paul’s Cathedral, the “east minster”.
Palaces, courts, and parliament buildings followed. Today, we have the busting district of Westminster, with the Abbey serving as the chapel royal, where King Charles III’s coronation will take place on May 6 of this year.
The current building dates mainly from the reign of King Henry III (1216-1272). Now that was a turbulent period–oy. Henry III was the son of King John (you know, BAD King John, baron’s revolt, the Magna Carta and all that). Henry III was only nine when he became King.
By the time he assumed power from his regent in 1227, the Magna Carta had been accepted, and order had been restored. Which left Henry free to start renovating Westminster Abbey.
And renovate he did. In 1245 he demolished all but the nave of the 11th-century Abbey and began rebuilding in the Early English Gothic style.
When Henry III died in 1272, the reconstruction of the nave had only just gotten underway, with only one bay beyond the choir completed. The Norman nave remained attached to a far taller Gothic building for more than a century. Funds increased towards the end of the 14th century, and the western section of the nave was added. The design was heavily influenced by cathedrals at Reims, Amiens and Chartres, employing Gothic elements of pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, rose windows and flying buttresses.
Earlier in Henry’s reign, in May 1220, he laid the foundation stone for a new Lady Chapel, but funds were insufficient to build it.
The east end of Westminster Abbey below is Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, built between 1503 and 1519 in the Perpendicular Gothic style. It was worth the wait—it’s spectacular. Just wait until you see the inside.
To be frank—it’s not my favourite cathedral. Storied and stunning in some aspects, it is utterly crammed with monuments, memorials and tombs—astonishingly, more than 3200 people have been buried there, and more than 450 have prominent memorials. They’re shoved in every which way, like an end-of-season sale on funereal furniture. It’s dizzying. But for all that, Westminster Abbey is both eccentric and charming. Let’s explore.
The entrance for the public is through the North Transept, which is unusually large relative to the size of the nave, to allow for a large “theatre” space at the crossing of the cathedral in front of the high altar. The large buttresses don’t do much for the beauty of the exterior, but they had to support the outward thrust of the walls somehow!
Once inside, let’s walk over to the west doors and look eastward, down the nave over the grave of the Unknown Warrior, whose body was brought from France to be buried here on November 11, 1920.
It looks different without all the chairs filled with people, doesn’t it? We visited very late in the day and were among the last people to leave, ushered out through the west doors. I was thrilled to find it so calm and empty.
The nave is actually fairly short to provide greater space on the other side of the choir, in the crossing, rendering the Abbey inadequately sized for large ceremonial occasions, which is why St. Paul’s is often pressed into service—it seats twice what Westminster Abbey does.
Nearby is the Coronation Chair, now being prepared for King Charles’ coronation, The area below the seat will house the Stone of Scone (if the Scots decide to return it for the occasion). The much-disputed 335 lb oblong block of red sandstone was used for centuries for the coronations of Scottish monarchs, but in 1296 it was seized by Edward I’s forces during an invasion of Scotland and was used thereafter by the monarchs of England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom. The British Government elected to return the stone to Scotland in 1996, and it now resides in the Scottish Crown Jewel collection in Edinburgh Castle. It doesn’t look very comfortable, does it? I wouldn’t fancy perching on that for several hours.
Let’s get ourselves oriented before we begin. We are now standing just inside the west door, shown at the bottom of the diagram, and are looking through the choir screen right to the windows in the Henry VII Chapel.
As to the chapels and monuments, here is the legend of the major ones. Don’t worry—we won’t be visiting most of them. We would be here for days.
In the centre, below, is the pulpitum, or choir screen.
On its left is a monument to Sir Isaac Newton (who is buried just in front of it), and on the right one to Lord Stanhope, Secretary of State, both created in the 1730s. The screen was re-modelled by Edward Blore in 1848.
Getting closer, we can see the intricate gilding and enamelling.
The Abbey has the highest Gothic vault in England —nearly 102 feet, which feels even higher due to the fairly narrow aisles on each side of the nave.
Way up there!
Let’s walk through to the choir now. The black and white marble floor is from 1677. And they say marble doesn’t stand up to a lot of traffic! You can see the high altar on the east side of the choir. We will go there in a minute.
I was very pleased to see Canada’s plaque as one of the members of the Commonwealth.
The original medieval choir stalls were replaced in the 18th century, then again by the current ones in 1848.
The detail! Each statue is different.
The organ pipes are similarly embellished.
Except these are angels playing musical instruments. Just beautiful.
Now we are in the crossing—the open space between the choir and the altar where the transepts “cross” the main axis of the Abbey. We are looking from the south transept toward the north transept where we entered the Abbey.
Below we see the south transept with Poet’s Corner, which started life in the eastern aisle, the ‘corner’ of the south transept, but over time demand outstripped space, and the graves and memorials spread across the whole transept. It is chock-a-block full of statues and plaques (and people, as you can see).
More than 100 poets and writers are buried or memorialized, including William Shakespeare,
Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters and Charles Dickens. Below is the memorial to Samuel Johnson, author of the great Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755.
The first poet to be buried there was Geoffrey Chaucer, author of Canterbury Tales, and not because he was a poet, but because he was Clerk of the King’s works.
There are also several clergymen and actors buried in this transept, as well as composer George Frederic Handel.
Up several steps on the eastern side of the crossing is the high altar. It sits on a Cosmati pavement floor laid in 1268 by workmen from Rome. The inlaid stone decoration is named for one of the families of craftsmen who specialized in the work. Its abstract pattern differs from mosaic tile, which comprises equally sized square stones.
