Exploring London's Historic Westminster Abbey: A Visitor's Guide
A church dedicated to St Peter is said to have stood on the site of Westminster Abbey as early as the 7th century and was given its name to distinguish it from the "Eastminster", St Mary-of-the-Graces. Officially known as the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster, Westminster Abbey was founded by Edward the Confessor in 1065 as his place of interment. Since then, and until the death of George II in 1760, most British sovereigns were buried here, along with some 3,000 prominent national figures.
Westminster Abbey is also where most British monarchs have been crowned, and where many of them were married. This masterpiece of Gothic architecture not only has the highest Gothic nave in England (102 ft), it's also one of London's most popular tourist attractions, drawing more than a million visitors each year.
The Nave's Many Memorials
You'll find many of the Abbey's 600-plus memorials in the Nave. One of the first you'll see is in St George's Chapel, formerly the Baptistery, and dedicated to those who fell in WWI (there's also a memorial to US President Franklin D Roosevelt). Also of note is the 14th century portrait of Richard II, the oldest surviving portrait of an English monarch. Other items to see here include a tablet commemorating Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement; the Abbot's Pew, a small oak gallery erected in the 16th century; a collection of 18th century busts of British officers; memorials to Methodist John Wesley; the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior; and a memorial stone dedicated to Winston Churchill.
Poet's Corner: The Transepts
The North Transept of Westminster Abbey includes the tombstone of William Gladstone (it's near the memorial to Sir Robert Peel), as well as numerous others. The east aisle is occupied by three chapels containing tombs of people of note from the 18th and 19th centuries, while the south and east walls are lined with statues of poets and is known as Poets' Corner. Some of the poets and writers commemorated here include Sir Walter Scott, William Shakespeare, John Dryden, Geoffrey Chaucer, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Robert Burns, Charles Dickens, Lord Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling and T S Eliot.
Quire and Sanctuary
Westminster Abbey's Choir (or "Quire") occupies the same position as that of Edward the Confessor's earlier church and extends across the Transept into the Nave. The Sanctuary where coronations take place has an exquisite mosaic pavement brought to London in 1268 from Rome. On the left are three particularly beautiful 13th century medieval tombs belonging to Edmund Crouchback (founder of the house of Lancaster), Aymer de Valence (Earl of Pembroke), and Crouchback's wife, Aveline.
In the Ambulatory is the marble monument to General Wolfe, who fell at Quebec in 1759, and on the High Altar are a glass mosaic of the Last Supper by Salviati and fine sculptured figures.
Royal Chapels and Tombs
Almost a church in itself, the magnificent 16th century Chapel of Henry VII is a superb example of late Perpendicular architecture with a profusion of rich sculptured decoration and beautiful fan vaulting. It contains the tomb of Henry VII and his Queen, above which can be seen banners and the carved stalls of the Knights of the Order of the Bath. Nearby is Innocents Corner, the burial place of Sophie and Mary, daughters of James I (just three- and two-years old when they died), and a small sarcophagus with the remains of the sons of Edward IV murdered in the Tower of London.
Other notable items include the royal tombs of Elizabeth I and her predecessor Mary Tudor, the Royal Air Force Chapel dedicated to the fallen in the Battle of Britain, and the tombs of Charles II, William II and Queen Anne. Also of interest is the Henry V Chantry Chapel with its recumbent effigy of the King together with a saddle, helmet and shield, thought to be those used at the Battle of Agincourt (the king's head was stolen during the reign of Henry VIII).
The cloisters date from the 13th and 14th centuries and contain many tombs. The southwest corner of the cloisters leads to Dean's Yard and the College Garden, said to be the oldest in England, and the rooms to the west of the cloisters include the Deanery, Jericho Parlor, and the Jerusalem Chamber in which Henry IV died in 1413.
The Chapter House
The Chapter House was the meeting place of the King's Great Council in 1257 and of Parliament from the mid-14th to the mid-16th centuries. It's an octagonal chamber 60 ft across, its vaulting supported on a single pier of clustered shafts. Other notable features are a Roman sarcophagus, the well-preserved 13th century pavement, ornamental tracery of the six windows and the circular tympanum of the doorway with figures of Christ in Majesty, the Virgin and angels.
The Pyx Chamber
The Pyx Chamber, originally a sacristy in Edward the Confessor's church, contains the oldest altar in Westminster Abbey. It later became a royal treasury in which was kept the "pyx", a chest containing the trial-plates of gold and silver used in the annual test of the coinage. Two large rectangular chests dating from the 13th and 14th centuries survive.
St Edward's Chapel
Constructed on the Apse of the older church, St Edward's Chapel contains the wooden shrine of Edward the Confessor. Built to the orders of Henry III and for a long time a place of pilgrimage, it includes tombs belonging to Henry III with its rich mosaic decoration, Queen Eleanor (first wife of Edward I) with an inscription in old French, Philippa (the wife of Edward III) and Edward III himself.
The Coronation Chair and Scotland's Stone of Scone
Against the back wall of the St Edward's Chapel sanctuary stands the old oak Coronation Chair of Edward I, below which can be seen the Stone of Scone. This block of sandstone from the west coast of Scotland represents the power of the Scottish princes, and is believed to have been Jacob's pillow on which rested the head of the dying St Columba. Edward I brought the stone to London in 1296 as a sign of the defeat of the Scots, and many English monarchs have since been crowned on it. The new Coronation Chair made in 1689 is also on display, as is the Sword of State and the shield of Edward III.
