Westminster Abbey has been on my list of places to see for quite some time now, due to it’s links with Tudor and Stuart history; and after I found out that some of my favourite historical monarchs and one great Lady in particular were buried there I knew that the visit had to happen soon. So a date was set and on the very cold morning of 20th October we set off. It had to be the longest journey ever, as the train I had booked was a cheaper alternative to the normal one we get to Waterloo. This one took two and a half hours to get into Victoria and stopped at what seemed like every train station from here to Edinburgh. But when we arrived in Westminster and turned the corner past the Houses of Parliament, the cold and the travel became worth it in an instant.
I was completely astounded by the beauty of the architecture of the abbey, with it’s gorgeous carvings around the doorways, the flying buttresses, the intricate carvings upon the towers. It was just breathtaking and it always amazes me how these huge, beautiful buildings were built all that time ago. But one thing is for sure, long before the impressive monument we see today was built, there was a church on this site for hundreds of years previously. No one knows the exact date when the first church was built but there are many stories from the monks who later claimed the church as a benedictine monastery, as a way of saying their church was older than St Paul’s. Nevertheless, in 960 Dunstan, Bishop of London brought twelve Benedictine monks from Glastonbury to found a monastery at Westminster and 100 years later Edward the Confessor founded a church on the site, and the church was consecrated in 1065. Edward the Confessor died the same year and was buried in the church, which the Bayeux Tapestry depicts – the tapestry also tells us what the abbey looked like at the time.
As you can see in the photograph above, from the national archives, the church had a central tower, pillars and round arches. There is also a weather vane being placed on the roof by a workman showing that the church had just been finished. Archaeological work, which has found the remains of Edward’s church under the floor of the present one, has show that Edward’s church was almost as big as the current one! A shrine for Edward, now known as St Edward the Confessor, was began in the 1200’s and can still be seen today although in a different location. The church kept on being added to and changed through the centuries and the distinctive towers were added in 1745. The abbey we see today also bears the scars of destruction from the English Civil War whereupon Cromwell’s puritan troops ransacked the Abbey and destroyed altars, religious images and even the organ!
When we arrived at the Abbey, we saw that the opening times had changed to 1.30pm. That meant we were very early. Two hours early in fact. So while we waited we took a quick trip into St Margaret’s Church next to the Abbey. This church, although small, was breathtaking. And inside I saw the burial memorial of Sir Walter Raleigh, a man whom had been great friends with Elizabeth I but a man who had been beheaded in 1618 for attacking a Spanish outpost!
After we had a spot of lunch in a small cafe just down the road from the Abbey, we still had some time to wait so ended up sitting on the railings just by the front door. As luck would have it, this is where the queue was to get into the Abbey. This is when the cold really hit! But an hour later, the doors opened and in we went. Regrettably photography is not allowed inside the Abbey, and I’m sure if it had been I would have taken literally thousands of photos of the tombs I had gone there to see as well as the beautiful architecture. Instead I have my little guidebook now which is full of beautiful photographs. When we were in there to start with it was so quiet as we were literally the second people inside and as we made our way to the Henry VII chapel to see those who we had come to see, we were the only people in that part of the Abbey. The first tomb we saw was that of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York and whilst it was such a beautiful monument we couldn’t see too much as it was surrounded by the huge iron bars. It is said that the images of Henry and Elizabeth are as close to real life as they could have been and that, to me, is just astounding.
Next we made our way into the silent side room of the Henry VII chapel and in there I had one hell of a moment. Laying there, in utter silence, was the tomb of Elizabeth I and Mary I. The tomb amazed me, and I won’t lie – I had a bit of a moment as I gazed on the face of the best monarch that this country has ever known. Lying there, next to her half sister Mary, was the body of Anne Boleyn’s daughter. Little was Henry VIII to know that Elizabeth would prove to be the son he had wanted so badly, that she would be the best known monarch this country ever had. There is a beautiful inscription on the floor in front of the tomb imploring people to think of those who had been affected on both sides of the reformation, and it really did make me think. Despite their differences in religion and the pain that Mary put Elizabeth through, they were still together in death. As well as that, above the tomb in Latin is a very prominent and moving inscription: “Partners both in throne and grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of the Resurrection”. Very moving and very thought provoking.
Just over the way in the room where both Mary Queen of Scots and Margaret Beaufort are, is a small slab on the floor. On this slab is the name “King Charles II” and the date “1685”. This simple slab marks the burial place of another of England’s great monarchs. This man, although best known for his many mistresses and his fun loving ways, delivered England from the tyranny of Oliver Cromwell as restored the monarchy to Britain. I found it so sad that this great man, this man whom I have a huge amount of respect for, has nothing more than a slab on the ground whereas in the same room a woman who had been beheaded for “treason” had been given a huge, beautiful tomb. Who knows why poor Charles has nothing, maybe he was too busy having fun to really think about having a tomb made, or maybe there just wasn’t enough money. It defies belief but I did feel incredibly sad as I stood there gazing at this slab, where such a great man and a man who I respect greatly, had been buried. The photo below, found online
, just shows how simply this great man is memorialised.
