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At Westminster Abbey

August 22, 2021
by the gentle author

The past is a cluttered and shadowy place, filled with wonders we do not know and things that we choose to forget. These were my thoughts on visiting Westminster Abbey for the first time in many years, taking the unique opportunity of the absence of tourists to explore an old haunt that is otherwise inaccessible without crowds.

Certainly on the day of my arrival, the living were outnumbered by the 3300 dead yet, more than this, the over 300 statuary easily outnumbered the animated souls in the Abbey too. It is hard not to get overwhelmed by the weight of history in a place of such dense and heavy significance as this. Greater than the sense of a vast contained space is the feeling of how narrow and gloomy it is, and how crowded with tombs and memorials, like a great skull crowded with too many memories and not all of them good ones.

It is the nature of the place and of our history that this is literally a shrine to imperialism. Confronted with bombastic statues of those who subjugated the world, it was my great relief to discover Thomas Fowell Buxton, brewer and abolitionist, sitting quietly on a chair for eternity as if he were waiting to greet me. And just a few feet away sat William Wilberforce, also approachable in an armchair, by contrast with those colonial ‘heroes’ asserting their bellicose virility upright on plinths.

The myth of the abbey’s origin is that fisherman had a vision of St Peter while fishing near Thorn Island on the Thames in the seventh century and founded a church on the site. But the recorded origins of the abbey lie with our own St Dunstan of Stepney who installed a community of Benedictine monks here around 970.

Of particular fascination for me is the Cosmati Pavement laid down by Islamic craftsmen in 1268 for Henry III at the centre of the abbey. This intricate mystical design of interwoven circles composed of coloured mineral stones is believed to be a symbolic map of the cosmos – the primum mobile – and it is at the centre of this pavement that every monarch has been crowned since 1066.

Perhaps the most magical part of the abbey are the ancient battered tombs of the early English kings, such as Henry V and Richard II, personalities whom we feel we know thanks to William Shakespeare. Once you reach the east end of the old abbey, steps ascend to Henry VII’s Lady Chapel. You enter the light of a renaissance chapel from the gloom of the medieval abbey and the astonishing geometric detail of the fan vaulting high overhead takes your breath away.

Even as they were rivals in life, it is surprising to discover that Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are both memorialised here in shrines of apparent equal status, each in a separate side chapel set apart diplomatically at distance on either side of the main space.

It is impossible not to be moved by the worn stones under your feet, smoothed by the tread of our innumerable forebears through centuries and the poignant multiplicity of tombs and effigies, striving so hard to win eternal remembrance for those who are now entirely forgotten.

I must confess to unease about the selection of writers honoured in Poets’ Corner which to my eyes appears as remarkable for the omissions as much as for those who are included. I have not been here since I attended the inauguration of a plaque for John Clare in 1993. On this recent visit, it delighted me more to visit the tomb of a favourite writer, Aphra Behn, the first woman to earn her living by the pen, in the cloister. Even if the inscription ‘Here lies a proof that wit can never be / proof enough against immortality’ is less than generous and, thankfully, now proved incorrect.

William Wilberforce

Cosmological Pavement

The Coronation Chair

Tomb of Henry V

Henry VII’s Lady Chapel

Poets’ Corner

Tomb of Aphra Behn in the cloister

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13 Responses leave one →
  1. August 22, 2021

    Gorgeous photos, and I loved “like a great skull crowded with too many memories and not all of them good ones”.

  2. Bernie permalink
    August 22, 2021

    Thank you for this item. It is many years since I was footloose and fancy-free in London and able to visit the Abbey. Now, pleased though I am to see your images, I am filled with foreboding lest there should be another “Notre Dame”. Malign spirits have been let loose in our community and I fear for the future of such ancient monuments. Let all that can be done be done in advance to protect them!

  3. Susan permalink
    August 23, 2021

    Thank you so much for this column, and for the comment that “It is the nature of the place and of our history that this is literally a shrine to imperialism”. I find all the tombs and monuments to now-obscure military figures to be rather oppressive, and I cannot imagine how meaningless they must be to the vast majority of tourists who shuffle by them each day.

    In my own case, I view Westminster Abbey in two lights. One, it is a major centre of religion, and so I have attended services there, including a Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, which was very moving. It is also the place where several of my distant ancestors are buried. (Long story short: I have a “gateway ancestor” among the early Puritan community in the US, and so am able to trace that particular lineage very far back.) I wish I had been able to touch the tomb of Edward I (who is one of my 22nd great-grandfathers). I find its stark simplicity so poignant, especially in light of the many other way-over-the-top tombs in the Abbey.

  4. Jill permalink
    August 23, 2021

    Thank you, I always learn something from your stories. Aphra Behn was a name I didn’t know.

  5. Leana Pooley permalink
    August 23, 2021

    A very interesting piece written by someone who I think could be a suitable candidate eventually for Poets’ Corner!

  6. August 23, 2021

    Once again, a new and startling impression and standard, and the bar is raised. Many thanks, these are wonderful.

    I know the Abbey intimately (perhaps more than most, having built the model*) but these fotos are striking, and penetrating too.

    When studying the drawings and the building so exhaustively, you gain a closer understanding, one not as apparent otherwise.

