If you haven’t already, check out part one here.
It’s not often that I go on guided tours. The challenge of blending in with the locals is fun for me, and trailing a sign-toting tour guide with a mass of other foreigners kind of gives the game away. With less than three days in a city that boasts so much history, though, I gave in. A little before 11 o’clock Friday morning, I stepped out of the Westminster Tube station and onto a walking tour of one of the most famous cathedrals in the world.
A bit of promotion: I went with a company called London Walks, with whom I have since done a couple of tours, and their guides really are excellent. As a student, I paid £19 for a two hour walk, which included not only the guided tour, but also entrance to the Abbey at a 33% discounted rate (and, of course, skipping the rather long line to get in).
So, here’s some cool things I learned about Westminster Abbey (more properly, the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster):
Construction on the Abbey at Westminster began in the early 1040s, prompted by King Edward, AKA Edward the Confessor, last King of the House of Wessex. The church was originally intended as a place in which to put Edward’s body to rest after his death, and although it hadn’t quite been completed when he died in early 1066, it had been consecrated a short time earlier, and he was buried there.
At the time, physical proximity to saintly figures was seen as a good way to increase one’s chances of entering heaven – Canterbury Tales, anyone? – so the newly founded church, and Edward’s grave, attracted quite a crowd. At the end of the year, William I, better known as William the Conqueror, was coronated in the church, as every English monarch since has been, and so begins the long and fabled history of Westminster Abbey.
The present day church doesn’t date back quite as far as all of that, though. The building of the structure that stands today was initiated in the year 1245, by Henry III, who, like our good friend the Confessor, chose to be buried on the site. Today, seventeen past monarchs have found their final resting places at Westminster, including Mary Queen of Scots (d. 1587) and Elizabeth I (d. 1603). The infamous Oliver Cromwell even managed to snag a burial there in the 1650s, before being disinterred and posthumously executed by hanging a few years later. You know you’ve done badly when even your natural death isn’t good enough. In any case, seeing the effigies of these famous rulers was incredibly cool, and also sort of hard to fathom. I mean, the amount of history made by the people whose bodies now lie at Westminster…
Anyways, let’s skip ahead a few centuries to the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. During this period, the abbey was saved by none other than Henry VIII himself, who gave it cathedral status and appointed Thomas Thirlby as Bishop. In the following period, it switched allegiances several times, being returned to the hands of the Benedictines by Catholic Mary I (Bloody Mary, famed for her Protestant executions), and then removed from their control again by her Anglican successor Elizabeth, who named it a Royal Peculiar. It retains said status to this day, making it subject to the Sovereign, and not to an archbishop (the senior bishop of the Church of England resides in Canterbury instead). On a side note, the last Abbot under Mary’s Benedictine regime survived the change, also becoming the first Dean of the newly Anglican Westminster under Elizabeth I. Am I the only one who finds organized religion confusing? Fascinating, but confusing.
Moving on, then. During WWII, the Abbey suffered damage, like much of the rest of London. Although many of the moveable treasures found there were evacuated to various country estates, some immobile things, such as the royal tombs, were piled high with sandbags instead. The 13th century Cosmati pavement and some of the stained glass had been boarded over early in the war, although a few windows were still blown out. The worst damage was sustained in mid-May 1941, when firebombs rained down on the Abbey roof, but luckily firefighters were on hand the counteract the worst damage. Almost exactly four years later, on May 8, 1945 (VE Day), thanksgiving services were held hourly in the cathedral to celebrate the end of the war.
And to wrap up, here’s a few fun facts about coronations in the Abbey:
To date, 38 coronations have taken place at Westminster. The new monarch is crowned while sitting in the Coronation Chair, which at least while I was there, could be seen in a glassed off alcove to the right, as you enter through the main doors. It’s crazy old. We’re talking more than 700 years worth of old here. And, there’s an oddity about this old wooden chair, if you look closely. Underneath the seat, there’s a sort of slot. That was specially requested by Edward I (not the Confessor) with the building of the chair. The spot was made to hold the Stone of Scone, pronounced scoon, although I personally think it would be much funnier if it was said the way it’s spelled,. There are many traditions about the history of the Stone, also known as the Coronation Stone and the Stone of Destiny, but the important bit for now is that it is the historic seat upon which Scottish monarchs were crowned. So, when Edward I overthrew John Balliol, the last King of Scotland to be coronated on the stone in 1292, and returned it to London, it was pretty symbolic. Think Braveheart.
The first English monarch to be crowned sitting on the Coronation Chair, on the Stone, was Edward II in 1308…royal naming conventions are so redundant. The Stone was even so important as to cause the first border closing between England and Scotland in some four centuries, after it was stolen by Scottish nationalists on Christmas day, 1950. It was found a few months later, and returned to the Abbey. Eventually, in 1996, it was loaned on a permanent basis to Scotland, where it remains in Edinburgh Castle, to be (temporarily) returned to Westminster only in the event of a royal coronation.
I’ll cut off my history lesson there, as this post is getting a bit long. But really though, with 1,000 years of history to cover, how could it not be? I’ll continue the rest of my London adventures in another post, soon to come!
P.S., I refreshed my memory of a few dates and details that I had forgotten with info from the official Westminster Abbey site, which has loads of other good information if you’re interested in that kind of thing. And, if you’ve read this all the way to the end, I’ll assume that you are. :)
Until next time!