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At Westminster Abbey

May 6, 2023
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.

On the day of my arrival, the living were outnumbered by the 3300 dead interred here 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 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, is now proven 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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10 Responses leave one →
  1. May 6, 2023

    Definitely something of the mausoleum about the place.

  2. May 6, 2023

    A great piece to publish today. The photos are fantastic. The whole building comes across as a massive and strange ongoing collaborative work of art representing the output and activity stemming from ‘the human condition’. Russell Hoban’s novel Ridley Walker gives a similar sense about Canterbury Cathedral set in a distant future, with the person encountering the ruins not knowing why they were built, but sensing the power within.

  3. May 6, 2023

    Westminster Abbey is an incredibly significant place. Alas, my earliest memory of it was being taken round in a tour with my parents as part of a job lot with the Palace of Westminster. I was desperate for the loo but, apparently, there weren’t any. However, I did not disgrace myself but the experience is forever ingrained in my memory as an uncomfortable one! P.s. we have King John here in Worcester cathedral – definitely worth a visit!

  4. May 6, 2023

    Long live KING CHARLES III !

    Love & Peace

  5. Cherub permalink
    May 6, 2023

    How beautiful it all looked today, my heart was singing.

    God Save The King!

  6. May 6, 2023

    A terrific photo-essay! It’s so easy to become overwhelmed at Westminster Abbey, in the face of all those memorials from centuries past. Imagine if all those statues could become animated at night. What would they talk about amongst themselves?!

  7. Rosa permalink
    May 7, 2023

    I love this piece
    & the photos are incredible
    capturing some STRANGENESS of british culture.

    We are so ready for change.

    May this king be our last.

  8. May 8, 2023

    Totally late in posting this. I am over here, in the Hudson River Valley, presenting a 3-day art workshop, but am keeping one eye ball on the Coronation. Wishing you all well, and hoping that
    that the modern age provides wisdom and reflection on what to leave in and what to leave out,
    going forward. Sometimes we all find ourselves at a pivot point, when the traditions of an earlier age seem to want to tilt and change. Maybe the monarchy is at that point? Not sure — Only
    YOU, the populace, will decide. Over here, we are having our own struggles. But –
    no matter what – onward and upward. We will abide.

    Throwing roses your way.

  9. John Cunningham permalink
    May 12, 2023

    I visited Westminster Abbey several times as a child and once in my twenties back in the 1970s. As with all churches at the time one could just wander in at will. I always found it both touching and awe inspiring. Last year when in London, I thought I would make another visit but was very disappointed to be informed that it now costs eighteen pounds to enter. Greedy commercialism has no bounds…

  10. Steve Sz permalink
    May 13, 2023

    The Abbey was closed to prepare for the Coronation on my last visit to London. However, I did manage to get on gentle author’s April tour of Spitalfields, and that was excellent. I recommend it to you all.

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