Westminster Abbey (London)

https://www.westminster-abbey.org

I planned this post weeks ago before the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Westminster Abbey will serve as the site for her funeral next week, so this is a good time to learn about its history.


History

Westminster Abbey was founded by Benedictine monks in the 10th century. From William the Conqueror in 1066 to Queen Elizabeth II, it is the coronation site for the British monarchy. It also is the site of many royal weddings and funerals throughout the centuries and is the burial site for 17 monarchs and thousands of others.

The building itself dates to the 13th century, but there was a church on the site when William the Conqueror built the Palace of Westminster nearby (now the Houses of Parliament). It is called “west minster” to distinguish it from St. Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London – the “east minster.” The current building was raised during the golden age of cathedrals in the 13th – 16th centuries by Henry III, and it was added on to over the years by monarchs such as King Henry VII (added the Lady Chapel). 

The cathedral survived the religious disputes of the 16th centuries as England switched from Catholicism to Protestantism under King Henry VIII and his daughters. It sustained damage during the Battle of Britain in World War II and remains the central church in all of England.


Visit

A trip to London isn’t complete unless you visit Westminster Abbey. It is a working church but is also a historical site full of meaning and rich history. Walking on the same tiles as monarchs and royalty from centuries ago is something that can’t be replicated anywhere else! 

Buy your timed-entry tickets for Westminster Abbey in advance to ensure your entry. Be sure to buy a separate ticket for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee galleries (buy the timed-entry ticket for 30 minutes after your general ticket). You can also sign up for a guided tour here as well. I recommend going first thing in the morning or in the late afternoon for optimal crowds. Strollers are allowed but there are some stairs and tight spaces (particularly in the back chapels) that may be hard to navigate.  

Your tour begins at the north door where you will have to go through security (queue up along the left hand side of the cathedral).

Once you enter, you’ll get your audio guide which will help you make sense of all of the memorials you’ll see. The tour is one-way so you won’t miss anything. Don’t forget to look up over the door at the beautiful stained glass windows!

Begin by walking down the side of the nave towards the front of the cathedral.

Along the way, you’ll pass many memorials and tombs, most notably in Scientists’ corner where Darwin, Newton, and Stephen Hawking are honored. 

At the end of the aisle are the graves of several prime ministers. Turn and enter the main part of the nave where you’ll be in awe of its sheer size and grandeur (the tallest nave in England!). All I kept thinking about was how many royals, such as Queen Elizabeth and Princess Kate, had this very same view as they walked down the aisle on their wedding day.

One of the most poignant memorials in the entire church is at this spot – the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. This grave contains the remains of an unknown British WWI soldier that represents the 800,000 British soldiers who lost their lives in the Great War. Everyone who comes through the doors, even Princess Kate during her wedding, walks around this tomb in respect. They buried him among the Kings because he had done good toward God and toward his house. 

Nearby is a memorial to Winston Churchill and the US Medal of Honor given to honor England’s WWI dead. Don’t miss looking out through the main doors and at the beautiful stained glass above.

Walk down the main aisle (you can pretend to be Princess Kate and no one will bat an eye!) and enter the choir with its elaborate wood seats which you’ll recognize from royal weddings and funerals.

Keep walking through the choir to see the high altar, the spot where every king and queen of England is crowned. 

Continue to the left to enter the Chapels of St. Michael and St. John the Baptist which contain tombs of past nobility. Continue to the Shrine of Edward the Confessor, the holiest part of the church. You can’t enter the area unless you are on a guided tour but you can peek through the gates to see Edward’s tomb. He is surrounded by other medieval royals.

Continue the tour to the tombs of Queens Elizabeth I and Mary I. This is a fascinating tomb to see as it contains both sisters but only has one effigy (Elizabeth) on the tomb. We all know the story of Bloody Mary and the Virgin Queen but to actually see their tomb is unreal. Here we lie, two sisters in hope of one resurrection. 

The next room is the Chapel of King Henry VII (the Lady Chapel). It is stunningly gorgeous with its sculpted stone ceiling, stained glass, and banners. It also contains Henry VII’s tomb, famous for settling the War of the Roses with his marriage.

The Royal Air Force Chapel is at the back of the Lady chapel with its stained glass tribute to the men of the RAF who died in the Battle of Britain.  

The next room contains the tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The next transept contains the entrance to the Queen’s Galleries (requires a separate ticket). I recommend doing this with older kids (8 and up). It gives you a bird’s eye view of the abbey (70 feet above the floor!) – take the elevator instead of the stairs! No photos are allowed in the galleries but it contains artifacts such as funeral effigies of many monarchs, a medieval-era copy of the Magna Carta, and my favorite, the marriage license of Prince William and Princess Kate! It was definitely worth the time and expense.

After exiting back into the transept, don’t miss Poets’ Corner, a must-see for any literature fan. Here you’ll find memorials to many of the writers we know and love – Shakespeare, Austen, Bronte, Dickens, and more. 

The tour will take you outside to the Great Cloister, a beautiful area of rest and reflection. I enjoyed walking its worn floors, reading about people from history who aren’t well-known but are remembered here. Don’t miss the Chapter House and Pyx Chamber (one of the oldest parts of the abbey) like we did!

Before leaving, you’ll enter the nave again and file by the coronation chair. Almost every coronation since the early 14th century has used this chair which sits on the high altar to crown the new monarch. The space below the chair originally held the Stone of Scone from Scotland but it’s now housed in Edinburgh Castle and only comes here for the coronation. Note the graffiti carved into the chair from centuries ago! 

Note the tribute to President Franklin D. Roosevelt before you leave.

You’ll exit the cathedral from the main doors (give a wave as if you’re a royal!).

Don’t miss the excellent gift shop located at the exit. 

If you can’t make it in person, take the cathedral’s virtual tour here!

On Monday, September 19, 2022, Westminster Abbey will host the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. I’ll be watching, and I hope this review gives you a sense of the history that will be reflected on that solemn occasion. The site of funerals, weddings, and every day church services, the abbey is the heart of Britain. 


Helpful Hints:

  • Cost: £25/adults; £11/children 6-17; free/children 5 and under; check out the special family rates
    • Queen’s Galleries tickets are £4.50/adults; free/children 17 and under
  • Recommended: all ages
  • Tour time: 1.5 hours
  • Gift shop located onsite and online
  • Transportation: The abbey is near the Westminster or St. James tube stops and is within a short walk from sites in Westminster, Whitehall, Buckingham Palace, and Trafalgar Square.
  • Dining options: There is a cafe in the Great Cloisters of the cathedral. Other nearby options include pub grub at Westminster Arms and Italian at Colosseo. Or grab a picnic and settle in Parliament Square for fun people-watching!
  • Nearby hotels: See my London guide for ideas of lodging in London. Hotels in Westminster or County Hall are closest.
  • Nearby attractions include: Houses of Parliament, Jewel Tower, Churchill War Rooms, St. James’s Park, and the London Eye 

Books to Read:

Check out my recommendations for books about London at my Bookshop.org shop (affiliate link). This link supports independent bookstores and creators. 

All images are Amazon affiliate links.

Adults/Young Adults:

Middle Grade:

Picture Books:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s