The crown jewel of religious buildings in England is the abbey in Westminster. It is one of the world’s greatest churches. What is unique about Westminster Abbey is that it is “Royal Peculiar”, a term meaning that the Dean is directly answerable to the monarch instead of the Archbishop. The coronation of kings and queens has taken place here since 1066 when William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas Day after defeating King Harold in the Battle of Hastings.
King Edward the Confessor built the Abbey to satisfy his guilty conscious over breaking a vow to take a pilgrimage to Rome if God would allow him to defeat the Danes (Vikings who landed in England). The Vatican later made a deal that would forgive his promise if he would build a great church. Today it is known as Westminster Abbey, but it is more than a church. More than 3,000 important politicians, monarchs, heroes and heroines, soldiers, authors, artists and musicians are buried within and around its walls, floors and chapels.
Westminster Abbey is probably the most visited place in the world. It stands within sight of Big Ben, within walking distance of The Needle, which overlooks the Thames, and is across the street from Westminster Palace, now Parliament, in central London.
The first time I was at Westminster Abbey was 1971. It has changed very little since I was fifteen; however I have changed a great deal. The first time I saw the Abbey I was impressed by the Gothic architecture and its rich English history. Today I better understand the historical significance of those buried and honored in Westminster Abbey and the impact they had on western civilization. It is simply overwhelming.
Of course it was a beautiful Saturday when I arrived at the Abbey and there were huge crowds of people in line. There were actually two lines to enter the Abbey: 1) to purchase tickets and 2) to get into the church. You can buy tickets in advance and I should have done so. The day was full of sunshine and the English make the most of sunny days as you can see from the crowds in my pictures. All grass, regardless of where it is located, is open season to be occupied by an Englishman when the sun is out.
Once inside the Abbey I was disappointed to find out that I couldn’t take pictures. This is standard procedure in most old chapels and churches I visit. It is an attempt to show respect to those who are there to worship. Even today there are 28 worship services held at Westminster Abbey every week. The choir sings at one or more of the daily services. I pulled out my iPhone and tried to sneak a quick picture inside but got caught. Security is hidden everywhere.
Guides are only available for pre-arranged tours at Westminster Abbey. The Abbey, like most historic locations in England, provides you with a recorder that is shaped like a phone. It enables you to walk and listen at your own pace as you tour the Abbey. There are numbers in all of the rooms and hallways that indicate which button to push to hear the history of the tombs and monuments in that area. There is easily a half a day or more of sight-seeing inside the Abbey. Some of England’s most notorious and beloved monarchs are buried within its walls. There isn’t a single place I have been in the world that contains more history. There is so much history it tends to draw attention away from the beauty of the church.
There are seventeen monarchs buried in Westminster Abbey. In room after room are the colorful tombs of these monarchs; sons and daughters, half-brothers and sisters, cousins, nephews, grandparents of the English monarchy. Even Edward the Confessor, the original builder of Westminster Abbey in 1065, is buried there. There was one room where I paused to absorb the full history in the room. I found it unusual that cousins Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots are buried next to each other at Westminster Abbey.
Mary was the only surviving legitimate child of King James V of Scotland and succeeded him when she was 6 days old. As a young married Queen of Scotland, there was controversy in her involvement in the death of her husband and she was forced to abdicate her throne to her one year old son, James. She fled southwards to England seeking the protection of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I. Having the same rights to the English crown as Elizabeth, she was perceived as a threat and confined with royal privileges to a number of castles and estate houses in England. After almost 20 years in custody, Elizabeth had Mary executed when it was found out that her cousin was plotting to overthrow Elizabeth to get the English crown.
Elizabeth died without ever marrying or having an heir. In a strange twist of fate, Elizabeth agreed to meet with Mary’s son, James, and to consider him a possible successor. She was surprised to discover how much she liked him. He was already King of Scotland, but it was arranged upon her death for him to succeed Elizabeth and unite Scotland and England.
Describing Westminster Abbey is impossible. It is THE place, along with the Tower of London, that a person has to visit when they go to England. It is not only the church of kings and queens, not only a beautiful church, not only a giant tomb of famous people; it is home for the history of England.
