It was a short walk from our lunchtime pub to Westminster Abbey, but the line to get in was anything but short. It wound neatly back and forth in front of the Great North Door without the need for ropes and stanchions. The British can queue like nobody’s business. It is one of their many skills as a culture. I didn’t mind the line so much, except when it was in direct sunlight, at which point it became a brutal endurance test. Did I mention the heat wave?
The Abbey towered above us, providing blessed shade at regular enough intervals. It hasn’t been an abbey for 450 years (since Elizabeth I booted the community of Benedictine monks that had been living there for centuries), nor is it technically a cathedral (since it is not the seat of a bishop). It is just a really, really big church that the monarchy has a proprietary interest in (a “royal peculiar.”)
Edward the Confessor, last of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England (unless you count poor old Harold Godwinson, the Moe Green of mediaval monarchs), decided sometime in the mid-1000s to build himself a palace and a church a few miles upriver from the walled City of London. London had semi-autonomously governed itself since time out of mind, and regarded the king’s rule as a formality rather than a subjugation. Edward wanted a place where he was top dog. He chose Thorney Island, formed by a confluence of the Thames and Tyburn rivers. Upon Thorney Island, the Palace of Westminster arose. And right next to it, supposedly on a site already occupied by a century-old monastery, Westminster Abbey came to be. (Minster is derived from the Latin word for monastery. “West” because it was west of London.)
Unlike so many other patrons of great architectural projects, Edward the Confessor did live to see the church completed — and promptly died a week later. He was the first, but far from the last, person to be buried in Westminster Abbey
Edward the Confessor (his nickname derived from a posthumous — and totally undeserved — reputation for piety) died heirless in 1066, leaving England open to conquest from across the Channel by William, Duke of Normandy. Thus, the very French duke became King William I (“The Conqueror”) of England, imported a lot of his Norman cronies to be noblemen, and was crowned in Edward’s brand-new abbey. English kings and their courts spoke little but French until around 1400. Britain’s current corgi-loving monarch can trace her ancestry through a few twists and turns back to William I.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone in England was thrilled with their new Norman overlords, and Edward became a symbol of their proud Anglo-Saxon past. He was canonized in 1161, becoming Saint Edward the Confessor.
William and his immediate successors had better things to do than look after a crummy old church, such as building a shitload of castles all over the place, so Westminster Abbey languished until the reign of Henry III. Henry III, whom no one would mistake for a rocket scientist (had such a thing existed in the 1200s) was at the very least a kind and decent fellow, a rare thing for a king from the hot-blooded Plantagenet dynasty, and was absolutely dedicated to the veneration of Edward the Confessor. He decided to have Westminster Abbey completely rebuilt on a much grander scale and dedicate it to his hero. The old Romanesque church was gradually replaced with one in a high Gothic style, with lots of pointed-top arches and flying buttresses to support the walls. Greater wall support meant more room for enormous stained-glass windows, and the layout was in the shape of a Latin cross, similar to the great cathedrals of the era.
A bustling service community grew up around the Palace of Westminster and its associated Abbey. London had begun spilling beyond its walls, and the walls themselves were pulled down in the 1760s. London and Westminster eventually met in the middle to make the great metropolis we know today. The marshes around Thorney Island were drained, and it ceased to be an island, although the little River Tyburn still exists, culverted and flowing underground.
The building Cam and I entered now through the Great North Door after a 75-minute wait was the building begun by Henry III in 1245, and consecrated in 1269. Henry himself was stuffed in a Westminster Abbey crypt three years later. Work continued, off and on, until 1517. Then the Abbey’s most distinctive feature, the two massive towers flanking the Great West Door, were added between 1722 and 1745.
After a stern warning about taking pictures (the interior pictures here are mostly from the Abbey’s website), our audio tour headphones guided us to the nave, where we began our exploration. The nave is the long main body of the church, where the congregation sits. Tombs and memorials line the walls and floor, including those marking the burial sites of Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, prime ministers Clement Attlee and Neville Chamberlain, and the still-fresh Stephen Hawking.
At the altar end of the nave is the Choir (or “Quire”), a sort of roofless wooden room, with hand carved wooden seats, reserved for high-ranking parishioners and dignitaries (and yes, the choir).