The sheer size of the floor is stunning, at 24 feet 10 inches square, made up of stones of different colours and sizes in triangles, squares, circles, rectangles and many other shapes. Onyx, purple porphyry, green serpentine, and yellow limestone were used, as well as opaque, coloured glass in shades of red, turquoise, cobalt blue and bluish-white. Even more interesting is the background of dark Purbeck marble, very different from the traditional white marble base most frequently used in floors of this type.
The masterpiece underwent a major cleaning and conservation programme in time for the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, now the Prince and Princess of Wales.
Behind the high altar is George Gilbert Scott’s reredos, a Victorian confection made of alabaster, marble, cedar and porphyry, embellished with jewels. The centre panel is a mosaic of the Last Supper by Antonio Salviati.
Moving further east, we enter the spiritual centre of the Abbey, surrounded by all of the tombs and chapels dedicated to deceased members of the royal family, largely of the Plantagenet period.
Claustrophobic doesn’t begin to describe it. From now on, most of the shots are pointed upward because it was wall-to-wall people. I had to be VERY patient to get any photos at all, with all the jostling. But that was to be expected, visiting in August, the peak period for visitors.
Let’s go into Henry VII’s Chapel, originally intended to be a Lady Chapel, then a shrine for Henry VI, whom Henry VII hoped to have canonized as a saint for ending the War of the Roses. No dice. Though miracles were attributed to Henry VI after his death, and he was informally regarded as a saint, he was a weak king and heavily influenced by his wife, Margaret of Anjou, a woman of indomitable will. He did leave an educational legacy, however, having founded Eton College, King’s College, Cambridge and co-founded All Souls College, Oxford.
In the end, Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York, were interred in the tomb intended for Henry VI.
Henry VII is not my favourite monarch by a long chalk–a nasty man who had an even nastier son, Henry VIII. There is more than a little suspicion that Henry VII, not Richard III, murdered the Princes in the Tower in the 1480s. Their remains were also buried in the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey after they were discovered in 1674 by workmen at the Tower of London, buried 10 feet below a staircase in the White Tower.
Moving on to the architecture (play the building, not the monarch), the walls are almost entirely composed of Perpendicular stained glass windows. The banners are of the members of the Order of the Bath.
The ceiling is a triumph of delicate fan vaulting.
Of the more than thirty tombs in the chapel, let’s just focus on a couple. The effigy of Queen Elizabeth I is clad in an enormous Elizabethan ruff with a crown on her head.
Nearby is buried her older sister, Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary), who attempted to return England to Catholicism after the deaths of her father, Henry VIII and her younger brother, Edward VI.
I thought the plaque was particularly fitting.
It came to my attention that Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, was buried here on November 10, 1658, but did not rest easy. With the Monarchy restored in 1660, his remains were exhumed on January 30, 1661, the twelfth anniversary of the execution of Charles I. Cromwell’s body was subject to a posthumous trial and execution. The tales grow very tall as to the indignities to which his remains were subjected, and his final burial place is not clear. One thing we do know, it’s no longer in Westminster Abbey.
There is another set of choir stalls in the chapel.
Two rows of seventeen seats on either side of the chapel provide an absolute feast of misericords. The grandgirls were fascinated, having never seen anything like them before. The full complement of 68 seats is described on the Abbey website.
Here we have Battle between two winged dragons, flanked by clusters of foliage.
And Grotesque face with foliage issuing from its mouth. Fruit and foliage at the sides.
A boy being chastised by another boy wielding a birch, with a third boy holding him down.
A woman knocking down a man with her distaff (a staff on which wool or flax was wound for spinning). The man tries to protect his head.
The metal doors to the chapel are beautifully crafted, allowing light and air to circulate.
Let’s head over to the Chapter House now, located in the East Cloister.
In the covered entrance to the Chapter House is what is thought to be the oldest door in Britain, possibly dating from 1050. It was cut down from a larger door, likely with a rounded top.
The Chapter House was a meeting place for the monks to gather, where the abbot “held chapter’.
Here they prayed, read from the rule of St Benedict, discussed the day’s business, and also where the abbot decided on discipline or punishment for errant monks.
It’s one of the largest Chapter houses, almost 60 feet wide and octagonal in shape. Tiered seating is provided for up to eighty monks. The central “palm tree” pillar fans out to a vaulted ceiling. It likely took about ten years to build, starting in 1246, and was entirely restored by George Gilbert Scott between 1866 and 1872.
The King’s Great Council assembled here in 1257, effectively the beginning of the English Parliament. During the 14th century, the House of Commons met here for a few years before moving their meetings to the Abbey Refectory.
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, it became a depository for state records until 1863. What a pleasant place it must have been to work and meet!
We will now wend our way through the cloisters and head towards the Abbey to take our leave.
How lucky we are that the cloisters survived intact – many were not so fortunate.
Once outside, let’s take a few minutes to look at the outside of the Abbey.
There are details everywhere—it’s very difficult to take it all in.
Almost forgot – the west towers! They weren’t finished until 1745.
The bottom portion has a section of Henry III’s original church (the bottom right-hand section sticking out is the Jerusalem Chamber). The middle section is Perpendicular, with a gable (the triangular bit between the towers) and a large central window below it. The actual towers were added by Westminster surveyor Hawksmoor, who had agreed with his predecessor, Christopher Wren, that they be gothic. Note the clock face in one tower and not the other.
That, dear readers, is the 25-cent tour of Westminster Abbey. I’ve visited at least half a dozen times and discovered something more every time. It’s the Aladdin’s cave of cathedrals—set aside a couple of hours, take your camera, and lots of patience. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Gallery opened to the public in 2018, and I’ve not yet seen it, so that’s where I’ll start next time; that visit will be first thing in the morning, hopefully off-season.