The last tomb we came specifically to see was the one that had the biggest effect on me, and we stumbled across it completely by chance. I have wanted to see where Anne Stanhope, Duchess of Somerset, was buried for a very long time now and I knew she was inside Westminster. But when we came across her tomb I was blown away by the magnificence of it:
I stood in front of her tomb for what seemed like forever, tears starting to fall as I tentatively reached out and touched the cold marble of her coffin. Laying there was a woman whom I have been fascinated with for a very long time, a woman I have spent time researching and pouring through Tudor books to find any mention of. I have argued that she was not the hellish, evil woman that so many still believe her to be and I have put up with hatred from those who are not prepared to look at other arguments about Anne. Anne Stanhope, Lady Hertford and Duchess of Somerset is such a fascinating character; a woman who loved her husband and went to the Tower with him, a woman who watched her husband die on the scaffold, a woman who tried so hard to protect her son Edward from making the mistake of taking a royal marriage with Katherine Grey, a woman who watched the same son go into the Tower as his father had. Not only that she was a key player in the reformation. She may have hated Katherine Parr, and Katherine may have hated her – the name calling and Anne’s refusal to bear Katherine’s train are stories that are always repeated on both sides – and Anne may have had a thirst for power but at the bottom of everything she was a woman who loved her husband, her children and believed in what she did. This woman, her strength of character, is a source of huge inspiration to me and I often look to Anne if I need strength in my day to day life. I often think “what would Anne do?” and thinking of this amazing woman gets me through. It is my hope to continue my research on her, find out as much as I can and take it forward. I think I owe it to her. It is for these reasons that I stood in front of her tomb in the Abbey for what seemed like forever, the reason I found myself crying, the reason I reached out and touched her (I know, I probably shouldn’t have…but it is the closest I have been to this remarkable woman and I will always remember it). And as I stood there, a woman came up beside me and said to her friend, “This is the grave of the Earl of Hertford”, I turned to her with tears in my eyes and shook my head, “No, this is his wife Anne Stanhope. A remarkable, brave woman”. This lady looked at me as if I were mad, said a small thank you and hurried away. In that moment, I felt as if Anne were there and gave a quick smile of thanks.
After this, we saw so much. We had a look around the museum and saw the wax effigy of Charles II, and went and sat in the beautiful gardens just off the cloisters. These gardens were so peaceful, whilst at this point the Abbey was teaming with people, the gardens were so very quiet. We sat on one of the benches in front of a fountain for a while, just enjoying the quiet before taking a few photographs (they were allowed out here).
It really was a perfect place to sit and think for a while.
After this we finished up our walk around the Abbey with a quick wander back around the first part of the Abbey (fighting through the hundreds of people now there), had a look at the slab marking the burial place of Edward VI (this surprised me, as I had read he was buried in an unmarked grave by his uncle, but I guess that’s what happens when you read history books written in the 1800’s!!) and had one last look at Elizabeth I, Charles and Anne before heading for the exit. And it was at the exit we saw something wonderful, the Coronation chair that every monarch has sat on since 1308. It was on display behind glass as members of staff were undertaking conservation work. Seeing that chair and watching the love and care that was going into the conservation was just breathtaking, and thinking of the hundreds of Royal bottoms that have graced it even more so! And as we left also we stood by the grave of the Unknown Soldier, said a very quiet thankful and made our way outside to the shop and our walk back to the train station.
Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed our trip and saw things that I never thought to have seen, I honestly feel that I won’t revisit the Abbey. It is one of those things that I consider to be once in a life time (at least for now, my mind may change when I eventually have children and want them to see this jewel of England), not least for the price they charged to get in. £16 is very expensive for a couple of hours walking around and you certainly couldn’t spend a whole day there. Although after reading that the Abbey receives no help from the government or Crown I can understand why they charge so much – it must take a lot of money to keep that building running smoothly. I do however recommend visiting the Abbey, and believe that everyone should visit at least once to see the final resting places of so many of this country’s monarchs, as well as site where early every monarch has been crowned and has seen hundreds of Royal Weddings. All in all, a great day out and highly recommended.
Wilkinson J, 2011, Westminster Abbey: A Souvenir Guide, Scala Publishers: London
Gardens & Abbey exterior photographs taken by myself – please do not use without permission
Anne Stanhope’s Tomb, photograph taken by Bernard Gagnon and accessed through Wikimedia Commons
(21st October 2011)