Beyond the choir is the Sacarum, or High Altar, the site of every coronation since 1066 and many royal weddings. Tucked away behind the Sacarum is the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, containing what little is left of his mortal remains.
Just east of the Sacarum is the 16th century extension known as the “Lady Chapel,” named in honor of the original Lady, the Virgin Mary. The most prominent feature here is the tomb of Henry VII, sponsor of the Lady Chapel’s construction. Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty, was once revered as the dashing young earl of Richmond who sailed in from exile and ended the destructive Wars of the Roses by uniting the rival houses of Lancaster and York in marriage. He aged into a grim, paranoid bureaucrat with a deeply-lined face and an ultimate legacy of miserliness and total mediocrity. “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” — Henry VII.*
Fittingly, the Lady Chapel is also the location of the tombs of two noteworthy ladies: Henry VII’s granddaughers, Elizabeth I and her half-sister Mary I, bitter rivals in life, now lie side by side for eternity. Just a few feet away are the alleged** remains of the uncrowned Edward V and his brother Richard, both probably murdered as children on the orders of their uncle, Richard III. (More on that in the next entry.)
A few monarchs from the late 1300s through the early 1700s are buried elsewhere due to various circumstances, but the majority of them are right there in Westminster Abbey, mostly out of the desire to be interred near the remains of St. Edward, one of the most prominent English-born saints. Henry III is cozied up right next to his saintly idol. His son, Edward I, sworn enemy of William Wallace and the hissable villain of Braveheart, is nearby. Edward I’s son, the suspect and effeminate Edward II, who abdicated the throne and was supposedly assassinated soon after by a red-hot poker up the rectum***, is also somewhere in the vicinity.
I began to lose track. Royal bodies were piled up like firewood.
Look, there’s Richard II, greedy and inept enough to be overthrown by his opportunistic cousin Henry (IV) Bolingbroke, without anyone lifting a finger to stop him…and up high and almost out of sight, there’s Henry V, brilliant battlefield general and hero of Agincourt, an inspiration to the English right through the World War II…
James I ordered his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, to be removed from her original burial site and re-interred in the Abbey. (Mary Queen of Scots spent most of her life sitting on her pampered ass in France — she was no “Scottish warrior queen” as she exists in some people’s imaginations.) James I had his own coffin misplaced for 250 years before it was accidentally stumbled upon, parked inside Henry VII’s vault for reasons long forgotten.
There’s William and Mary (more than just a Virginia college with a decent basketball team)…there’s Charles II, the “merry monarch” who dedicated much more time to drinking, eating, and whoring than to national policy (he sired at least 14 children — not a single one with his wife)…there’s his niece Queen Anne, the one monarch who died fatter than Henry VIII, rumored to be as wide as she was tall (she stood exactly five feet), entombed in a casket said to resemble a piano crate. By the time the completely forgettable George II died in 1760, he practically had to be shoehorned into the east side of the Abbey, which was the area set aside for royal burials. (Squeezing royal corpses into vaults can literally backfire. The poorly-embalmed corpse of William the Conqueror took so long to transport to its final resting place in Caen, by the time it got there, the gases of decomposition had swollen it to the point it was too large to fit in the tomb at the abbey of St. Etienne. When the attending monks tried to force it in, it burst open. The abbey filled with such a dreadful stench it had be evacuated — and a few monks probably evacuated their stomachs.)
Most of the above were interred in coffin-sized sarcophagi with their effigies carved on the lids, or in wall niches that resembled big bureau drawers. There was no more room after George II. Future royal burials would take place at Windsor Castle (more on which later.) Oliver Cromwell, who toppled the monarchy in the name of Puritanism, was briefly entombed in Westminster Abbey until the monarchy was restored, at which point he was dug up and “posthumously executed” (i.e., his remains were hacked to tiny bits.)
The South Transept of the Abbey is known as “Poet’s Corner,” and is the final resting place for literary luminaries such as Charles Dickens (right there in the floor — I had walked across him several times before realizing who I was stepping on), Geoffrey Chaucer, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Rudyard Kipling, and Dr. Samuel Johnson.
Westminster Abbey is large, but doesn’t feel large when there are hundreds of other tourists bumping into you, and you are tripping over kings. Stepping out into the old monks’ cloister was literally a breath of fresh air.
