I’m back! As I sit down to write I realize that it’s been a very long time since I posted. I apologize. We have been working on some huge things in the background and I can’t wait to share them but I need to wait a little longer before we make them public. So, instead, I’m here to tell you about the phenomenally gorgeous, packed to the rafters (literally) with history, the only and only, Westminster Abbey. (Not to be confusingly called the Westminster Cathedral as I did to the Taxi driver, because that is, in fact, a whole other church. Which is, while also stunning is not nearly as old or filled with royalty. It is, however, just a ten minute walk down Victoria street should you wish to also visit this Byzantine style cathedral built in the late 1800s).
Tim’s dad came to visit a couple weeks ago and this was his first trip to Europe. He is a pretty laid back traveler and doesn’t really care too much about the tourist traps, but he did want to see Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. Which we gladly obliged as we had also never been. On our very first day trip into London lo those many years ago (nearly four now!) we did see Big Ben, then covered in scaffolding so I dubbed it Lego Big Ben. We also sat in the park across from Westminster Abbey and I thought, hey cool, a big church and honestly that was the last I had thought of the church. (Unless you count me telling people that they film “Westminster Abbey” scenes for the Crown and other movies at Ely Cathedral). Anyway, we pop out of the Westminster underground station as the sun is setting on London and are greeted by a mostly uncovered Big Ben. I was so very excited to see the famous clock tower more than 50% uncovered and looking very regal after it’s recent face lift. I know they’re rushing to get it all completed by the Queen’s Jubilee in June, so I hope to see it in its full glory soon! We then strolled toward the famous Abbey. Up-lit by bright lights, the white stone gleamed against the dusky blue skies. I had never ventured to this side of town at this time of day before and I was absolutely in awe of the beauty of this building. It was then that we determined we needed to return in a couple days to see the inside. You can book a time slot in advance, here. We booked the morning of and had no issues getting the time we wanted.
Two days later, when we finally did return to see the inside of the church, I was absolutely spell bound. The sheer amount of important events that have happened within those walls blew my mind. I thought I’d share a little about this fascinating church with you. If you can make it to London, I’d say it’s a must see, and alas, if you can’t make it to London, I hope my words can paint a picture vivid enough for you to feel like you’re there.
History of the Building
The cavernous abbey was founded in 960 AD. You read that right, over 1000 years ago. Now as an American, I find this extremely hard to wrap my mind around, and I did have to read that like three or four times to believe it myself. It has been, of course, updated significantly, in 1065 by King Edward the Confessor who wanted to be buried there, and in the 13th century it was rebuilt in the Gothic style by King Henry III. It was this building stage that created most of the church as we know it today. Though it was added to a couple more times when a chapel and the famous towers were added in the 16th and 18th centuries respectively.
Since 1066 this church has been where English monarchs have held their coronations, including our current record-breaking queen, Elizabeth II herself. (This summer she celebrates her platinum jubilee, that means 70 years on the throne, a feat not accomplished by any other British monarch). In addition to numerous coronations, these hallowed halls have seen 17 royal weddings including, most recently, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and his (in my opinion) stunningly beautiful wife, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge.
Between these walls you’ll also find some of the most elite British citizens in their final resting places. Amongst several Kings and Queens you will also find poets, scientists, writers, actors and the most moving to me, The Unknown Warrior. (Read about the history of the burial of this brave warrior who died during World War I, here.) The graves of those buried here read like a list of who’s who amongst the British elite, adding most recently, Stephen Hawking.
In the poet’s corner of the church you’ll find over 100 graves or memorials for some of the most well renowned writers in British history. This includes Chaucer, William Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, Charles Dickens, Ruyard Kipling, Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters. Like I said, some of these are merely memorial plaques, and not their actual earthly remains (like Shakespeare who was buried in his home town of Stratford-Upon-Avon), but either way, what an honor to be memorialized amongst so many legends of their time.
Amongst all the Kings , One of Britain’s greatest Queens is buried here, Queen Elizabeth I. And actually, her sisters, Queen Mary is buried in the tomb below her, but you wouldn’t know it if there wasn’t a small sign on the map denoting it as the “Tomb of Elizabeth and Mary.” The tomb itself is only adorned with a carved statue of the reclining Queen Elizabeth and most of the inscribed words on the sides of the tomb proclaim only the good that Elizabeth did in her time as Queen. It can almost be missed, but the tomb at one point does read: “Partners both in throne and grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of the Resurrection.“
Also buried not far away is the cousin-queen whom Elizabeth I had executed, the unfortunate, Mary Queen of Scots. Her tomb is actually taller than that of Queen Elizabeth I, most likely because it was her son, King James I (or VI, if you’re Scottish), who succeeded QE1 when the three crowns (England, Scotland and Ireland) were united.
The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries
One could spend hours looking at the graves of those who are memorialized here but, as time waned on, we decided we should move upstairs to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee galleries. Entrance to these galleries was an extra £5, and depending on your budget and interests, are both worth it and not. To be honest, the name of these galleries led me to believe it was galleries designed at her previous jubilee for 60 years on the throne. I was excited to see photos and relics of her time as queen, but that’s not what these galleries display at all. So, if that’s what you’re going for, save your money.
After climbing (what felt like) 10,000 stairs, you enter the cavernous galleries that are housed in the rafters of the church. Up here you get views down into the church and have some spectacular views. Unfortunately, you aren’t allowed to take any photos in these galleries which really made me sad because I bet the photographs of the church below would be stunning from up there, and honestly that was the best part of the galleries.
But on display in the galleries are some interesting things such as funeral effigies from several past queens and kings. Seeing the effigies that were likely life-size really makes these people seem more real. Also housed in the rooftop galleries are wax effigies wearing actual clothing from some of the most famous royals in British history. Seeing original garments from hundreds of years ago was absolutely fascinating to me.
There were definitely some other very interesting things in the gallery like a copy of the Domesday book. (If you’re not familiar with the Domesday book, this was when King William the Conqueror sent our surveyors for all of England in an early form of census taking. You can read more about it and actually see the entries a the national archives, here).
Finished chatting with the very friendly and intelligent guide in the jubilee galleries, we headed for lunch. Luckily for me, there was an elevator to take down!
On our way to the cafe, we popped into one of the little open doors that lead off the grassy quad you encounter after exiting the church. It was in here that we found the oldest door in Britain. Most likely build in the 1050s for St. Edward the Confessor, it is an unassuming small wooden door, but of the stories it could tell. Make sure you pop in on your way out, just to be in the presence of this piece of history for a second.
Overall, do I think I’d add Westminster Cathedral to my top five most beautiful churches I’ve seen in Europe? No. But was it amazing to see so many tombs and memorials to very famous, world changing people? Absolutely. It’s definitely worth a couple hours of your time when you head to London.