Westminster Abbey

Top choice church in The West End

Image by Will Jones Lonely Planet

A splendid mixture of architectural styles, Westminster Abbey is considered the finest example of Early English Gothic (1190–1300). It's not merely a beautiful place of worship – the Abbey also serves up the country's history cold on slabs of stone. For centuries, the country's greatest have been interred here, including 17 monarchs from Henry III (died 1272) to George II (1760). Never a cathedral (the seat of a bishop), Westminster Abbey is what is called a 'royal peculiar', administered by the Crown.

Every monarch since William the Conqueror has been crowned here, with the exception of a couple of unlucky Eds who were either murdered (Edward V) or abdicated (Edward VIII) before the magic moment.

At the heart of the Abbey is the beautifully tiled sanctuary (sacrarium), a stage for coronations, royal weddings and funerals. George Gilbert Scott designed the ornate high altar in 1873. In front of the altar is the Cosmati marble pavement dating to 1268. It has intricate designs of small pieces of marble inlaid into plain marble, which predict the end of the world (in AD 19,693!). At the entrance to the lovely Chapel of St John the Baptist is a sublime alabaster Virgin and Child bathed in candlelight.

The most sacred spot in the Abbey, the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, lies behind the main altar; access is restricted to several prayer meetings daily to protect the 13th-century flooring. St Edward was the founder of the Abbey and the original building was consecrated a few weeks before his death. His tomb was slightly altered after the original was destroyed during the Reformation but still contains Edward’s remains – the only complete saint's body in Britain. Ninety-minute verger-led tours (£5 plus admission) of the Abbey include a visit to the shrine.

The quire (choir), a space of gold, blue and red Victorian Gothic by Edward Blore, dates back to the mid-19th century. It sits where the original choir for the monks' worship would have been but bears little resemblance to the original. Nowadays, the quire is still used for singing, but its regular occupants are the Westminster Choir – 22 boys and 12 ‘lay vicars’ (men) who sing the daily services and evensong (5pm weekdays, 3pm weekends).

Henry III began work on the new building in 1245 but didn't complete it; the Gothic nave was finished under Richard II in 1388. Henry VII's magnificent Perpendicular Gothic-style Lady Chapel was consecrated in 1519 after 16 years of construction.

At the west end of the nave near the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, killed in WWI in northern France and laid to rest here in 1920, is St George's Chapel, which contains the rather ordinary-looking Coronation Chair, upon which every monarch since the early 14th century has been crowned (apart from joint-monarchs Mary II and William III, who had their own chairs fashioned for the event).

Apart from the royal graves, keep an eye out for the many famous commoners interred here, especially in Poets' Corner, where you'll find the resting places of Chaucer, Dickens, Hardy, Tennyson, Dr Johnson and Kipling, as well as memorials to the other greats (Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Brontës etc). Nearby you'll find the graves of Handel and Sir Isaac Newton.

The octagonal Chapter House dates from the 1250s and was where the monks would meet for daily prayer and their job assignments before Henry VIII's suppression of the monasteries some three centuries later. To the right of the entrance to Chapter House is what is claimed to be the oldest door in Britain – it’s been there since the 1050s. Used as a treasury and 'Royal Wardrobe', the cryptlike Pyx Chamber dates from about 1070, though the Altar of St Dunstan within it is even older.

Parts of the Abbey complex are free to visitors. This includes the Cloister and the 900-year-old College Garden. Adjacent to the abbey is St Margaret's Church, the House of Commons' place of worship since 1614, where windows commemorate churchgoers Caxton and Milton, and Sir Walter Raleigh is buried by the altar.

Completed in 2018, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries are a new museum and gallery space located in the medieval triforium, the arched gallery above the nave. Among its exhibits are the death masks of generations of royalty, wax effigies representing Charles II and William III (who is on a stool to make him as tall as his wife, Mary II), armour and stained glass. Highlights are the graffiti-inscribed Mary Chair (used for the coronation of Mary II) and the Westminster Retable, England's oldest altarpiece, from the 13th century.


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