Exploring London: Westminster Abbey

Inspired by a recent visit to St Paul’s Cathedral, this week I made it to the mighty Westminster Abbey. It was a day well spent, despite train delays and chilly weather. It is actually a good time to visit London’s iconic buildings, that is before the spring tourism season begins. The Gothic cathedral is quite modest architecturally from the outside and on first stepping inside the great doors the interior is rather, well, grey. However, there is treasure to be had and some surprises. Many heroes and heroines from centuries past feature under this one special roof. There are far too many to include in one post, nonetheless here are a few of the impressions that linger from my visit. Read on for the wonders of Westminster.

Kings and Queens

The iconic Abbey interior is not exactly beautiful in an obvious way. It is though an impressive space not least due to its history incorporating kings, queens, statesmen and soldiers, poets, priests, heroes and villains, dating back to 960AD. In addition, Westminster Abbey has been the coronation church since 1066 and is the resting place of more than 3,000 great Britons. In amongst the eye-catching tombs and elaborate memorial stones are smaller engravings and it is impossible not to be excited walking in the footsteps of such a rich heritage tapestry, and all in one location. Here you will undoubtedly find one or more of your favourite historical figures, whether a monarch studied in school, a book or a play that left its mark, or a period that has always held a fascination.

The tomb of Elizabeth I 1533-1603 featuring recognisable royal emblems; the Tudor rose, Fleur de Lys and royal cypher ER (Elizabeth Regina); devotional figures keeping vigil beside the Queen’s tomb. The tomb of Queen Mary I is adjacent. [Click image to enlarge]

It is interesting that the magnificent tomb of Queen Elizabeth I is in stark contrast to the simple stone slab marking the final resting place of the late Elizabeth II, in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Different times and values account for this and yet, both memorials are striking. Photographs in the chapel at Windsor are not permitted but if you have the opportunity to go, it’s a very moving experience and you can read more about my visit last December here.

The Abbey is the location of the coronations of 39 English and British monarchs. On 6 May 2023, King Charles III will be crowned at the High Altar; in the meantime, the Cororation Chair is currently being renovated in preparation.

L to R: Oliver Cromwell, d. 1658, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland after the defeat of King Charles I in the Civil War, and a main signatory on Charles I’s death warrant; the great wartime Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, d. 1965, and is buried near his family home, Blenheim Palace. He is though remembered at the Abbey and close by is the tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

Poets’ Corner

Geoffrey Chaucer was the first poet to be buried in what has become known as ‘Poets’ Corner’ in the South Transept at the Abbey.

The tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer, English poet and author, d. 1400. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is one of the greatest poetic works in English, and the first major work in literature written in English, rather than Latin, and thereby accessible to the common people.

Poets’ Corner reading like a Who’s Who of the most famous names in literature, science and the arts. British astronomer, William Herschel, caught my eye as I attended Herschel Grammar School many years ago. As far as I recall there was no connection to the famous astronomer and we received a crash-course in his work at the time.

Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey. L to R: so many recognisable names from the arts and humanities; William Herschel, discoverer of planet Uranus; Noel Coward is in fact buried in his beloved Jamaica but remembered in the Abbey. [Click image to enlarge]

Westminster Abbey in detail. Clockwise from top left: stunning carved doors; a high valuted ceiling; the approach to the Chapter House where the monks once worshipped; in the Chantry corridor you will find Britain’s oldest door dated to the 1050s and constructed for St Edward the Confessor; The Queen’s Window by David Hockney, a brilliantly coloured contemporary work of stained glass created to celebrate the reign of Elizabeth II; a beautiful altar to the Madonna and Child with embroidered altar cloth. [Click image to enlarge]

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Gallery

The contemporary Weston Tower. Photo courtesy Max Fordham building service engineers involved in the project.

By now it was time for a much-earned cuppa in the cafe. Suitably refreshed, we then climbed the 108 steps to the 13th century triforium 50-feet above the Abbey floor to see the Abbey’s greatest treasures and learn more about its thousand-year history. This is the best £5 I have spent in a long while. It would be easy to give this gallery a miss if your feet are a little sore by now but don’t go away without exploring the fabulous documents, books (including the coronation rule book), maps, costumes and the architecture itself.

Walking up the steps affords wonderful views through the glass sides not only of the Abbey’s flying buttresses and stained glass windows but also out towards Parliment (there is a lift but that would mean missing out). The triforium is where the late Richard Dimbleby stood, with a bird’s eye view below to commentate at Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation.

It took £22.9m to transform a once forgotten, dusty attic, into a seven-storey polygonal structure clad in lead and stone. Designed by Ptolemy Dean, the Abbey’s surveyor of the fabric, it is a rather discreet structure that lends itself perfectly to the old building, a pleasing juxtaposition of heritage and contemporary architecture.

In the collection are stunning funeral effigies. Created from wood and wax, (but far superior to Madame Tussaud’s), soft materials and sometimes straw, these meticulously crafted lifelike, life-size ‘dolls’ depict royal and other significant personages from history. Fully dressed the figures were originally placed on the coffin beneath a canopy. After the burial the effigies remained within the Abbey. Some have been lost, or destroyed by water damage during bombing raids in World War Two, such as Henry VII and his queen. Effigies remaining on display in whole or part, include: Edward III; Anne of Bohemia (queen to Richard II); Catherine de Valois, Henry V’s queen; Henry VII; Mary I, the corset only of Elizabeth I; James I and his son; Chrles II. Effigies represented the immortal and divine kingship. Gazing upon these highly individual and lifelike faces, they are realistic and bring the characters to life. Slightly spooky but absolutely delightful.

Lord Nelson, for instance, sat (while alive, naturally) for his own effigy and the figure is dressed in some of his own clothes, topped with his trademark bicorn hat. Attached to the front brim is an entirely modern-looking sunshade that would not look out of place today. Another trivia note is that the figure seems to mistakenly show him blind in the left eye, instead of the right!

Photography in the Queen’s Gallery is forbidden sadly, even without a flash, so I’m not able to share my favourite pieces.

The Abbey is a good day’s visit if you want to pace yourself and yet see as much as possible. Tickets are steep at Adult £27 (concessions available) and the Queen’s Gallery is an additional £5, but the outlay gives access to so much history, art and culture. Of course, the Abbey is primarily a place of worship so be sure to check the web site for opening times before you visit.

Tip: If you buy any ticket online you can upgrade it to an annual pass free of charge by asking a Visitor Experience team member when you visit, which enables you to visit the Abbey three times for the price of one. www.westminster-abbey.org.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.