    * built to show the interested parties what the Abbey exterior would look like with its new triforium tower, made to allow visitors up into the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries

  7. Linda Granfield permalink
    August 23, 2021

    A lovely tint on these wonderful photographs! And an interesting ramble through the stone paths of the Cathedral.
    Thank you for reminding us of Aphra Behn. In university I studied her work; haven’t read any since. It’s time to re-visit the splendid A.B. on the page.
    And yes, yes, to a spot being reserved for a certain G.A., superlative historian of London. (No hurry, though, getting there!)

  8. August 23, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for your reflections and dramatic photos of Westminster Abbey’s interior. You mention that the place is “literally a shrine to imperialism.” I would like to mention one who was given an elaborate send-off in the Abbey, but declined to be buried there – GEORGE PEABODY (1795-1869), an American financier and philanthropist. His benefactions to the poor of London in the form of early public housing endeared his to the royal family.

    Peabody’s remains were returned to his home town near Salem, Massachusetts aboard the HMS Monarch, in a cortege that included the Queen Victoria’s son Prince Arthur. The event was the subject of international news.

    However, on the actual day of the interment in mid February, an untoward event occurred – a devastating New England blizzard raged and sent many of the dignitaries, in full regalia, scrambling for cover in local New England farmhouses. Peabody still rests in Harmony Grove Cemetery in Salem. His statue by William Wetmore Story still sits in front of the Royal Exchange in London.

  9. Guillaume permalink
    August 23, 2021

    Ditto Janet’s appreciation of “like a great skull crowded with too many memories and not all of them good ones”. I hope you copyright your blog, that’s too priceless to let out into the world to be claimed by others!

    In January of 2001, I flew to London, and after arriving at my hotel, and having no idea where to go, I hailed a cab and asked the man if he was planning on riding to Westminster Abbey. He was. So I rode with him. Nice man.

    Back then, of course, one could wander at will through the place, and I spent an entire jet-lagged day there. What a place to dazedly stumble around in! I had no previous conception of the place as a congeries of mortuary splendor larded through with overwhelming self-regard. It was magnificence!

    As I said, people could wander at will. I found myself in a corridor; set into its ancient wall an ancient door with a newish sign telling me I could ring a bell and gain admittance if I had a question about the Abbey. They weren’t kidding, either.

    A resounding click, and I pushed through and found myself in a room of gloomth, surrounded by towering stacks containing impressively innumerable antique tomes. In a corner, a spiralling staircase lead upwards.

    I doubt my arthritis would allow my ascent today, but then I was not too far removed from my youth, and very quickly I found myself at a door which opened at my knock.

    What did I find? A series of the loveliest low rooms, rooms which have forever, I imagine, been dedicated to scholarship and research. They had windows that let out upon the greenery of a secret cloister. The windows were set with the most charming glass, relics of the far-away day they were installed. Undulating, hypnotic substance. I tell you, I am a real queer for old glass.

    Well, I couldn’t stand and gape. The modern equipment and the general hum of activity told me the people had a job to do. And I had a question to ask, and standing before me was a dignified man who was there to answer me.

    It was a question regarding a bit of history from my neck of the woods: Does the Abbey contain the wooden case assembled in 1821 to transport the sarcophagus of Major John Andre from Tappan, New York to England, at the behest of the then Duke of York? Said case, according to local legend, was fabricated by a man from my hometown.

    I was told that the Abbey did indeed have the box, and it would soon be displayed in its triforium, which was currently closed. The man showed me a picture of it; it was handsomely inscribed. I asked if it carried tack holes, possible remnants of how it once looked; the man looked a bit confused, and said no; I explained that his testimony put paid to a part of the legend, namely that the case had been arrayed with a lavish upholstery of crimson velvet. A local yokel expansion on the plain and somber truth, for which I now apologize.

    I thanked the man. I knew I could not linger. I departed, to continue my wandering amid eldritch pomp. Such a place.

    Long-winded, my comment, Gentle Author. My apologies. My memories have been sparked by your evocative post. Perhaps soon you might present us with your thoughts on Sir John Soane’s Museum? Another remarkable locus of wonder.

  10. Kelly permalink
    August 23, 2021

    Fascinating! Thanks for this..can’t travel from Canada so this allows me to be an armchair traveller in my favourite city!

  11. Debra Matheney permalink
    August 23, 2021

    Back in the 70’s the abbey was open at night and had few visitors. I was able to wander around practically alone. I have visited the abbey since but that night time visit was the best. Thank you for reminding me of that experience.

  12. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    August 24, 2021

    One could spend every day for a year in Westminster Abbey and easily see something new every day. It is so easy to become overwhelmed by the riot of decoration, in all its styles, patterns and textures; I enjoy your photos greatly because you let me see with your discerning eye!

    You show me things I might otherwise miss, such as the insouciant gentleman lolling above the Coronation Chair; the sixteenth-century lady attempting to recline in a farthingale, observed by a slouching eighteenth-century Siren; and the bored lion, who has seen hundreds of millions of humans come and go.

    It is an Old Curiousity Shop of statuary, all jumbled together for eternity (or how ever long eternity might be on earth). It makes me chuckle at the prospect of arriving in Heaven and being assigned a niche that is already occupied by a Crusader, an abolitionist, a putti, and a stone hound.

    There is poignancy here, too, though. Each of these people lived their lives as best they could, dealt with their problems much the same way we do, and knelt before their God in supplication (regardless, or perhaps as a result of, whatever misdeeds they might have got up to that day).

    Thank you, G.A.

  13. September 2, 2021

    Interesting photographs. It has been many years since I was inside the Abbey. Would like to revisit, but my heart sinks when I see long queues into most places of interest in London these days.

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