Searching for Souls at Westminster Abbey, A UNESCO World Heritage Site in London, England

Tourists walk toward a massive pointed arch which is a door at the bottom and an elaborately carved stone surround above and at the sides

Entering the North Door of Westminster Abbey
(Photo credit and copyright Jill Browne)

Why visit Westminster Abbey? Occasionally I go to indulge my private delusions of grandeur. Before I can be crowned Queen of England, approximately a billion people will have to die. Then, when I’m first in line, I’ll follow tradition and have my own Coronation. In the meantime, I can secretly practice my processional walk up the aisle.

Other people’s reasons may differ, though sometimes I suspect we’re on the same wavelength. Is that sweet couple from Milwaukee planning a double crowning? Hmmm. Those two young French girls who’ve broken off from their school group are definitely re-enacting the wedding of Prince William and Miss Middleton. It may not have been the reason they came, but it’s what they’ll talk about tonight.

In Your Bucket Because …

  • Westminster Abbey is an essential part of the Westminster UNESCO World Heritage Site, which includes the Houses of Parliament and St. Margaret’s Church.
  • If you want to worship in one of the world’s great Christian churches, this is an excellent choice, and there are services daily.
  • Tudor fans in particular will enjoy finding the tombs of Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Elizabeth I, and a number of other family members.
  • No photography inside, but it is allowed in the cloisters (for personal use), and the photo opportunities are rich.
  • Good for Anglophiles, history buffs, people interested in churches, monumentary art, architecture. Not recommended for children unless they are truly interested.

Westminster Abbey is on most “Top Ten London Things to See” lists, but so is Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, and it’s a stretch to think these two places have much in common. It does account for one category of visitor, though, the List Checker. When you get home from London, people may ask what you did. Just say you saw Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. Your part of the conversation will be over and you’ll be free to listen to your friends’ opinions about what you should have done instead. Hold fast! Westminster Abbey is on the Top Ten list for several great reasons. You made a brilliant choice by coming here.

Westminster Abbey: The Building

This is architecture with a purpose.

While queuing outside the North Door, you can see the intricate stone carvings of Jesus, angels and apostles. Symbolically, this is the door to Heaven for Christians. I met my first gargoyle here, and I still think of him fondly. What impressed me more was the realization that Westminster Abbey was made by hand, one stone at a time.

A square, solid building with a massive Gothic pointed window, and two square towers on each side of the top. In front is a statue on a tall column.

Westminster Abbey West Towers with St. George on a column in front
(Photo credit and copyright Jill Browne)

The building grew on the site of a Benedictine monastery, a place which may have been sacred to pre-Christians centuries before. King Saint Edward the Confessor rebuilt the monastery in the 11th century, launching the Abbey on a trajectory of historical importance. To see what remains of Edward’s building, visit the Undercroft, and look at the round arches and heavy columns. It takes very little imagination to picture monks quietly going about their daily work and worship.

In contrast, the Gothic church standing today is an architectural spectacle. It was built in the 1200s to the order of King Henry III. Another Henry, King Henry VII, added the Lady Chapel in the early 1500s. Here, distinctive pendants hang from above like so many celestial stalactites.

A dark double door set in the bottom half of a great Gothic arch of yellow-brown stone. The arch is filled with carvings of people.

Carvings above the North Door of Westminster Abbey
(Photo credit and copyright Jill Browne)

I love the graceful stone columns in the 13th-century church. You can follow each column from the floor way up to the fan-vaulted ceiling. Everything seems orderly and connected, but after a while, you can’t really figure out how your visual path got from A to B. Or is that just me? Maybe everyone else finds it an easier pattern to read, but for me it’s like an M.C. Escher drawing.

When the sun is in the right place, rays of colour float down from the giant round rose windows. For a building that gets a million visitors annually, it’s remarkably peaceful and calming.

Being such a fine example of the Gothic style earns the Abbey a place on any heritage list, but its role in the intertwined histories of religion, politics and society is equally important.

The Church of the History of England

We enter via the North Transept, nicknamed Statesmen’s Aisle because of the life-size statues on both sides. Look into the blank marble eyes of Gladstone, Disraeli, and Palmerston. The nineteenth century must have been the heyday of political monumental statuary in England.

