Day 2, Monday, June 25, 2018
Westminster Abbey is one of the most iconic places in London. It is the site of royal weddings, coronations, and the final resting place of over 3,300 influential historic figures. Not to mention it is huge!
We arrived in the early afternoon, and lined up to get in; we were told that the line was about 45 minutes but I think it went a little faster than that. While in line, Taryn and I broke away for a bit to visit St. Margaret’s Church, which is also on the property.
Why a church right next to a giant church? For that answer, you need to understand the history of the abbey.
History of Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret’s Church
According to available records, a church has been on the site since the seventh century. A group of Benedictine Monks began worshipping there in about 960, in small church onsite. In the 1040s, King Edward decided to provide greater finanicial support to the monks and built a large church there, honoring St. Peter the Apostle – Edward’s Abbey, as it was known, was completed in 1066. It was known as “west minster” to distinguish it from St. Paul’s Cathedral – the church in the “east minster.”
The present Westminster Abbey was built in 1245, although parts of the 1066 abbey church do still exist in the architecture of the present church. The 1245 church was built by King Henry III (there are far too many King Henry’s, in my opinion), during a time when it was very fashionable to built huge Gothic style cathedrals; he intended it to be used not only as a monastery, but for coronations and royal burials.
So, the question of St. Margaret’s church, right next door. Since Westminster Abbey was a monastic abbey, the monks had dedicated their lives to the quiet contemplation and worship of God. However, the local people also wanted to come hear mass there; after all it was much more convenient than churches further away. St. Margaret’s was constructed, most likely in the latter part 11th century (the current church is the third on the site; consecrated in 1523), to provide the local people a place to worship without interrupting the worship of the monks.
The monastery was eventually dissolved in 1540 and for a short period became a cathedral with a bishop. This was Henry VIII’s doing, because by turning the abbey into a cathedral he could spare it from destruction, as he was dissolving and destroying abbeys all over England. I guess he had a soft spot for Westminster. However, the Abbey’s time as a cathedral was short lived, and for most of the abbey’s history it has been considered a “Royal Peculiar,” responsible directly to the sovereign, rather than to a bishop or archbishop within a diocese.
Westminster Abbey has been the site of every coronation since 1066, and has been the place of 16 royal weddings, including Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton in 2011. It is the site of over 3,300 tombs and burials, including 30 monarchs. That’s a lot of royal blood buried in these walls and floors…
Visit to St. Margaret’s
Taryn and I went to visit St. Margaret’s while the guys stayed in line to see Westminster Abbey (we offered to trade with them so they could go, but they didn’t want to). The church is beautiful, built in 1523, and was much quieter than the abbey we visited later. They say photos aren’t permitted inside the church, but I fudged a little…
Visit to Westminster Abbey
After waiting about 30 minutes, we got inside Westminster Abbey, to a short new line to buy tickets (which were covered by our London Pass, so they just had to scan the pass). We picked up our audio guides (London is very into audio guides) and started wandering around the abbey. It is huge! We were there for a while, just wandering into all of the little chapels, and down the aisle-ways. It was also packed with people, so you have to be patient in order to get into some of the smaller spaces.
The abbey is full of tombs, so you are constantly either walking over someone or trying to get around a tomb in the middle of a room. It makes for a very interesting experience. The architecture is stunning, with the Gothic flying buttresses and ornate features, so I was constantly stopping to look up. The ceiling is so high up in certain areas!
We were able to see the Coronation Chair that is used in the royal coronations, as well as the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. Several kings and queens are buried here and countless other royals. I was pretty interested in the fact that Sir Isaac Newton, Darwin, and Stephen Hawking all have their ashes interred here as well. It isn’t a very quiet final resting place!
With all the people all over and everybody clicking the buttons on their audio guides to hear the various descriptions, Westminster Abbey didn’t feel like a very sacred space. Perhaps it is different if you come for a service. They do ask visitors to remove their hats though. Photos aren’t allowed inside the abbey either, and there are a lot more people wandering around making sure you follow the rules, but we did take some. Taryn got rudely chastised by another visitor; I’m not sure why that guy felt like he was the photo police, but some people are like that.
Costs: Westminster Abbey – 20 pounds (included in London Pass). St. Margaret’s Church- free.