Westminster Abbey in London – briefly about the main things

Westminster Abbey in London: description, interesting facts

The most famous temple of London and the hallmark of Great Britain is Westminster Abbey. It is probably the most popular attraction of the kingdom. St. Peter’s Church, as the abbey is also called, is the best example of early English Gothic architecture, a symbol of the British nation and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It holds all the major celebrations of royal life: coronations, weddings and funerals. This unique architectural structure grabs the eye not only because of its huge size, but also because of its grandiose appearance. If there is a place in Britain which embodies British history it is undoubtedly St. Peter’s Cathedral Church in Westminster.

Historical background

North entrance to Westminster Abbey

The history of Westminster Abbey goes back to the seventh century AD – that’s when the first Benedictine church was erected, according to manuscript documents. Since its appearance, it has undergone many changes. It is no exaggeration to say that the church has spent most of its life in a state of reconstruction. The first change came more than three centuries later. At that time the area was still called Thorney’s Island. It was not until some time later, when the influence of the abbey became greater, that the area was renamed West Minster, which means “west church.”

So, the first significant expansion dates back to 960. It took place on the initiative of St. Dunstan, with the support of King Edgar. But the founder of Westminster Abbey in London is generally regarded as Edward the Confessor. He, settling in the palace of the same name nearby, decided to undertake the rebuilding of the church. This happened in 1042. Only 23 years later, not long before Edward’s death, it was consecrated, but construction was finished much later, in 1090. Only the round arches and supporting columns have survived.

If we believe the records of the abbey, the first royal crowned here was Harold II. That same year, 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned here after his victory at the Battle of Hastings. Since then, all the monarchs of England and later Britain have been crowned in the abbey.

All that remains of the old structure are the passages to the dormitory and the chapel, designed in the shape of a cross, whose main purpose was coronation and sepulchral. Everything else in the exterior and interior of Westminster Abbey was altered and rebuilt. The work began in 1245. The initiator of the “great rebuilding” was Henry III. He ordered to build a building in the Gothic style, which would be a place for divine services, coronations, as well as burials of monarchs. The church was consecrated in the fall of 1269, but only a small part of the project was realized at that time.

A little more than a century later, the architect Henry Yevel built the Abbot’s House, the nave and the west cloister. Under his direction, the tombs of Kings Edward III and Richard II of England were created. In the early 1500s, Henry VII completed the Chapel of Our Lady, and in 1539, under Henry VIII, the abbey received the status of a cathedral and was subordinate to the monarch of England. In the 1700s, the Western Towers were completed. Subsequently, the abbey was only restored. The first time was in the nineteenth century, and the second time was after the May 1941 bombing, when the structure was badly broken up.

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Description of Westminster Abbey

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey

It’s impossible to walk past this magnificent architectural structure – it’s eye-catching and compelling to admire, for it’s a truly grandiose project. Erected in the early English Gothic style, St. Peter’s Church with its two towers displays numerous openwork arches and incredibly beautiful stained glass windows. The main building, as mentioned above, is designed in the shape of a cross. The main entrance is on the north side. Once inside and turning left, visitors find themselves in the eastern part where there are several chapels. In the southern part is the Poets’ Corner and a huge circular window with an image of the eleven apostles.

The abbey is actually huge. The length from the large west door to the end of the Chapel of Our Lady is more than 160 m and the West Towers are almost 70 m high. The total area of the structure is approximately 3,000 square meters. The Abbey can accommodate about 2,000 people at one time.

The nave and altar of the abbey

Westminster Abbey nave

The nave of Westminster Abbey in London is considered the highest on the territory of England – 31 m. This was achieved through the use of external arches designed by Henry Yevel. In the west window there is a stained-glass window depicting Isaac, Abraham, Jacob and the 14 prophets. In 1920, the tomb of the Unknown Warrior was placed beneath the stained glass window.

