From a peculiarity or two to its varied history, Musement takes a look at seven fascinating facts about Westminster Abbey.
An emblem of London and, for lovers of all things royal, the backdrop of the Cambridges’ 2011 fairy tale wedding, Westminster Abbey has a history that runs centuries deep. The stunning Gothic structure dates back to 1066 and underwent some changes in its early years. Today, the must-visit Royal Church and UNESCO World Heritage Site also conceals some intriguing secrets and interesting tidbits. Here’s a look at seven fascinating facts about Westminster Abbey
1. A peculiar truth
Despite its name, Westminster Abbey isn’t officially an “abbey.” Instead, the church falls into the category of a “Royal Peculiar,” which means it belongs to the sovereign and not the Church of England. Its official name is the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster. In its early days, the church was a monastery for Benedictine monks, and the nickname stuck after Henry VIII dissolved it the 16th century.
2. Significant burials
The church is the final resting place for more than 3,500 figures who include Sir Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking as well as 17 British monarchs and their consorts, such as Henry VII and Elizabeth I. The Poets’ Corner in the South Transept contains the remains of dozens of scribes including Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Robert Browing, and Lord Alfred Tennyson. In addition, the spot commemorates dozens more such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, in which an unknown British World War I soldier rests, lays near the entrance—it’s forbidden to walk over it. Recent royal brides Kate Middleton, Princess Eugenie, Princess Beatrice, and Meghan Markle have all either placed or sent their wedding bouquets to be left on his tomb.
3. Royal weddings
Speaking of weddings, the church has presided over many a royal matrimony. In addition to the Cambridges, Prince Albert the Duke of York, eventually King George VI, and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon tied the knot here in 1923, followed by their daughters, Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth (II) and Philip Mountbatten in 1947 and Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong Jones in 1960. The sovereign’s son Prince Andrew, the Duke of York and daughter Princess Ann also got hitched here to Sarah, the Duchess of York and Captain Mark Philips in 1986 and 1973 respectively.
4. Nostalgic waxing
Located in one of the oldest parts of the church that sat closed for 700 years, the wax gallery features the effigies and wax creations of several monarchs. These life-size figures had been crafted for the to represent the deceased at their funerals, and they’re currently displayed in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, which opened in 2018. Figures include lifesize recreations of Queen Elizabeth I and Charles III, among others. Space is limited, so book a 5£ ticket for a designated time slot in advance.
5. Not-so-damaged goods
St. Edward’s Chair or King Edward’s chair, more familiarly known as the Coronation Chair, is one of Westminster’s Abbeys highlights. King Edward I commissioned this oak chair to contain the Stone of Destiny, a Scottish relic acquired by England. Carpenter Walter Durham completed the task between 1297 and 1300 and since 1308, it has cradled the backside of every British Monarch on Coronation Day. A close look reveals several graffiti markings. As the chair wasn’t as heavily guarded in the 18th and 19th centuries, schoolboys etched their names into the chair’s surface. And a closer look at the base will reveal the stone’s not in place. Scottish nationals broke into the Abbey in 1950 and accidentally split the 400-pound object while attempting to dismantle it from the chair and bring it back to their country. It eventually made its way back to England but was returned to Scotland in 1996. Today, it sits in Edinburgh Castle and will be made available for future coronation ceremonies.
6. Britain’s oldest door
Having been officially carbon dated in 2005, an oak door (the only remaining Anglo Saxon one in England) in a vestibule that connects Chapter House to the Abbey dates back to approximately 1050, having been felled in 1032. The wood itself came from Hainault, now a housing estate in Northeast London.
7. Death after death
A controversial figure, Oliver Cromwell disbanded the monarchy with the execution of King Charles I in 1649, the culmination of the English Civil War fought between royalists and the parliamentarians, the latter led by Cromwell. A Commonwealth was declared and Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector of England until his death in 1658. He was given an elaborate public funeral and laid to rest in the Abbey. His son succeeded him but wasn’t much of a leader. Two years later, Charles II was reinstated as king and royalists then exhumed Cromwell’s body, executing him posthumously for treason. His head, which happens to have its own Wikipedia page, stood on a spike in front of Westminster Hall until a storm blew it to the ground. It passed hands between many collectors until 1960 when it was interred in Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge.