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Westminster Abbey: England's "Parish Church"

by Helen Gazeley

Westminster Abbey"The parish church of the English-speaking peoples" seems an unlikely description of Westminster Abbey, which is, after all, in a major city, surrounded by government buildings. But it is packed with the graves of world-famous people and has been the setting of ceremonies watched internationally, from Queen Elizabeth's coronation (1953) to the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales (1997), so perhaps one of the deans of the Abbey was right when he said, "It belongs to all."

A church has stood on this site since at least the seventh century. In the eleventh century, Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-1066) built another: "the first in England erected in the fashion which all now follow at great expense", as William of Malmesbury said of its Norman architecture. Edward actually wanted to see Rome, but unrest was rife in England and he thought that, if he went, he wouldn't have a throne to come back to. So Edward swapped his pledge to visit the Pope with a promise to build a great church to honour St Peter.

It's fitting, then, that the Abbey itself became a place of pilgrimage, containing not only many relics (lost after the Reformation but described by a medieval visitor as one of the sights of London), but also the bones of Edward the Confessor himself. When Henry III (1216-1272) began the erection of the current abbey in 1245, he did so to venerate these bones, and built the splendid shrine to Edward still there today.

To this shrine Henry V made solemn progress in 1415, to give thanks for victory against the French at Agincourt. Despite the loudly cheering citizens, triumphal arches, and fountains flowing with wine, not once during the five-hour procession across London did Henry smile. All glory should go to God and St George, he said, and no thanks given to him.

Westminster AbbeyThe Court settled around the Abbey, and royal dwellings grew into the Palace of Westminster (mostly destroyed by fire, 1834), the heart of royal and government administration. By the fifteenth century (while the current nave was still being worked on) the Abbey precincts were a warren of tiny streets, full of alehouses and shops, all vying for business from the Abbey and royal household.

And, most importantly, the Abbey provided Sanctuary -- safety for the oppressed, the hunted, the accused. Once within its precincts, no one, not even the king, had the right to drag you out. Established in the time of King Sebert (seventh century), this privilege protected many during civil war, or while they gathered evidence in their defence. It didn't protect everyone, however.

In 1378, two squires escaped from the Tower of London. They fled from the City, not just into the precincts, but into the Abbey itself, where mass was being said. The Constable of the Tower would not turn back and, with his followers, burst into the service. An outraged sacristan barred their way, only to be cut down, and one of the squires was murdered on the very steps of the altar. The outcry shook the country.

Although the right of Sanctuary disappeared in the 17th century, and is now marked only in nearby road-names, the idea persisted, and the streets in the area continued to be considered safe haven for many decades. These streets, which the Great Fire of London (1666) never reached, were cleared in 1851, after Parliament decreed that new houses should be built in a style suitable to the dignity of the Abbey.

To gain an idea of what the area was like before the renovations, rather than coming to the Abbey across the traffic-rimmed Parliament Square, approach from the south. If you've spent a morning at Tate Britain, it's a pleasant stroll downriver, through Smith Square and into Great College Street. Enter Dean's Yard and the Abbey gardens, where the Benedictine monks grew their food, and take in the Jewel Tower, a tiny fragment of the old Palace of Westminster.

Robert Burns Memorial Westminster AbbeyThen brace yourself for the Abbey itself. Not only crowded with visitors, this "parish church" is crammed with memorials -- a "strange muddle and miscellany" wrote Virginia Woolf, "of objects both hallowed and ridiculous."

At one time, a famous Briton might confidently expect to finish up here. On boarding the ship San Carlo, Nelson proclaimed, "Victory! Or Westminster Abbey!" (Actually, he was buried in St Paul's, but the two churches have always been rivals). But think of a famous Briton, and he or she is quite probably commemorated, if not actually buried, here. There are too many to mention them all: writers -- Dickens, Browning, Tennyson; musicians -- Handel, Purcell, Vaughan Williams; politicians -- Pitt, Gladstone, Chamberlain; scientists, architects, explorers and reformers.

Some might be surprised to be here. Charles Darwin, despite his atheism, joined the Hall of Fame alongside his hero, Sir John Herschel, and Sir Isaac Newton. In the words of The Times newspaper on Darwin's final resting-place, perhaps "The Abbey needed it more than it needed the Abbey."

The absence of others appears a glaring omission. In 1880, George Eliot, one of England's finest novelists, was still deemed at her death a scarlet woman (she had eloped in 1854). Her friends feared that controversy would overshadow her achievements and dropped their demands for her burial in Poets' Corner.

Major André's Tomb Westminster AbbeyScoundrels jostle with heroes. Look out for Tom Thynne's memorial, on the wall near the organ. It shows the scene of his murder in 1682. Thynne himself was so notorious a rake that the Dean and Chapter refused to allow the normal eulogy on his memorial and the space for it is still empty.

And nearby, on the right-hand wall of the abbey, near the choir, is Major André: hero or scoundrel, depending on your view of the Atlantic. André was captured after collecting intelligence supplied by Benedict Arnold. Sentenced to the gallows, he asked to be shot, rather than hanged. The denial of this request caused outrage in England and André's body was brought back for a hero's burial.

On André's tomb is a likeness of George Washington. For some time, whenever there was a row between Britain and America, poor old Washington bore the brunt. His head was knocked off twice almost as soon as the memorial was erected. The war of 1812 brought the need for another new head and the last replacement was in the 1840s.

