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. Continue reading