The site of royal coronations and royal entombments, Westminster Abbey holds more history than almost any building in London. The crypts for the kings and queens may have prominence, but royalty shares the church with the more than 3,000 people who are buried or have memorials there. The honored in Westminster Abbey include British politicians, scientists, soldiers, writers, poets, musicians, and actors.
Westminster Abbey has served as the backdrop for every British coronation since the Norman Conquest. That would be 38 for those keeping score—from William the Conqueror on Christmas Day 1066 to Elizabeth II in 1953. (Note that young Edward V and playboy Edward VIII were never crowned; the former was deposed and then imprisoned and probably killed in the Tower by his uncle Richard, the latter abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee.)
Westminster Abbey displays the oak Coronation Chair made by order of King Edward I that has been used in every investiture since 1308. The site for many royal marriages throughout the centuries, the church has also been the destination of funeral corteges for British notables, including Lord Louis Mountbatten and Diana, Princess of Wales.
The Abbey traces its beginnings to a humble Benedictine monastery (c. 960). When the Anglo-Saxon King Edward (later canonized as St. Edward the Confessor) set up his royal palace close by in the 1040s, he decided to create a larger stone church named in honor of St. Peter the Apostle.
The church would become known as the “west minster,” differentiating it from St. Paul’s Cathedral, the “east minster.” The remains of this saintly king are enshrined in Westminster. Only traces of his early church can be found in the columns and arches of the Cloisters that house the Abbey’s museum.
From the middle of the 13th Century, when King Henry III began a new church in the Gothic style, through 1745, when the west front towers were completed, Westminster evolved into the church and grounds that visitors see today. While reading the tombstones and plaques of the famous dead in Poets’ Corner or the royal tombs, don’t forget to take the time to admire the sheer majesty of Westminster.
Consider the thousands of skilled but unsung craftsmen and masons that created the 13th Century octagonal Chapter House, the vaulted ceiling in the Lady Chapel, and the flying buttresses that enable the roof of the nave to reach 101 feet.
Westminster commemorates the great and the famous, but two poignant memorials honor the sacrifice of the common man. The Grave of the Unknown Warrior is a reminder of the thousands who died on World War I battlefields and still rest in unmarked graves. The Royal Air Force chapel and its stained glass window honor the RAF squadron members who fought and died in the Battle of Britain—the period from July 10 through October 31, 1940 when a total of 1,497 pilots and crew members died as the German Luftwaffe attempted to gain air superiority before a planned invasion of Britain.
Westminster Abbey is still a place of daily worship; special services and other events may alter opening hours. Opening hours vary for the Abbey, the Cloisters, the museum, and the College Garden, so check the schedule. Picture taking is not allowed in Westminster; the Abbey Shop’s assortment of postcards may help fill out your photo album. Pictures are permitted in the Cloisters and College Garden.
by Katie Calvert