Decorating the nave are crystal chandeliers given to the abbey by the Guinness family in 1965. In the mid-1990s, 2 Russian icons appeared in the temple at once, the author of which is S. Fedorov. In the second half of the 1990s, a memorial stone was laid in the nave in front of the Great West Door. It is dedicated to innocent victims of repression, violence and war.

The altar of the abbey is lined with mosaics on the theme of “The Last Supper.” It is accessed by a floor paved with marble in the Cosmatesco technique from the 13th century.

Poets’ Corner at Westminster

Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey

Part of the Abbey is a necropolis with the largest number of burials of famous people in England – over 3,300. Poets’ Corner is located in the southern transept, and is, by the way, much more interesting for tourists and locals than the royal tombstones. The fact is that in the early XVIII century, it became a pantheon of the now world-famous artists. The first person to be buried here was Geoffrey Chaucer. Later Robert Burns, Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Martin Luther King Jr., Charles Darwin, Edmund Spencer, Henry Irving, Rudyard Kippling as well as the politician Neville Chamberlain and many others found their rest here.

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Chapel of Our Lady (or Henry VII) and St. Margaret’s Church

The Chapel of Our Lady bears the name of Henry VII because it was built during his reign and on his initiative. The structure that can be seen today on the grounds of Westminster Abbey was erected between 1503 and 1519. The chapel is 23 m by 24 m in size and its architectural feature is the vault, which is 20 m high. It is decorated with fan-shaped ribs from which hang various decorative elements typical of the English Gothic style.

The Church of St. Margaret is somewhat separate from the main church. It was built for the townspeople, as Westminster could previously be visited only by monks. The church, like the other structures, was built in the Gothic style. Even after restorations, it was able to maintain its original appearance.

Westminster Cathedral

If you move southwest from the abbey along Victoria Street, you can see the magnificent neo-Byzantine style cathedral of Westminster Abbey. It is one of London’s most impressive temples and a monument to the Victorian era. The structure is literally assembled from more than 12 million red bricks crosscut with Portland stone. Construction of the cathedral began in 1895. It has an 84-meter-high bell tower, which is raised by an elevator. The interior is still unfinished, but that doesn’t stop tourists and locals from enjoying the rich, exquisite decoration of the interior, which includes chapels made from hundreds of types of marble imported from around the world.

The cathedral dominates the whole of Westminster primarily because of its unusual style for England and the highest Campanile. The mosaics adorning the walls are also unusual. The cathedral houses a statue of the Virgin Mary with Child, dating back to the 15th century. Every Sunday there is an organ concert.

Secrets and interesting facts of Westminster Abbey

Britain's oldest door

Like any other ancient structure, Westminster keeps many interesting secrets and mysteries within its walls. For example, since the 14th century there has been a treasury in the basement, preserved even after numerous restorations. Now it houses a library. In the past, the treasury was in the former bedchambers of monks, the most difficult and protected underground cave with only one exit. In those ancient times it housed all the treasures of the state. Few can resist such wealth, so it is not surprising that the abbot created a whole organized group of 48 monks, who gradually removed the gold, stones and other jewels. Edward I, then reigning, was busy suppressing the Scottish rebellion of 1303, so the losses were not immediately noticed. But when the king found out what had been done, he punished the culprits harshly. It is said that a merchant, who sold wool and helped to sell the king’s treasury, was skinned and the very door to the treasury was lined with it. However, the skin was found to be that of a cow and not human skin.

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On the east side of the cloister is now the Westminster Abbey Museum. Unfortunately, it holds far fewer valuable objects than it could have. After the Nazi bombings, ancient scrolls, books, documents and other items of historical value to the country were saved. However, some of the art objects and beautiful tombstones could not be saved – they were severely damaged by the bombings.

The Tomb of Queen Elizabeth I in Westminster Abbey

Interestingly, the abbey gradually became a huge necropolis. It is not known for certain how many burials there are. Nor is it known what principle or criteria are used to determine whether or not an artist has the honor of being buried here. After all, many equally famous Britons have been buried elsewhere. By the way, in addition to burials, there are memorial tablets with the names of famous personalities. Among them are Walter Scott, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde. As for the royalty, all the rulers of England, including Queens Elizabeth and Victoria, have found rest here. The abbey also contains the burial of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, the older sister of the wife of Nicholas II.