The Chapels of the South Ambulatory
The first chapel in the South Ambulatory is dedicated to St Nicholas and contains the marble tomb of Sir George Villiers (Duke of Buckingham) and his wife, as well as that of Catherine of Valois, wife of Henry V. Among the monuments is one to Elizabeth, Duchess of Northumberland (d 1776), a masterpiece by Robert Adam and Nicholas Read. Outstanding among the many tombs in the Chapel of St Edmund is that of William de Valence, Earl of Pembroke and half-brother of Henry III, killed in battle at Bayonne in 1296 (the effigy is covered with gilded copper plates and decorated with Limoges enamel). The Chapel of St Benedict contains, among others, the marble tomb of Simon Langham (d 1376), Abbot of Westminster and Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Westminster Abbey Museum is located in the vaulted undercroft beneath the former Monks' Dormitory, one of the oldest areas of the Abbey dating from the foundation of the original church in 1065. In its collection are old seals and charters, 14th and 15th century chests and the coronation chair of Mary II. There's also an unusual collection of wax effigies once displayed at funerals, including the figures of Charles II, Elizabeth I, Mary II, William III, the Duke of Buckingham, and Lord Nelson. The wooden figure of Edward III is the oldest wooden effigy of a monarch in Europe. Fun stuff for kids includes the chance to dress up like monks.
The Abbey Gardens
Three of the Abbey's original gardens can still be enjoyed. The Garth, notable for its square of turf, is bounded by the Cloisters and is where the monks would walk as they prayed. The Little Cloister Garden contains a lovely fountain, borders of scented plants, and was where the monks would recuperate when ill. The 900-year-old College Garden was used to grow medicinal herbs and foods.
Touring Westminster Abbey
A variety of tour options are available including audio guides (free with admission) and popular verger-led tours (£3). These excellent 90-minute guided tours begin at the North Door and include the Shrine and the tomb of St Edward the Confessor, the Cloisters, the Royal Tombs, Poets' Corner and the Nave (Mon-Fri, 10am, 10:30am, 11am, and 2pm, 2:30pm; Sat, 10am, 10:30am and 11am). The audio tours include commentary by actor Jeremy Irons and provide useful information regarding the history of the Abbey (duration 60 minutes, available from the Information Desk). An interesting alternative is the Parish Prayer Pilgrimage (Wed, 6:15pm), a unique one-hour tour that shares a little of the Abbey's history as well as prayers at some of its most sacred sites.
Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Westminster Abbey
The following Tips and Tactics will help ensure you get the most from your Westminster Abbey experience:
- Closures: Be sure to check the Abbey's website for opening times and any scheduled closures.
- Photography: Filming and photography is not permitted.
- Dress Code: This is a place of worship, so dress accordingly (nothing revealing for women, and men must wear shirts) - and don't be surprised if you're asked to take off your hat.
- Security: Large items are not permitted inside the Abbey and can be deposited at left luggage facilities in nearby Charing Cross and Victoria train stations.
- Shopping: A small gift shop is located near the west door and sells related souvenirs and books.
- Services: The public is welcome to attend Sunday services.
- Kids: A fun "Children's Trail" is available free of charge from the Information Desk.
- Food and Drink: The Cellarium Café - aptly located in the Abbey's original food storage cellar - provides breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea (a terrace and outdoor seating is available). A food kiosk serving snacks and beverages is located in the Sanctuary (food isn't allowed elsewhere in the Abbey.)
Getting to Westminster Abbey
- By Underground (Tube): The nearest underground station is Westminster, served by the Jubilee, District and Circle lines.
- By Train: The nearest train stations are Victoria, Waterloo and Charing Cross. For details of links to London from across the country, visit www.nationalrail.co.uk.
- By Bus: Numerous public buses stop nearby.
- By Road: Westminster Abbey's location in the heart of London makes getting here by car very difficult (it's also within the Congestion Charge zone, meaning charges apply). If you must drive, park at an outlying train station and take the train or underground.
- Parking: No on-site or on-street parking is available.
- The Abbey - Mon-Sat, times vary
- The Museum - Daily, 10:30am-4pm
- Abbey and Museum: Adults, £18; Children (11-18), £8; Child (under 11), free; Families, £36 (2 adults, 1 child), £44 (2 adults, 2 children)
- The Chapter Office, Westminster Abbey, 20 Dean's Yard, London
Given its central location, Westminster Abbey is an excellent place to start your London adventure. It's right next door to the Houses of Parliament, the seat of British power, as well as mighty Big Ben and other important government institutions. Other related attractions include the Jewel Tower, one of the few surviving remnants of the medieval Palace of Westminster and now run by English Heritage as a museum; St Margaret's Church, the parish church of the House of Commons and the scene of many fashionable weddings; and the Horse Guards Parade with its many fine old buildings, including the Admiralty. Another relic of the old palace is the Banqueting House, once home to Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell, both of whom died here.
Also close by is famous Downing Street, where you'll find #10, the official residence of the Prime Minister, and Churchill's Cabinet War Rooms. That other famous seat of power, Buckingham Palace, is also not too far away, as is Westminster Cathedral, England's largest Roman Catholic place of worship. And after all that sightseeing, there's plenty of great shopping and dining along Regent Street, The Strand and Covent Garden, as well as pleasant walks along the River Thames.