It’s hard even to know where to begin when describing a place of worship as celebrated and as politically important as Westminster Abbey. Adjectives such as “beautiful” or “elegant” don’t do it justice, even though it is both – and this church has witnessed so many key moments in British history over the past 900 years that “historic” doesn’t quite cut it.
Should you decide to visit – and I very much hope that you do – I highly recommend taking one of the Verger guided tours. These Vergers, so I learned today, play a key role in the running of the Abbey: they prepare it for services, lead processions and look after the congregation. Our Verger, as well as being incredibly knowledgeable about the Abbey, where he has worked for 22 years, was highly entertaining and great company on our 90-minute tour.
The building in which we found ourselves today is the second version of Westminster Abbey. The first was built by the Anglo-Saxon king, Edward of Wessex, at the suggestion of the Pope. Dedicated to St Peter, it was completed in 1065; sadly, Edward died just one year after seeing his dream completed. Proving that there is always a silver lining, however, Edward was duly canonized, becoming Saint Edward the Confessor – and in 1245 Henry III, who idolized Edward, decided to build a new Abbey, as a tribute to his hero. Unfortunately, Henry ran out of money and it would be many years before the new Abbey was completed, in 1520.
Edward the Confessor’s connection to the Abbey remains intact and his shrine is recognised as the most holy part of the Abbey. Residing nearby are the tombs of a number of other monarchs including Henry V and Elizabeth of York, Edward III, Queen Philippa, Richard II and the afore-mentioned Henry III.
Gracious and awe-inspiring though the Abbey is, it is its inhabitants and their stories who bring it to life. In total, 3,300 people are buried here, not all of them famous, though many of them are – so far too many to talk about in detail.
It would be difficult not to mention Queen Elizabeth I, though. Buried with her half-sister, Bloody Mary (don’t suppose either of them are thrilled about that), she has one of the most beautiful tombs in the Abbey. It is not, however, as large as the tomb of her nemesis, Mary Queen of Scots – whose son, James I, deliberately gave Mary a grander tomb than Elizabeth’s, having moved his mother’s remains here from their original resting place at Peterborough Castle. Interesting, isn’t it, how blood runs thicker than water? James hadn’t seen his mother since the age of one and it was Elizabeth who bequeathed him the throne of England – but his loyalty remained with his mother.
You might say that Elizabeth had the last laugh, though – as James’s own tomb in the Abbey is tucked away, out of sight, this little-lamented king and persecutor of “witches” (read: innocent women) being less-than-fondly remembered.
Interestingly, Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, who I had expected to find here, is one of the few Tudor monarchs missing. He, apparently, had planned a magnificent tomb at the Abbey – but later changed his mind, opting to be buried with his third & favourite wife, Jane Seymour, at Windsor Castle.
Windsor is where all the modern monarchs are buried, now – but their coronations have been held at Westminster Abbey since Harold II’s in 1066. The most recent coronation, that of Queen Elizabeth II, was attended by 8,000 guests – a staggering thought, considering how crammed the Abbey felt today with just a few hundred people inside. They all had to be seated well in advance of the four-hour service and remained in their seats long after its ending – and left behind them, according to our Verger, knee-high piles of food wrappers and bottles of drink.
It isn’t just royalty that has connections to the Abbey, though. I was intrigued to learn that Charles Darwin is buried here – as an atheist, you would have thought this would be the last place he would want to be buried – but his colleagues made the request, describing it as a reconciliation between science and God. Fittingly, Darwin’s tomb lies next to that of Sir Isaac Newton.
And of course, you can’t leave the Abbey without having visited Poets’ Corner. All manner of luminaries are buried or commemorated in this part of the church: Chaucer, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Aphra Behn, Charles Dickens and many others who made a contribution to English literature. As for William Shakespeare, he was buried in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon but has a memorial in Poets’ Corner; touchingly, the ashes of Laurence Olivier are situated next to it – Olivier, who so memorably played Henry V, wanting to be near the man responsible for writing Olivier’s favourite role.
Less happy was the fate that befell Oliver Cromwell. Having recently visited Huntingdon’s excellent Cromwell Museum, I was aware that the Lord Protector had been buried at Westminster Abbey – but not of the grisly occurrences 12 years later. At Charles II’s request, poor old Cromwell was exhumed from the Abbey, given a posthumous execution and hanged in chains at Tyburn. As if that wasn’t enough of a punishment, his severed head was displayed on a pole outside Westminster Hall for the next 25 years. A tad harsh, perhaps, considering the bloodthirsty acts carried out during their lifetimes by some of the other politicians and monarchs buried in the Abbey – but Charles II was determined to avenge his father – and the Crown.
I could fill countless blog posts with what I saw and learned today in Westminster Abbey. I haven’t even touched upon the Coronation Chair, the Chapter House or Sovereign Stall; those will have to wait for another day. None moved me as much, though as the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. This British soldier, a casualty of World War One, was the last person to be buried in the Abbey, on 11 November 1920 – exactly two years after that horrendous conflict ended. Buried in a coffin made from English oak, surrounded by soil taken from a French battlefield, his grave is capped with black Belgian marble stone – and is the only grave in the Abbey upon which it is forbidden to walk. By sheer coincidence, my visit to the Abbey occurred on Armistice Day – and the sight of groups of veterans, many of them elderly and very frail, coming into the Abbey to pay their respects to this unknown soldier and to their lost comrades, was deeply affecting.