As we headed towards the exit, we passed the display featuring the Coronation Chair. This oak throne was built to the specifications of Edward I in 1308, and has been used in coronation ceremonies ever since. There is a space under the chair for the Stone of Scone, a large flat rock upon which the old Scottish kings of antiquity stood to be crowned. It was swiped by Edward I as a symbol of England’s dominance over Scotland.
The stone was returned to Scotland in 1996, with the understanding that it can be borrowed back for future coronation ceremonies (since Scotland has been part of the “United Kingdom” since 1707, although the future of that unity remains to be seen.)
Emerging back into the sunlight, it was only a five-minute walk to meet the rest of group at our next destination — the House of Lords wing of the Palace of Westminster.
Although no longer a royal residence, the building that houses Parliament is still referred to as the “Palace” of Westminster, and it is just across the Abingdon Street from the Abbey. The old palace was built contemporaneously with the Abbey in the 1000s, and remained the monarch’s primary residence until a fire gutted it in 1512. After its re-construction, it became the principal meeting place for Parliament. Parliament originated as an advisory group serving at the monarch’s pleasure, then gradually evolved into the official governing body of the United Kingdom.
Another fire wiped away most traces of the old palace in 1834. It was rebuilt in a “Gothic revival” style from 1840 to 1876, capped at the north end by the Big Ben clock tower, and at the south end by the larger, cathedral-like Victoria Tower, which houses the government archives.
Parliament, like the U.S. Congress, is divided into two Houses — the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Unlike Congress, pretty much all governing power is invested in one house, the popularly-elected Commons. The House of Lords, once considered the “upper house” and made up entirely of hereditary nobility, is now there only to advise, question, and suggest changes to legislation passed by the Commons. They cannot flatly reject anything, and only a percentage of its members inherit their seats. Many more are appointed.
We arrived at our meeting place under Victoria Tower promptly at 3:00. Shannon’s brother Bret is currently a member of the Board of Directors of everyone’s favorite socio-political argument forum Twitter. In that capacity, he met and befriended our hostess for the next hour or so, Martha, Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, a life peer in the House of Lords. She certainly didn’t strike me as a baroness, being roughly my age (I still think of myself as quite the young buck) and sporting dyed purple streaks in her blonde hair. She requested us to stay close to her and make ourselves small, as such large groups were generally not permitted in the House of Lords, and we may be slipping into areas that are normally off-limits to any outsider. And no photos, of course. Despite her warning, she didn’t seem too concerned. “I’m always getting in trouble around here,” she admitted.
I was the last through a pretty thorough security checkpoint, and had to trot to catch up to the group. I never did get to put my belt back on. I stuffed it in my cargo pants pocket, and held up my pants with my hand in a most undignified way as we passed through the most dignified of locations. Lane-Fox showed us the private House of Lords restaurant and lounge right on the river, and gave the best description of Gothic revival architecture I’ve ever heard: “Victorians pretending to be medieval.”
We were then allowed into the upper gallery of the House chamber itself, where the Lords were debating legislation pertaining to “Brexit.” The chamber was all gilt, plush red leather, and dark wood. Its bones were clearly rooted in the 1870s, but it was layered with a high tech veneer of cameras, cables and mounted flat-screen monitors. The average age in the room was about seventy.
Most of the Lords were consulting reams of briefing notes in three-ring binders as the speaker droned on. There were several robed bishops (“Lords Spiritual” as opposed to “Lords Temporal.”) Some of the really old ones were clearly dozing. Some of the younger ones tapped on tablets. At the front of the chamber is a throne in case the queen decides to pop in. She is not allowed to cross the threshold of the House of Commons.
I spent a lot of my time in the House of Lords chamber craning my neck and peering around to see if I could spot Christopher Guest (5th Baron Hadon-Guest). Yes, Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap is a member of the British nobility…but I found out later he was unseated almost twenty years ago by the act that reduced the number of inherited seats (and allowed people like Lane-Fox to be appointed.)
After ten minutes or so, we made our way out, and Lane-Fox guided us to our final stop, Westminster Hall.
