June 7, 2016
Today we toured Westminster Abbey with a blue badge tour guide. I always love it when we have guides because they always have little stories to tell that you wouldn’t hear about otherwise. While waiting for our tour guide, we looked around the gift shop and I debated buying a stuffed corgi. Alas, they cost £36. Sad day.
We started our tour in the cloisters and outer chapels of the church. We don’t know the exact date when it was built, but historical connections to Westminster Abbey have been since as early as the 900’s A.D. When William the Conqueror invaded in 1066 and declared himself king, he began the now long standing tradition of coronating the British monarchs in Westminster Abbey. London is actually made up of two cities: the city of London, where all of the trading and financial business takes place, and the city of Westminster, where government and religion reside. As you probably know, Westminster Abbey shares a square with the Palace of Westminster which houses Parliament. Westminster Abbey is consistently English Gothic in style throughout, even though it was built in several different installments. The stone building is is quite cold from its lack of insulation, but that wasn’t such a bad thing on this hot morning.
The cloisters surround a center courtyard off to the side of the main sanctuary. Branching off of the cloister halls are several small chapels including the Chapter House, which is round and covered in beautiful stain glass, and the Pyx Chapel. The Pyx Chapel used to house newly minted pieces of gold and silver, and it is the same location where the pieces would be weighed for standardization. While in this area of the Abbey, we made friends with one of the resident’s tabby cat who seemed perfectly at home wandering though the chapels.
At this point we entered the large cross-shaped sanctuary. It has many chapels branching off on all its sides to commemorate various royals and hold their tombs. Here is a pretty good picture that I found of the layout of the Abbey.
Unfortunately, no photography is allowed in any part of this main area, so if you are interested in interior photos, your best bet is google. The first thing we got to see was the Coronation Chair, which many of the British monarchs have had the honor of sitting in. Below the seat there used to be a piece of Scottish Stone that was stolen by Edward I in battle. It sat there for centuries, until it was returned to Edinburgh in 1996.
There are over 3000 tombs in the complex of Westminster Abbey, but of all the ones that we saw, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was my favorite. It has its origins in WWI. An officer in the British army stumbled upon a cottage in the French countryside where a kind couple had buried the body of an unknown British soldier in their garden and marked it with a simple wooden cross. Upon returning to England, the officer requested that the body be brought home and buried in a place where all the families who lost sons, fathers, and brothers could come to commemorate their lives. The body was buried in an English oak coffin and covered in soil from France. The tomb was then sealed with a slab of stone from Belgium and adorned with gold lettering fashioned from shell casings found on the battlefield. The tomb is surrounded by a border of poppies to ensure that no one, including the royals who are coronated and wed here, ever steps on the grave.
The chapels in the back of the sanctuary are filled with the tombs of monarchs, including Elizabeth I. This tomb is special because the memorial statue that lays atop her tomb was made with a death mask of her face, and may be the only true depiction of what she looked like. In her days as Queen, artists had obtain a special license before sculpting or painting her likeness. She preferred to be portrayed in the pale and long faced fashion that most portraits of her depict.
In addition to all these monarchs, we stopped by Poet’s Corner and saw the graves of such literary greats as C.S. Lewis, T.S. Elliot, Lewis Carol, and Chaucer. There are a great number of actors and thespians buried in Westminster Abbey as well. Among them are:
-Noel Coward, playwright of Hay Faver
-David and Eva Garrick
-Ben Johnson, playwright of The Alchemist
-Christopher Marlowe, playwright of Doctor Faustus
-There is also a memorial to William Shakespeare, though as we already know, he is buried in Stratford.
After scouring the name plates on the floor, we were released for an afternoon of free time. I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a communion service at Westminster Abbey! It was a very traditional service, and not at all what I am used to, but I am very thankful for this experience of a lifetime. Many traditional prayers were spoken, and participants were asked to kneel one by one before the alter to take the bread and cup. One the service was finished, I returned to the hostel and had some lunch. Now i’m blogging and relaxing before my evening show. I’m still not sure what I will see yet. I entered three lotteries this morning, but have already lost two of them, I’m just waiting on that final email. If I don’t win the last lottery, I might go see Titanic, which is actually a small stage musical that has been recommended by my faculty members.
Two weeks down, two to go. St. Paul’s Cathedral tomorrow morning.