5 Fascinating Facts You May Not Know About Westminster Abbey

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Westminster Abbey stands against the London skyline as it has for centuries, with the relatively new London Eye watching from afar. Jonathan Herbert I JH Images/Getty Images

Some of the most important occasions in Queen Elizabeth II’s life – her 1947 marriage to Philip Mountbatten and her coronation in 1953 – took place at Westminster Abbey. On September 19, 2022, his state funeral will also take place there, marking the end of a 96-year life and seven-decade reign as the monarch of the United Kingdom. Westminster Abbey has been the backdrop to important royal events for over 1,000 years. Here are five fascinating things you might not know about the iconic World Heritage Site.

1. Westminster Abbey is not an abbey at all

The word “abbey” refers to a building used by monks or nuns; nor live in Westminster Abbey today. But the name is a holdover from the building’s early days, says Dr John Cooper, director of the Society of Antiquaries of London, in an email interview. “Westminster Abbey was founded as a monastery of Benedictine monks around the year 960, a century before Anglo-Saxon England was conquered by the Normans,” he says. “The Benedictine monks wore black robes and devoted themselves to a simple life of poverty, chastity and obedience. But as the Palace of Westminster became the center of English royal government and ceremony, the Abbey became the place where coronations and many royal burials took place.”

During the Reformation, King Henry VIII dissolved all English monasteries. The abbey is now known as the “royal private”, as it does not technically belong to the Church of England, but directly to the monarchy. “The two most famous examples [of royal peculiars] are Westminster Abbey, where Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral will be held, and St George’s Chapel in Windsor, where she will be laid to rest with her late husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, in a private service,” explains Cooper.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Westminster Abbey is no longer the name of the building. “Formally,” says Cooper, “it is the ‘Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster’, but almost everyone calls it by its historical name of Westminster Abbey.”

Westminster Abbey

Guests attend a service of thanksgiving for Britain’s Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at Westminster Abbey, March 29, 2022. The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is seen in the foreground.

RICHARD POHLE/POOL/AFP/Getty Images

2. Not much remains of the original abbey

While Westminster Abbey was originally consecrated in 1065 CE, during the reign of King Edward the Confessor, most of this original building was demolished in the 13th century when Henry III rebuilt the ‘church. “The earliest buildings of the abbey survive only as archaeological traces,” says Cooper. “But much of Henry III’s 13th-century Gothic Abbey can still be seen today, including the chapter house with its tiled floor, the Purbeck marble sanctuary of St Edward the Confessor and the wall paintings of Saint Christopher and Doubting Thomas were rediscovered in the 1930s.”

And while the two iconic towers at the front of Westminster Abbey may look medieval, they are actually the youngest part of the building, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and completed in the 1740s.

Westminster Abbey

The Sainte-Marguerite church presents the rose window of the southern transept, which represents Christ surrounded by 16 symbolic figures of the virtues and the orders of the angels.

3. He is loaded with body

There are over 3,000 people buried in Westminster Abbey, so most visitors can’t resist stepping on them a lot of graves. But some tombs are more remarkable than others.

For centuries the abbey was the final resting place of the kings and queens of England; 30 of them, to be exact. The royal tombs are among the best known places in the church. “As a Tudor historian, my favorite place in the abbey has to be Henry VII Chapel in the east,” says Cooper. “As a king who had taken the throne by conquest, Henry VII was obsessed with displaying his legitimacy to rule. By creating a magnificent new royal mausoleum at Westminster Abbey, he ensured that he and his successors would be commemorated in perpetuity in the largest church in England.”

The last monarch to be buried there was George II, but in the mid-1600s a practice began of burying non-royals at Westminster Abbey. Of course, this was not an honor granted to just anyone: these tombs are a veritable who’s who of English literature, science and culture, including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and over 100 other poets and writers, the scientist Sir Isaac Newton, Prime Ministers Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger, and the naturalist Charles Darwin. The most recent burial in Westminster was that of physicist Stephen Hawking, whose ashes were buried near Newton in 2018.

Westminster Abbey

The tomb of Queen Elizabeth I is in Westminster Abbey, along with those of centuries of royalty and a virtual pantheon of literary, scientific and cultural icons.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

4. It houses the most famous chair in the world

The Coronation Chair is one of the most famous pieces of furniture in the world. It was originally commissioned in 1300 by King Edward I to hold the enormous Stone of Scone, which Edward had taken from Scotland. Also known at the Stone of Destiny, the huge block of sandstone is where Scottish kings were crowned from around the year 498. Once placed in the custody of the Abbot of Westminster, the coronation chair – a large oak throne – was built to sit on.

Westminster Abbey

A restorer cleans the Coronation Chair on which King Henry VIII sat enthroned in 1509. Since 1308, when it was commissioned by King Edward I, all but two monarchs have been crowned on the chair.

Katie Collins/PA Images/Getty Images

The coronation chair was painted with colorful plants, animals and birds, all accented with gilding. There have been 38 coronation ceremonies at Westminster, with the future monarch seated in the coronation chair, including Queen Elizabeth in the 1950s.

The stone was stolen from under the chair in 1950 by Scottish nationalists, although it was recovered in 1951. In 1996 the British government decided to officially return it to Scotland, and when it is not used in coronation ceremonies, it is now held in Edinburgh. Castle.

5. One of his greatest treasures is hiding in plain sight.

On the way to the chapter house, visitors pass through a small, seemingly unremarkable wooden door. It is in fact one of the last remnants of the original abbey and possibly, according to Cooper, the oldest gate in Britain.

Westminster Abbey

Britain’s oldest gate was built during the reign of Edward the Confessor.

Westminster Abbey

“The oak door to the chapter house vestibule has been dated by modern dendrochronology to the time of the reign of Edward the Confessor, just before the Norman Conquest,” he says. “The ring pattern reveals that the wood came from the east of England.”

The gate would have originally been about 9 feet (2.7 meters) high, probably with an arched top. But, explains Cooper, it “was cut down to be recycled in the abbey of Henry III, built from 1245”.

According to Westminster Abbey’s official website, “After the boards were joined, both sides were probably covered with cowhide, added to provide a smooth surface for decoration (there is no trace of paint remaining). Then the ornamental iron hinges and decorative straps were fitted in. Only one of the original straps remains today with trapped skin underneath (on the inside face of the door)… In the 19th century, the fragments of cowhide were spotted for the first time and a legend developed that this skin was human it was speculated that someone had been caught committing sacrilege or robbery in the church and had been flayed and his skin nailed to this door to deter others.

At Westminster Abbey, even the simplest things are quite remarkable.

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