My Visit to Westminster Abbey

Posted By on May 23, 2013

Westminster Abbey As many of you know, I spent last weekend in London so that I could visit the Tower on 19th May and also see the play Fallen In Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn. As part of my weekend away, I visited Westminster Abbey on Saturday. I hadn’t been since I was a child, so it was lovely to visit it and pay my respects at the tombs of kings, queens, courtiers, authors and poets who have come to mean a great deal to me. Unfortunately, I can’t share any internal photos as photography was not allowed, but Tim took photos of the exterior and I will give links to online photos of some of the tombs I saw.

Arguably the most significant location in Britain, in terms of the Tudor monarchs, the history of Westminster Abbey dates back to over one thousand years. Originally a Benedictine Abbey established by St. Dunstan in the 960s, the Abbey as we know it dates from the reign of King Edward the Confessor. The monastery was surrendered in 1540 as part of the Reformation’s dissolution of the monasteries.

A complete reconstruction of the Abbey was begun in the reign of Henry III in the 13th century, but only completed in 1517 when, under the reign of Henry VIII, the nave was finally finished. In the 1540s the Abbey became the cathedral for the diocese of Westminster, a short-lived change which was ended by the coronation of Mary I and the resurgence of the Catholic faith, which saw a community of monks reside in the Abbey once more. Following the crowning of Elizabeth I, Westminster became a collegiate church with a dean and a chapter of twelve canons. With the exception of Henry VIII, all of the crowned Tudor monarchs are buried in Westminster Abbey.

For those who are interested in the present day Royal family, Westminster Abbey was also the venue for the weddings of Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, the Queen, George VI, Princess Margaret and Prince William & Kate Middleton.

Highlights

  • The Coronation Chair – Made on the orders of Edward I in 1300-1301
  • The Shrine of St Edward the Confessor
  • The tombs of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Elizabeth I and Mary I, Mary Queen of Scots, Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry Carey, Katherine Carey, Anne Neville (wife of Richard III), Anne of Cleves, Charles II, Edward VI, James I and Anne of Denmark, Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Henry V and Catherine de Valois, Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, and many more.
  • The grave of the unknown soldier, which acts as a memorial to all those lost in war.
  • Poets’ Corner – See the tombs of Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, and memorials to William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, D H Lawrence, W H Audley etc. Famous writers, including Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy are also buried there.
  • The Pyx Chamber – A low vaulted room dating back to 1070!
  • The Chapter House – This octagonal Chapter House dates back to the 1250s and is one of the largest in England.
  • Westminster Abbey Museum – The museum has funeral effigies of famous people, including Henry VII, Mary I and one of Elizabeth I, which also includes a beautiful costume.

Although the Abbey was packed with people, so it was hard to pause and think, I still found it moving to visit the tombs of people I had written about. I was struck by the elaborate tombs of the Careys (Henry and Katherine), the grave of the unknown soldier which is decorated by poppies, and the fact that the tomb of Elizabeth I and Mary I is all about Elizabeth, Mary is missing really. The Abbey is beautiful and well worth a visit, just be sure to take your time as there are so many tombs and memorials, and they’re all over the place – on the floor (you can’t help but walk on them), in the walls, in tombs, everywhere!

Links to see photos of tombs:

10 thoughts on “My Visit to Westminster Abbey”

  1. Leslie says:

    Claire,

    Thank you so much for your lovely pictures and posts! What a great weekend! I get to visit these wonderful places vicariously through you!!

    Just curious – do you know why Henry VIII chose to be buried at St George’s Chapel instead of with his parents at Westminster? I know Jane Seymour was buried at St George’s, and he wished to be buried with her, but why did he choose one over the other?

    1. Claire says:

      His resting place at St George’s was actually meant to be a temporary measure until a fitting memorial to him and Jane was completed, but this never happened. He chose to be buried with Jane because he considered her his “true and loving wife” and it was traditional for a monarch and his consort to be buried together, as Henry VII and Elizabeth of York were.

      1. Leslie says:

        How interesting! Was the “fitting memorial” planned at Westminster? Funny how Elizabeth didn’t carry out this memorial plan when she was Queen 😉

        1. kipper says:

          You might also be interested to know that Henry confiscated the elaborate sarcophagus built and meant for Cardinal Wolsey and intended it for his own. There are a few stories about why the sarcophagus is not at St Georges, including one that he burst out of it!!! However, one might argue that it ended up in just as good a home, for it is now the sarcophagus holding the body of Admiral Horatio Nelson, in St Paul’s Cathedral.
          The biggest tomb/monument in the Abbey is that of Henry Carey, Mary Boleyn’s son (or ‘Bullen’ as it says on the tomb). The tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots, is slightly bigger than that of Elizabeth’s (and Mary Tudor’s) and it is said that this was because James I insisted that his mother’s tomb be bigger than the woman who had her executed. Lady Jane Grey’s mother is also buried at the Abbey, as are many Seymours and Percys. In fact you will find just about every surname from Tudor history if you look long enough – it is the best place in the world for snippets of all English history.
          The Abbey’s official title is ‘The Collegiate of St Peter’ and in 1666 after the Great Fire of London, funds due to the Abbey were diverted to pay for the eventual resurrection of St Paul’s Cathedral. It is where we get the expression ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’. The Abbey as you see it now was completed in the 18th century (George II I think!) and is known as a ‘royal peculiar’ as directed by Elizabeth I, and it answers only to the monarch, whereas all other C of E churches answer to The Archbishop of Canterbury. Hope I haven’t bored you!

  2. Nancy says:

    When I walked into Westminster Abbey for the first time in April of 1977 I thought that it was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen. At the time, the main entrance was through the West Door, which meant that the first thing that you saw was the view looking east down the nave, with the memorials to Sir Issac Newton and Lord Lister in front of the choir screen. Next to the Tower of London, it’s my favorite place in London. Another tomb that Tudor enthusiasts might be interested in seeing is that of Lady Frances Brandon, daughter of Mary Tudor (younger daughter of Henry VII and sister of Henry VIII), wife of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk and mother of Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey. Lady Mary Grey is buried with her mother in the Chapel of St. Edmund.

  3. maritzal says:

    Wow even having so many woman there’s was only one he truly loved Jane Seymour but the history of him will be forever be remembered as the Husband and father to He’s daughter ELIZABETH I the one who set there names in History for all eternity wow Maritzal

  4. GADawn says:

    Just curious – why no photographs allowed to be taken inside Westminster Abbey (and I believe you said the same thing about inside the Chapel at Tower of London in yesterday’s post)?

    1. Claire says:

      It’s quite often the policy in places of worship and I assume it’s out of respect, I’m not sure.

  5. Mary the Quene says:

    Perhaps no photography due to lighting of flash would in time make damages to the tomb-markers. Or possibly, simply out of respect for those resting there. After all, they wouldn’t rest easily with flashes of light a la Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” video.

    1. kipper says:

      The reason that no photography is allowed at the Abbey is because there are so many tourists there at any one time that if everybody used their cameras it would be a constant flashing and clicking noise whereas there are always some people in the Abbey who go there to pray or to think. There are also services every day and it is very off putting during a service to have so many tourists standing at the back and clicking away with flashes going off every second. It is nothing against the visitors who are, I hope, made very welcome, it is just that it is not practical in a ‘House of God’. It is a church first and a tourist attraction second.(It might also have something to do with the fact that the shop sells more cards and booklets as a result, but that is just the cynic in me!)

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