Secrets of London’s Westminster Abbey
This piece originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.
London’s imposing Gothic-style Westminster Abbey, established in the 11th century by Edward the Confessor, has held a secure place in England’s history books for a millennium. Since its consecration in 1065, the church has seen the coronation of every English monarch, the burial of 17 sovereigns, and the celebration of 16 royal weddings (including, most recently, that of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge).
Replete with tombs, statues, chapels, and monuments, the church is a site of pilgrimage and prayer and remains one of the world’s most-visited sacred sites, welcoming over one million visitors each year. They come to pay respects to English legacy and to lay eyes on a formidable key to the past. On December 28, 2015, the church celebrated its 950th anniversary. Of course, a single building does not live through centuries of history without inheriting a few stories of its own. Read on for 12 secrets you probably didn’t know about England’s most famous church.
The original church was built on an island.
The River Thames has long since become embanked, but over 1,000 years ago, the earliest itineration of the church, along with the nearby Houses of Parliament, were once separated from the rest of London proper on what was known as Thorney Island. At that time, the church was known as “west minster” due to its location west of Ludenwic (what the section of London was called during the Anglo-Saxon period) and would eventually be rebuilt in the new Romanesque style by Edward the Confessor. Today, Parliament still occupies the island’s plateau, while Westminster sits at what was the island’s highest point.
Over 3,300 people are buried or commemorated there.
It is quite the honor to be laid to rest in the abbey, but the privilege isn’t solely reserved for monarchs. In addition to housing the tombs of Edward the Confessor, Henry V, and every Tudor save for Henry VIII (who is buried in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle), Westminster is also the burial ground for luminaries such as Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, T.S. Eliot, the Brontë sisters, Dylan Thomas, John Keats, and Geoffrey Chaucer. Winston Churchill is notably not among them—he refused to be buried at Westminster on the grounds that “no-one walked over me in life, and they're not going to after death.”
The abbey is rife with stories of figures both great and small.
King Edward I’s tomb is noticeably plain—but that was not what he intended. During his reign, the formidable king, known also as Edward Longshanks and Hammer of the Scots, was so obsessed with defeating Scotland that he left instructions for his tomb to remain bare until the country was conquered. They never were, so his coffin remains plain and forgettable. But where this kingly tribute fell short, other, more humble figures were commemorated, such as the Abbey’s former plumber, Philip Clark, who died in 1707 and lies in the abbey just as its kings and queens do.
The Coronation Chair is marred with graffiti.
King Edward’s Chair, known widely as the Coronation Chair, where every English monarch has been crowned since 1308, currently sits in a protected chamber within St. George’s Chapel near the Great West Doors. But there was a time when it was not so heavily guarded. During the 1700s and 1800s, schoolboys and other visitors would carve their names and initials into the wood. Though much of chair’s surface has been sawn down, remnants of those carvings remain. One on the chair’s back still reads in full: “P. Abbott slept in this chair 5,6 July 1800.”
The church was involved in a real-life heist.
For 700 years, the Coronation Chair contained the Stone of Scone—a basic block of sandstone with rumored biblical origins that was used to enthrone Scottish monarchs before it was captured by Edward I of England in 1296 and taken to Westminster Abbey. On Christmas Eve in 1950, a band of Scottish students stole the stone back and returned it to their home country; it was recovered four months later by police and returned to Westminster in time for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. On St. Andrew’s Day in 1996, the British Government formally returned the stone to its homeland—now installed in Edinburgh Castle beside Scotland’s crown jewels—on the grounds that England use it for future coronations.
The Abbey is technically not an abbey at all.
The correct categorization is a Royal Peculiar, which means that it is a Church of England subject to the direct jurisdiction of the sovereign. In fact, its formal title is the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster. Westminster “Abbey” was adopted because it once served a Benedictine monastery—an “abbey” is a church where monks worship. The function of the “Abbey” disappeared in the reign of Henry VIII, but the name survives.
Oliver Cromwell’s life after death was a grotesque one.
The Lord Protector was given an elaborate funeral and buried at the abbey in 1658. However, when the monarchy was restored in 1661, his body was dug out of his grave and ceremoniously hanged on the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I. Afterwards, his head was stuck on a pike outside Westminster Hall, and changed hands many times before a second burial took place at Sidney Sussex College, in Cambridge. Today, a floor stone marks the site of his original interment inside Westminster.
It is forbidden to walk on the tomb of The Unknown Warrior.
The floor tomb located at the far western end of the nave, which houses an unidentified British soldier killed during the First World War, is the only grave in the abbey on which you can’t step. Kate Middleton had to walk around the stone during her trip down the aisle to marry Prince William—and subsequently left her bridal bouquet there to honor royal wedding tradition.
Only a single tomb stands upright.
Poet and dramatist Ben Jonson, known for his play Every Man in his Humour which once featured Shakespeare in the cast, was so poor at the time of his death in 1637 that he could only reserve two square feet of space for his grave. He was buried standing up in the Nave’s north aisle.
There’s a secret garden you can visit.
The College Garden might be one of the best discoveries for any unknowing visitor. Cloistered behind high walls and trees, the noise of Parliament Square dies away and you feel as if you are in another world. Formerly called the Infirmary Garden, it is said to be the oldest garden in England, in continuous cultivation for over 900 years and once used by monks as an orchard to grow fruit, vegetables, and medicinal herbs. The stone precinct wall on the far end dates back to 1376.
Its long-forgotten medieval attic is opening to the public.
When Henry III remodeled the Abbey between 1245 and 1269, he left its attic, known as the Triforium, empty and forgotten. However, located 70 feet above the church floor and reachable by a narrow spiral staircase near the Poet’s Corner, it contains what Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman has called “the finest view in Europe”—a perfect view of the nave, including the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor. For 700 years, it remained a humble storage area for statue fragments, stained glass, altarpieces, royal armor, and other curios, including what is rumored to be the oldest existing stuffed parrot. The area is currently being cleaned and renovated to the tune of £19 million and, by 2018, will open to the public for the first time in history.
The sanctuary predicts the end of the world.
A medieval type of marble pavement known as Cosmati covers the floor in front of Westminster’s High Altar, embedded with thousands of pieces of mosaic and porphyry that form an intricate design of shapes and colors. A convoluted riddle composed of brass letters has been transcribed to spell out the date (1268), king (Henry III), and origin of the materials (Rome), as well as a reference to the end of the world (it foretells it lasting 19,683 years).