Essentially a Royal Tomb; a visit to Westminster Abbey for the first time, is quite an overwhelming experience. With pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, rose windows and flying buttresses, it is one of the most important Gothic buildings in the country; the final resting place of 17 monarchs.
A living pageant of British history, the abbey stands serene; an emblem of continuity in an ever changing world, older even than the Tower of London.
Steeped in over a 1,000 years of history, the first people to settle this site, then known as Thorney Island, were Benectine monks in mid-10th century, who established a tradition of daily worship that continues to this day.
Westminster Abbey has seen kings, queens, princes, poets, priests, heroes, villains, statesmen and soldiers, with some of the most notable and influential figures of history either buried, entombed or remembered within it’s ancient walls.
The present church, begun by Henry III in 1245, besides being a place of worship, is the coronation church and today you will be able to see the Coronation chair when you visit. The Abbey has seen the coronation of 38 Monarchs; the first documented being that of William the Conqueror on Christmas day in 1066, through to that of
Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953.
The Abbey has also been the venue for 16 royal weddings.
The wedding of His Royal Highness Prince William of Wales and Miss Catherine Middleton took place at Westminster Abbey on Friday 29 April 2011.
Within the abbey’s walls is the oldest door in Britain, relics of Kings, and a most extraordinary collection of artefacts, paintings, pavements, stained glass and textiles, many 100’s of years old and some still used today; a veritable treasure house.
The Abbey has enjoyed close links with royalty since 1066 with kings and queens significant benefactors beginning with King Edgar who reigned from 959-975. In the 1040’s, King Edward, later known as Edward the Confessor, established his palace Westminster, in close proximity with the monastic community.
Henry III rebuilt the Confessor’s church; greatly influenced by the new cathedrals at Reims, Amiens and Chartres giving us the Gothic building we have today and where he was buried in 1272 thus establishing the abbey as the principal burial place for royalty over the next 500 years! Richard II, Henry V, Henry VII and Elizabeth I were all influential in shaping the Abbey’s history.
What you can see inside Westminster Abbey:
There are hundreds of things to see and with over 600 monuments and tablets alone, in order to make the most of your visit, I would recommend you join one of the verger-led tours that are filled to the brim with interesting snippets.
Most notably you can see:
Hundreds of memorials inset into the floor (On my first visit I tried to avoid stepping on them – felt a bit rude really, and ended up looking like a scalded cat jumping here and there!) over 3,000 people are buried in Westminster Abbey.
A lavish interior, and tombs with beautiful stone-work, arches, carvings and in particular the magnificent Lady Chapel, one of the greatest additions to the abbey, built by Henry III between 1503 and 1519, replacing the 13th century chapel. Extravagant sums were spent on the chapel; the beautifully carved fan-vaulted roof with hanging pendants, rose and portcullis Tudor emblems, jewel-like stained glass (since disappeared), and almost 100 statues of saints in niches around the walls.
The highest Gothic vault in England (nearly 102 feet), made to seem higher by using narrow aisles.
Westminster Abbey houses the shrine of Edward the Confessor.
Tombs of the kings and queens of Britain; Henry III, Edward I & Eleanor of Castile, Edward III & Phillipa of Hainault, Richard II & Anne of Bohemia and Henry V.
Queen Elizabeth I’s tomb – in the north aisle of Henry VII’s chapel.
Queen Mary I entombed alongside her sister.
The carved altar screen in the Confessors’ chapel which shows events in the life of St Edward.
Poets’ Corner in the South transcept – the first poet to be buried there was Geoffrey Chaucer; Clerk of Works to the palace of Westminster (and author of “The Canterbury Tales”).
Other burials of poets include John Dryden, Robert Browning and Alfred; Lord Tennyson.
A number of writers are also buried here:
Dr Samuel Johnson, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and Charles Dickens amongst others.
The famous composer George Frederic Handel is buried here as is David Garrick; Shakesperean actor, and Laurence Olivier; actor.
“The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living” – epitaph on the memorial to T.S. Eliot.
