One of the great things about Westminster Abbey is that it is almost impossible to tire of the place. Yes, it can be a bit trying when it’s packed to overflowing with guided tours and hordes of other visitors lost in their audio guides, but then the sunlight will suddenly shine through some upper windows and even a cynical old grump like me will be overcome with the beauty of the place.
And it is constantly surprising. Today I noticed for the first time the floor tomb of Robert Hawle, “murdered in the choir, August 11, 1378”. Wait, what?
As you walk through a passageway that links the cloisters to the Chapter House in Westminster Abbey, you walk past a doorway that is generally lit with a spotlight on a stand. Next to it is a sign: ‘Britain’s Oldest Door’.
If you’ve never been to Westminster Abbey (or it’s ages since you last visited), now is the perfect time to go.
The absence of foreign visitors and coach tours might be hitting some of us in the wallet, but the usually overcrowded cultural attractions – the Tower of London, the British Museum, our other museums and galleries, cathedrals – are suddenly oases of calm. You are unlikely to get this opportunity again, so go visit! You will come away refreshed and uplifted.
Join me for a video tour of Parliament Square courtesy of UKToursOnline. We’ll look into Westminster Hall, catch up with the statues in the Square, discover some of the stories of Parliament and even pay a short visit to the Abbey.
If you should come into the Abbey through the West Door and into the nave, you will walk over the memorial to Sir Winston Churchill, but everyone, whether commoner or Queen, walks around the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
This is the last resting place of a British soldier, “known only to God” and is a commemoration of British war dead, conceived in the aftermath of WW1. The red flowers around it are paper poppies, a symbol of remembrance from a First World War poem – “In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row”. Poppies thrive in ground that has been churned up, so the bombed out land and the grave sites away from the front line encouraged their blooms.
If you ever have a tour of the Houses of Parliament it is in Westminster Hall where you meet your guide. This is the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster, dating back to around 1100 when it was commissioned by William II (William Rufus), the son of the Conqueror.
In this hall, with its magnificent hammerbeam ceiling, kings, queens and commoners have lain in state before their funerals; great trials have taken place, including those of William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, Guy Fawkes, and ‘King and Martyr’, Charles I.
You’ve almost certainly heard of Poets’ Corner, the spot within Westminster Abbey given over to the commemoration of the nation’s authors, poets and playwrights. Amongst dozens of others you’ll find Chaucer’s tomb, plaques to Edward Lear, Wordsworth, D H Lawrence and the Bronte sisters, the graves of Dickens and Browning, a statue of Shakespeare and the bust of Longfellow, windows to the memory of Marlowe, Oscar Wilde and Mrs Gaskell.
But it’s not the only such grouping within the Abbey. There’s ‘musicians’ aisle’, the ‘statesmen’s aisle’ and, in front of the choir screen that divides the nave, ‘scientists’ corner’.
This is the group of graves and memorials centred on the grave and commemorative statue to Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), the eminent scientist of the period. Responsible for advances in mathematics, optics, physics, astronomy; deviser of calculus, laws of motion and gravitational theory, he is one of the towering figures of science. “Hic depositum est, quod mortale fuit Isaaci Newtoni” says the epitaph on the grey marble slab that covers him: “here lies what was mortal of Isaac Newton”. The English translation is repeated on the nearby memorial stone to Stephen Hawking, a successor to Newton as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. Hawking’s ashes were interred in the Abbey in 2018.
Whenever I’m taking Americans around Westminster Abbey, I like to mention that when Columbus stumbled across the Americas, King Edward’s Chair (commonly known as the Coronation Chair) was already nearly 200 years old; when the rebellious colonists laid out their Declaration of Independence, some two dozen monarchs had already sat here to be crowned.
It really is that old – created in 1300/01, used in its first coronation (of Edward II) in 1307. It predates all but one of the objects in the Crown Jewels (the Coronation Spoon), and comes from a time before the concept of ‘Britain’ or a’United Kingdom’ exercised any minds. Elizabeth II sat in it in June 1953, as did Elizabeth I in January 1559. Charles III will be crowned in it, as were Charles I and II; Henry VIII, Richard III, Henry V and most of those other kings you remember from Shakespeare were crowned in it. English history is in its very grain.
It sits in St George’s Chapel to the right of the West Door entrance, behind glass to preserve it and to aid the ongoing conservation works. For a coronation it will be taken out to the central crossing, literally centre stage.