Above all, though, the Abbey is connected with royalty. More than twenty monarchs are buried here, provoking the words from the playwright, Francis Beaumont (1584-1616), who is also in Poets' Corner, "Here's an acre sown indeed/With the richest, royalest seed."

Queen Katherine of Valois, Henry V's bride, took longer to sow than the rest. On her death in 1437, her coffin seems to have remained in the Lady Chapel, open to view, until Henry VII destroyed the Lady Chapel (in 1502) to make way for his own (it's magnificent -- don't miss it). She was then moved next to her husband, but still apparently open to the air. In 1669, Pepys took his family to the Abbey. "Here we did see, by particular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of ValoisÉAnd I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birthday, 36 years old, that I did kiss a queen." Katherine was finally interred in Henry V's chapel in 1878.

Queen Elizabeth Tomb

The royal tombs were matched in splendour by the funerals. Hugh Walpole attended George II's. "The procession, through a line of foot guards, every seventh man bearing a torch, the horse guards lining the outside, their officers with drawn sabres and crape sashes on horseback, the drums muffled, the fifes, bells tolling, and minute guns -- all this was very solemn. But the charm was the entrance of the Abbey, where we were received by the Dean and Chapter in rich robes, the choir and alms-men bearing torches; the whole Abbey so illuminated, that one saw it to greater advantage than by day."

Westminster AbbeyHenry V's coffin arrived after a two-month funeral procession from France. On the carriage which bore it was a greater than life-size image of the king, dressed in royal robes, sceptre in one hand, a golden apple in the other. Surrounded by torch-bearers and clergy dressed in white, the royal household dressed in black, it must have been quite a sight when these and three of Henry's favourite battle-horses advanced to the altar.

Supremely, though, Westminster Abbey is a place of coronations. Since William I in 1066, English monarchs have been crowned here. The present Abbey was built to serve as a coronation church, which is why there is a larger than normal space between the Choir and the steps leading up to the High Altar. Most of the ceremony occurs here, and you might like to linger and imagine the scenes.

The diarist Celia Fiennes was present when Queen Anne (1702-1714) was crowned. Dressed in crimson velvet with a six-yard long train, the queen wore an under-robe "of gold tissue, very rich embroidery of jewelsÉher petticoat the sameÉwith gold and silver lace, between rows of diamonds." In her hair were diamonds which "brilled and flamed." The altar "was finely decked with gold tissue carpet and fine linen, on the top all the plate of the Abbey set", while the officials were arrayed "in very rich copes and mitres, black velvet embroidered with gold stars, or else tissue of gold and silver."

Possibly no coronation can compare with George IV's, though. This rather vain man demanded sumptuous proceedings with no thought for expense. £24,000 was spent on the coronation robes alone, when his successor, William IV (1830-37) spent only £50,000 on the entire day. George wore a crimson train, ornamented with golden stars, twenty-seven feet long. "Something rustles, and a being buried in satin, feathers, and diamonds rolls gracefully into his seat," said painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846).

Westminster AbbeyGeorge had his comeuppance as he was almost overcome with the heat of his robes. One royal page reported that the king had required no fewer than nineteen handkerchiefs to mop his royal brow while the peers paid him Homage. And "when the Archbishop preached about burthens of Royalty, the King was seen to wink at the Duke of York and point to his immense train."

Like George IV, congregations of the 18th and 19th centuries showed little respect for the service. When the priest began his sermon at George III's coronation, most of the congregation took the opportunity "to eat their meal, when the general clattering of knives, forks, plates, and glasses that ensued, produced a most ridiculous effect, and a universal burst of laughter followed."

But in other eras the ceremony engendered more respect and had, perhaps, greater impact on those involved. In medieval times, royalists believed that the anointing during the ceremony raised the king to new heights: he became blessed of God. And while the Reformation did away with any lingering idea that crowning was a sacrament, coronation still had its effect. Queen Mary, the wife of George V (1910-1936) "was almost shrinking as she walked up the aisle," said the first Viscount Murray. "The contrast on her 'return' -- crowned -- was magnetic, as if she had undergone some marvellous transformation. Instead of the shy creature for whom one had felt pity, one saw her emerge from the ceremony with a bearing and dignity, and a quiet confidence, signifying that she really felt that she was Queen of this great Empire, and that she derived strength and legitimate pride from the knowledge of it."

And this, perhaps, is the secret of the Abbey. In the ever-changing heart of London, it represents a continuity of British history more than any other building. Standing on the foundations of the old Norman abbey, it cradles and commemorates heroes who have contributed to the world as well as Britain, and returns every so often to the forefront of history as another monarch is crowned before the altar.

Westminster Abbey

More Information:

The Abbey has an excellent website with a great deal of information on the history and points of interest, as well as information on opening times, entry tickets and services. The Abbey Gardens are open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

For information on Tate Britain:

For information on the Jewel Tower:
http://www.english-heritage.org.uk (search for Jewel Tower).

Helen Gazeley is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the Daily Telegraph, Artists and Illustrators, Organic and Healthy Living and Kitchen Garden Magazine. She also writes a regular column for Organic Gardening. London and eating are two major enjoyments, so she knows a decent place to eat near any major attraction. Contact Helen at helengazeley@aol.com.
Article © 2006 Helen Gazeley.
Photos courtesy of Britainonview.com; André Memorial photo courtesy of Westminster Abbey.


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