You can also see the tomb of the Unknown Warrior at the west door.
You can see the famous Coronation Chair; usually located within St Georges Chapel – King Edward I had the Coronation Chair made in 1300-1; a magnificent oaken chair decorated with animals, birds and foliage on a gilt ground, to enclose the famous Stone of Scone. The stone was brought from Scotland in 1296 and placed in the care of the Abbot of Westminster.
The chair was painted on the back and featured the figure of a king with his feet resting on a lion – either Edward the Confessor or Edward I. In the early 16th century, four gilt lions were added, replaced again in 1727. Originally the Stone of Scone was totally enclosed, but due to wear and tear over the centuries the wooden decoration tore away from the front and the space where the stone rested is now visible.
Used at the Coronation of every new monarch since Edward II in 1308, except Edward V and Edward III who were never crowned – during the proceedings it stands at the High Altar. A 2nd chair especially for Mary II, was made for the joint coronation of William III and Mary II in 1689, this can now be seen in the Abbey Museum. The Coronation Chair was also used by Queen Victoria at her 1887 Golden Jubilee Services in the Abbey.
For centuries the chair was kept in the Chapel of St Edward the Confessor which closed to visitors in 1997, then in 1998 it was moved to and raised upon a pedestal near the tomb of Henry V where it stayed until April 2010 then moved to an enclosure within St Georges Chapel for conservation work where it can currently be viewed (this may have changed in the meantime). If you could see the back of the chair you would notice the graffiti carved into the chair by Westminster schoolboys and visitors in the 18th & 19th centuries. The chair has left the Abbey on a couple of occassions; when Oliver Cromwell was installed upon it as Lord Protector in Westminster Hall and during the 2nd WW at which time it was evacuated to Gloucester Cathedral while the stone was buried secretly in a vault in the Abbey.
The Stone of Scone was returned to Scotland in 1996 and the Coronation Chair, after 700 years, now stands empty
At the time of William the Conqueror’s victory in 1066, London was the largest town in England.
The founding of Westminster Abbey and the old Palace of Westminster under Edward the Confessor had marked it as a centre of governance, and with a prosperous port it was important for the Normans to establish control over the settlement.
Richard I, Duke of Normandy, aka Richard the Lionheart seen outside Houses of Parliament – King of England from 6 July 1189 until his death.
Notable people with links to the Abbey: the list is comprehensive so I have inserted a link for your perusal http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people
Within the grounds of the abbey:
The Abbey Museum in the Undercroft – traces of Edward’s monastery can be seen in the round arches and supporting columns of the undercroft
The Chapter House – Located in the east cloister, built by the royal masons in 1250, the octagonal Chapter House of Westminster Abbey was originally used by Benedictine monks for their daily meetings, prayers and to read a chapter from the rule of St Benedict.
The Pyx Chamber – A low vaulted room off the East Cloister, part of the Undercroft that was built about 1070, was walled off from the rest of the room sometime in the 12th century and probably made into
a treasury in the 13th century. It may have been used as a sacristy when Henry III was rebuilding the main Abbey.
The Cloisters – The present Cloisters were begun in the thirteenth century, when Henry III’s church was being built.
Be sure to include a visit to Westminster Abbey on your 3 Days in London itinerary.
Westminster Abbey, 20 Deans Yard, London SW1P 3PA, UK
Phone: +44(0)20 7222 5152
Nearest tubes stations: Westminster, St James’s, Charing Cross
Plan your journey: http://www.tfl.gov.uk
What you can see in the area:
St Margaret’s Church – the parish church of the House of Commons is right next to the north transcept of the Abbey
Parliament Square – where you can see a number of statues
The Supreme Court – on the west side of Parliament Square, free to enter and recommended
The Jewel Tower – on the east end of the Abbey (outside the gates) a remnant of the original Westminster Palace
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben also Westminster Hall
The Cenotaph – memorial to the war dead on Whitehall
Visit Westminster Abbey – found in the recently published: ‘While You Are There…53 Places to go in London’ – Buy your copy here
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