The Background and History
The ground on which Westminster Abbey was built was an island. The land, called Thorney Island, near the Thames River was marshy. Over the centuries work has been done to improve drainage in these areas. On one side the Tyburn tributary flowed into the Thames and on the other side the Westbourne tributary.
The man most responsible for the church that stands in Westminster today is Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042 – 1066), the last Saxon King of England. His original vision included a royal palace, a church and a large monastery. There was no doubt he was devout in his beliefs, but he was driven by guilt to start this project. As a child he was forced into exile in Normandy when the Vikings invaded England. He made a solemn vow that if he were to ever be restored to the throne he would make a pilgrimage to Rome in gratitude. Edward did indeed become king, but in a time of great political unrest. Pope Leo excused him from his vow realizing it was unwise for him to leave England giving his enemies an advantage. He asked instead for Edward to re-endow the monastery of Westminster.
He built the Abbey on the ruins of an old Saxon church started by monks in the 900s. Edward built the church in Romanesque style and began his palace nearby. Edward died 8 days after it was complete and the throne passed to Harold Godwinson. Some believe that King Harold began the tradition of royal coronations in the Abbey, but we know for sure that William the Conqueror, who defeated King Harold, was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066.
Westminster Abbey is more than a church. Within its grounds you will find: 1) St. Margaret’s Church (the Church of the House of the Commons), 2) the great and little cloisters, 3) the Chapter House and Museum and 4) College Garden, the oldest garden in England. There are 28 services a week continuing a 1,400 year tradition. The present church was begun by Henry III in 1245 and is one of the most important Gothic buildings in the country. The Abbey contains a treasure trove of paintings, stained-glass, pavements, textiles and other artifacts.
The English monarchy has significantly contributed to the Abbey over the centuries as the home of royal coronations. Kind Edgar (ruled from 959-975) first gave substantial lands to build a church covering most of what is today the West End of London. Edward the Confessor, almost 100 years later, built his palace near this monastic community and the stone church which became his own burial place. Henry III rebuilt Edward’s church into the Gothic building seen today. Henry’s own burial here really began the tradition of Westminster Abbey as the royal burial place for the next 500 years.
The official name of Westminster Abbey is “the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster”. The Abbey is a “royal peculiar” which means it is a free chapel of the Sovereign, exempt from any ecclesiastical jurisdiction other than the King or Queen.
Famous people buried at the Abbey:
• Poets – Jeffrey Chaucer, Robert Browning, Robert Burns, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Dryden, Thomas Hardy, Ben Johnson, Rudyard Kipling and Alfred Lloyd Tennyson
• Politician – Winston Churchill
• Royalty – Anne of Cleves (one of Henry VIII’s wives), Edward the Confessor, Henry III, Edward I, Edward III, Richard II, Henry V, Edward V, Henry VII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I, James I (King James), Charles II, Mary II, William III, Anne and George II, along with many of the monarchs spouses and children. In addition, Mary Queen of Scots was buried at Westminster Abbey.
• Composer – Handel
• Author – Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin (strange to me) and Samuel Johnson
• Scientist – Isaac Newton
• Actor – Laurence Olivier
WWII and Westminster Abbey
In 1939 many of the Abbey’s treasures were relocated to various estates outside of London. About 60,000 sand bags were used to protect the royal and medieval tombs. Although many of the stained glass windows were boarded, quite a bit of glass was blown out, especially in 1940.
The worst air raid occurred on the nights of May 10 & 11, 1941. Germany dropped clusters of fire-bombs rather than high explosives. A number of bombs fell on and about the Abbey. Most were put out by firemen but one fell in a hard to reach roof location in the center of the Abbey. Flames quickly reached 40 feet. Fortunately, most of the burning timbers fell into an open area below where monarchs are crowned and where it was easily extinguished. Other houses on the property and some of the rooms suffered damage during this particular air raid. Services were never stopped during the war.
Category Rating: A+
Overall Rating: #1 (tied with the Tower of London)
Comments: Westminster Abbey, along with the Tower of London, Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall, are all can’t miss historical sites. Only the Tower of London can rival the rich western history locked inside the Abbey’s Gothic walls. Study it before you go, get there early and take your time going through it. You will never forget it.