Westminster Hall is the only significant remnant of the original palace. It was currently undergoing heavy restoration, so it looked more like a construction zone than a major historical site. Despite just having come from Westminster Abbey, and maybe because it was off-limits to most visitors, I was struck more viscerally by the forces of history here more than anywhere else. The six-foot thick walls that encircled us dated from 1097, and the hammerbeam ceiling above was from the 1390s. At the time of its construction, it was the largest hall in England, and probably in all of Europe. (Upon seeing it for the first time, William I’s jackass son William II said it was a “mere bedchamber” compared to what he had in mind.) It was at first used exactly how most people picture a medieval hall being used — a long table for feasting, capped by a raised dais at the end that seated the king and his closest advisors, an atmosphere eminently suitable for waving a turkey leg around and ordering executions.
Later it became the site of the Royal Court of Justice, and was the location of the trials of William Wallace (“Freeeeedommm!!”), Thomas More, Charles I, and Guy Fawkes. A spiked pole in front of Westminster Hall was home to Cromwell’s skull for over twenty years, before it was passed around for a few decades like a party favor, and ended up buried under a chapel floor in Cambridge. The Royal Court moved to a new location in the 1800s. Westminster Hall is now used for formal banquets and other important public occasions.
Back at the homestead in Battersea, there was time for cocktails and canapes before leaving again for our dinner reservation. The first group stage match of the World Cup to feature England was scheduled to start soon. I noted a distinct lack of beer in the Airbnb fridge, so I headed for Northcote Road’s co-op to remedy the situation.
I noticed as I stared at the beer selection that the British don’t really package their quality ale in cases. They grudgingly offer it in individual pint bottles, but the standard case of a dozen 12-ounce bottles doesn’t exist when it comes to ale. You could tell they much preferred you to drink it the way it was meant to be drunk, tapped from a cask. I can respect that. What was available by the case was typical low-rent lager. Budweiser and Coors Light and, for a touch of exoticism, Carlsberg. I decided to go with the Italian pilsner Peroni. Peroni would be my “at home” beer for the rest of the trip.
“Watching the game, luv?” asked the cashier as she rang me up. I said I was, and headed back up the road. I noticed I was not the only person toting a case of beer back home.
England handily defeated Tunisia, and our group (minus the kids and nanny) headed out for dinner. Chez Bruce was another Michelin-starred restaurant, and happened to be within walking distance of our temporary domicile.
The food was impeccable. I had the Dorset lobster and scallop ravioli with prawn vinaigrette, followed by cote du boeuf with bearnaise sauce. The timing of the service was ever so slightly off, our wine pairings often arriving when we were a few bites into our course. I know, the shit I have to put up with, right?
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, which is a damn good thing, because I generally have a total lack of self-denial, and if I liked sweets I’d be 400 pounds and without a tooth in my head. So in fancy restaurant situations, when the dessert course comes around, I often opt for the cheese board.
At Chez Bruce, the cheeses are extreme. Their version of blue cheese is almost all blue. I could smell it when they wheeled the cart out of the kitchen. The user-friendly, creamy Camembert-type cheeses were awesome, but when it came to the more challenging samples, the ones that tasted like gym socks (and were supposed to taste like gym socks), I managed a bite from each.
“No good?” asked the waiter when he took my plate.
“No, no. It was fine. It was…interesting.”
He looked as if I said I didn’t want to date him anymore, but could we still be friends?
“Interesting means you didn’t like it. They know that,” the more restaurant-savvy Shannon explained.
It was approaching the summer solstice, much further into the northern hemisphere than my native California. Twilight still lingered in the sky as we walked back after ten o’clock.
Later that evening, I Googled Baroness Lane-Fox, and discovered she was the daughter of Robin Lane Fox, historian and author of one of the best and most authoritative books on Alexander the Great ever written. I wish I had known that ahead of time, so I could gush to her what a big fan of her dad’s I was. (I probably wouldn’t have told her my copy of the book was the paperback tie-in to Oliver Stone’s 2004 flop epic Alexander, and had Colin Farrell on the cover.)
Next up…the Tower of London, and the Museum of London. Stay tuned.
*This may not be a Henry VII quote.
**These are the bodies of two boys found walled up in the Tower of London, and generally assumed to be those of the princes, but it hasn’t been proven definitively. Some revisionists even maintain Richard III had nothing to do with their disappearance, and his “evil” reputation is entirely due to Tudor propagandists such as Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare.
***The red-hot poker story probably isn’t true, but I like to think of it as the origin of the punchline “Rectum? Hell, it killed ‘im!”