In the North Aisle, I start reading the epitaphs right away. They’re everywhere: on statues, busts and plaques, in stained glass windows, and engraved on the tombstones underfoot. William Wilberforce, let’s salute your tireless work to abolish slavery. George Stephenson, thanks for inventing the railroad, and Lord Strathcona, thank you for building one across Canada. Sir Isaac Newton, I have you to thank for physics text books and all the joy they brought. Unlike these well-known people, many of the names in the Abbey are no longer famous, but most visitors will recognize someone as they walk along.

Against the backdrop of the sky, on top of a column, a statue of a man raising a sword to kill a dragon. Supporting him, a king on a throne.

St. George slays the dragon, Westminster Abbey
(Photo credit and copyright Jill Browne)

Here’s the West door, where Prince William and Kate came in to get married. You might stop here at the tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Most people do; it’s one place where almost everyone lingers. Then you’ll turn your back on the door and process up the centre aisle (the Nave), in your own fantasy ceremony. Soon you’ll arrive at the Cosmati Pavement, a stunning tiled floor from 1268, in front of the High Altar. This is where coronations happen.

I will now throw up my hands and tell you honestly that there are too many stories in this place. At the massive General Wolfe sculpture, we could talk about the Plains of Abraham, where the English Wolfe beat the French Montcalm one-nil. Prize: Canada. Then we could duck into the chapel behind and see the bust of Sir John Franklin above a picture of his ship Erebus. It’s trapped in the Arctic ice, vainly seeking the North-West Passage. We can read Tennyson’s poem:

Not here
The white North has thy bones.
And thou, heroic sailor-soul
Art passing on thy happier voyage now
Toward no Earthly pole.

My two examples are from Canada, but there is much more to choose from. Picking a theme and exploring it is one of my favourite Abbey activities. The people remembered here are the musicians, scientists, poets, social reformers, politicians, religious leaders, kings and queens and others who have contributed to making Britain what it now is. Some are actually buried in the Abbey, others are remembered through monuments.

A giant round window made of stone ribs holding sections of stained glass. The glass looks dark from the outside where we are standing.

Rose window above North Door of Westminster Abbey
(Photo credit and copyright Jill Browne)

There are 17 past monarchs of England buried in Westminster Abbey, including several Tudors, though not King Henry VIII. Queen Elizabeth I and her half-sister, Queen Mary I lie together. Elizabeth’s effigy wears regal finery, but there’s no likeness of Mary. Henry VIII’s daughters, a Protestant and a Catholic, demonstrate the bitter politics of religion in their day. Another reminder of historical conflicts is the stone for Oliver Cromwell at the far end of the Lady Chapel. Not a king but a king-killer, Cromwell was buried here in 1659, exhumed in 1661, and his corpse humiliated. The stone here is a 19th-century addition.

The audioguide walking tour of the Abbey finishes at Poets’ Corner, celebrating the importance of literature in British culture. The best epitaph among many great ones must be “O rare Ben Jonson”.

First and foremost, Westminster Abbey is a church in constant use as a place of worship. Visitors are invited to pause and reflect during an hourly prayer, and may join in the daily communion services.

I end my own visit with a long stroll through the cloisters, including a look in at the Chapter House and the Undercroft. I welcome the cup of tea in the Cellarium Cafe, happy to think that I’m sitting where the Westminster counterpart to Brother Cadfael must have sat so many centuries ago.

So, why do people visit Westminster Abbey? It could be a spiritual reason, an interest in history, architecture, the Tudors, or just a general fascination with the mythology of Britain. In one visit, you can satisfy all of these.

Practicalities

  • As with any popular London attraction, try to plan your visit for a less busy time of year or time of day. Don’t fret if you have no choice. There is plenty to see and it’s impossible to see everything, so just relax and take in what you can.
  • The building itself is intriguing and full of details. Stop anywhere and look up. The ceiling is an architectural masterpiece.
  • The most crowded place is the narrow entrance to the chapel where Queen Elizabeth I is entombed. Be patient, your turn will come. Or, pass by and go straight into the Lady Chapel.
  • When you leave the Lady Chapel, you might find the chapels on the South Aisle are less crowded. Some visitors are already running out of steam.
  • After Poet’s Corner, the visitor route goes outside and into the Abbey cloisters. It’s well worth a stroll round here. Have a look at the Chapter House and the Undercroft, each of which reflect another piece of the building’s history.
  • The audioguides are free and available in many languages. There are also guided tours on offer for a fee.
  • There is no admission charge to attend a church service. Check the Abbey’s website for full details on visiting and worship.
  • This is a reasonably wheelchair-accessible building but not entirely. The Abbey’s website has information about accessibility generally.

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