In the heart of London stands a building whose foundations have stood for over a thousand years. It has seen the crowning of kings and queens, royal marriages, state funerals and the entombment of an Unknown Soldier. Throughout its long and varied history, Westminster Abbey has established itself as a place of worship that accentuates the faithful and explorative nature of humankind.
The origins of Westminster Abbey are unknown, and the exact date of its founding, no one can absolutely say with certainty. But underneath the gothic architecture you see today are the remnants of King Edward the Confessor’s monastic church. And from a depiction in the medieval Bayeux Tapestry, Edward’s church was much smaller, with a central tower, transepts and a lead-covered roof. By the time of its dedication on 28 December 1065, the King was gravely ill, and died a few days later, on 5 January 1066.
It is the passing of Edward the Confessor and his subsequent shrine which is the beating heart of Westminster Abbey. Set behind the Sanctuary and high altar, his Chapel contains not only the elaborate and holy shrine of one of England’s most endearing Monarchs, but the tombs of five successive kings and four queens.
And whilst in life Edward was a beloved king, in death he was deemed saintly. After numerous miracles were recorded after the king’s death, many of the monks began to request Edward’s canonisation. But in 1102, the request would see the Pope seriously consider transforming King Edward into Saint Edward, after his tomb was opened.
In the presence of Henry I, Edward’s body was found to be near perfect, with his joints still able to bend and face reminiscent of sleep. The monks took this as a sign Edward had been favoured by God, and thus in 1161 Pope Alexander III conferred the king to sainthood.
Shrines like Edward’s were common in medieval churches, but sadly most were destroyed in Britain at the Reformation. Due to this, Edward is now the only major English saint whose body still peacefully lies in his medieval shrine. And whilst visitors can no longer enter the shrine for public viewing, there is an air of holy majesty which envelopes the tombs of those historic figures of Monarchy.
Throughout the Abbey’s history, its architecture has changed with each subsequent Monarch. From the medieval church built by Edward the Confessor, to the more elaborate gothic exterior we see today under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, one aspect has remained constant – visitors.
Over one-million people step through the doors of Westminster Abbey every year, and in doing so they embark on an emotional and historic pilgrimage into the very DNA of Britain. Whether it be Monarchy, scholars, politicians, artistry or military, some of Britain’s grandest and greatest rest beneath Westminster Abbey. There are over 4000 tombs that rest here, the most recent being the iconic and inspiring Stephen Hawking, whose ashes were interred in the Abbey in 2018.
Hawking follows a long line of renowned figures who are either buried or commemorated within the Abbey’s walls, including Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Charles Darwin and many others. But whilst Westminster may be the place where kings and queens are coronated, it is also where some of our most famous Monarchs rest eternally. Two of those are symbolic of a tumultuous and manipulative time in Britain’s royal history.
On opposing sides of the Lady Chapel rest two queens; one regarded as our greatest, the other brutally executed by her. The tomb of Elizabeth I sits in the North Aisle beneath an impressive marble effigy. Due to extensive vandalism through time, the jewellery and regalia are replacements added in the 1970s. Yet, whilst vandals may have defaced parts of the queen’s ornate tomb as the years passed by, at the time of her burial in 1603, Britain fell into deep mourning.
So deeply revered and respected, her successor James I commissioned an elaborate tomb worthy of royalty. Once completed, at a total cost of £1,485, her coffin, which had been kept in the vault of her grandfather Henry VII, was moved into the North Aisle we see today. Her coffin is placed above her sister Mary I, whose nickname “Bloody Mary” was reference to the 300 heretics she executed in her short reign.
And whilst our greatest queen rests with her sister, the other one, not of blood but of sovereignty, is entombed in the south aisle.
Mary, Queen of Scots was executed by order of Elizabeth in 1587. After her gruesome beheading, her body was placed in Peterborough Cathedral. She was eventually transferred to Westminster Abbey when her son, James I, completed her lavish tomb and she was laid to rest opposite the queen who had signed her execution papers.
It is poignant that these two Monarch’s should rest opposite one another in equal aisles and tombs. These two powerful women who, though they never met, in life were pitted against one another, yet in death sleep soundly as queens and contemporaries.
It is obviously understandable of Westminster Abbey’s connection to British history, and walking past tomb after tomb, that historic relevance stands taller and mightier than any one of the stone pillars that have kept the Abbey standing. There is a nostalgia that pulsates from every corner, every archway and every stained-glass window. And with that feeling of sentimental charm there exudes an exciting attitude to the present and future.
In modern times, the Abbey has been the setting of many defining moments of Britain’s iconic history and continuing heritage. One such occasion being the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Placing the Abbey into the spotlight as nearly three-billion people watched Catherine Middleton elegantly walk through the nave and quire, introduced Westminster to a new generation. In doing so, a whole new group of people could fall under the Abbey’s spell and be swept away with Britain’s royal fairy-tale.
But within the magic of Westminster’s surroundings, this holy place has set the scene for tragedy and sorrow. In doing so it has become a sanctuary for the grief-stricken; a national symbol of comfort in times of suffering. Whether it be the grave of the Unknown Soldier, a place of silent reflection for those lost in the vicious conflicts of war, or funerals of iconic figures. One such moment would define the Abbey’s importance in saying farewell to those we love and respect.
In 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales would die in a tragic car accident. Her death caused unprecedented mourning with the public turning on the Royal family as a result. Eventually, the public would be granted their chance to say goodbye to the “People’s Princess”. Her funeral took place at Westminster Abbey and was watched by a global audience of over three-billion people. The live transmission of her funeral was, and still is, the most watched event in history.
But amongst the sadness displayed at Diana’s death, Westminster Abbey seemed fitting for the woman hoping to be “The Queen of People’s Hearts.” It was noted that afterward, the Queen, as she left the Abbey, said she felt a sense of peace, and that Diana deserved the grandeur and historic relevance of Westminster.
At its core, The Queen in that moment described Westminster Abbey better than most. It derides an historic relevance unlike anywhere else in Britain. And there was and has never been a more defining moment than the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Here beneath the arched roof of the Abbey, the world watched the 25-year-old Elizabeth begin a reign, which 67 years later, has become the longest of any British Monarch in history.
But whilst the past forms the foundation of Westminster Abbey, and the present rises with the stone pillars, it is the future that forms the Abbey’s arched heavens. As the Queen enters the twilight of her astounding reign, there will come a time when this place of worship becomes the setting for the crowning of another Monarch. And like William the Conqueror over a thousand years ago, a King will sit in the Coronation Chair, the oldest piece of furniture in Britain still used for its original purpose. With it, Westminster Abbey will add a new chapter to its long-standing history.
This lavish building of holy magnificence is a testament to Britain’s enduring legacy. Each brick and paving stone, each tomb and shrine paint a picture of a Nation’s memories. But it is each person, whether for worship or exploration, from Britain and further afield, watching through a screen or stepping across the threshold, that make Westminster Abbey the home of a Nation.
Thanks to Westminster Abbey and all their wonderful staff for helping organise our visit!