Since Westminster Abbey in Great Britain is where all royalty are coronated, it is worthwhile to say what conditions this takes place in. For the coronation, an ancient chair of the English monarchs, which has been kept here for six centuries, is used. Under its seat is “hidden” the main relic of the history of England – the Stone of Destiny, which is believed to have served as a headstone for the patriarch Jacob. The last time Queen Elizabeth II was in the coronation chair (in 1953).

Useful information

Crowning Chair in Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey is a treasury, containing a large number of rare tapestries and church utensils, beautiful fabrics, as well as masterpieces of painting, applied and monumental art. It is an iconic structure that is a must-see during a visit to the United Kingdom. The Abbey is open Monday through Saturday. You can also come here on Sunday, but not for a tour, but to attend a service. A regular tour ticket will cost 20 British pounds, a concessionary ticket 17, and a children’s ticket 9. There are also family tickets for two parents and one or two children, which cost 40 and 45 British pounds, respectively.

Westminster Abbey in London – briefly about the main things

It’s not hard to guess where Westminster Abbey is located. This magnificent Gothic church stands in Westminster (as one of London’s oldest boroughs is called), just west of the equally famous Palace of Westminster. Anyone living in London can easily explain to you how to get to this truly monumental structure. In addition, the towers of the church are just over 69 meters in height, and believe me, you can see them from afar, so you can’t go wrong.

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Westminster Abbey in London - Highlights

Westminster Abbey in London – briefly about the main things

Usually people who have visited London always have people they know ask something like, “well, what is it like, what is it like?” Westminster Abbey is exceptionally impressive in that sense, and it’s hard to describe it in one epithet. Grandiose, majestic, even somewhat frightening (well, it’s classic Gothic, so it should be!). Westminster Abbey was built in the form of Catholic cross, its length together with chapel is 156 meters, width of aisles (main and two side aisles) is 22 meters. The towers, as already mentioned, are 69 meters above the ground, and the church itself is 31 meters. In general, the temple is really huge and looks incredibly spectacular. To visit the British capital and not take a look at Westminster Abbey is sheer blasphemy. In the Middle Ages they would have been burned for sure…

Westminster Abbey (UK): historical overview

Westminster Abbey (we have already mentioned it briefly above) was built almost a thousand years ago. It was founded in 1065 by King Edward of England, nicknamed the Confessor (who, incidentally, was the penultimate Anglo-Saxon on the throne of the kingdom). At that time there was not a Westminster, but a Benedictine abbey, which, by the way, was erected on the site of more ancient religious buildings, and probably not at all ecclesiastical, that is – not Christian. King Harold II Godwinson was crowned here, in this then “young” church, in 1066.

Westminster Abbey in London - Highlights

Westminster Abbey (UK): historical overview

England was then conquered by William I and the first Norman ruler was officially crowned here, in the future Westminster Abbey. The first photo of Westminster Abbey in London dates back to the XIX century, but chronicle sketches have survived (for example, the famous “Bayeux Carpet”), by which we can judge that the church was filled with power and majesty back then, at the beginning of the XI century. Since then, the temple has remained almost unchanged, although it has survived many “misfortunes”. For example, during World War II the abbey was hit by several German air bombs. Surprisingly, only one of them exploded, the others simply did not work. In the end, the temple was hardly damaged, although the Germans bombed the structure with precision, believing that hospitals and strategic supplies might be located there.

Westminster Abbey in London - Highlights

Westminster Abbey (UK): historical overview

In the Middle Ages, visitors were not faced with the question, “where is Westminster Abbey?” This truly colossal temple was visible from afar , it was the tallest structure in the city. Because it was a cathedral church, it was sometimes called “Westminster Abbey Cathedral,” although, as we’ve already mentioned, that’s a misnomer. The church was intended to inspire awe, and it must be said that the architects fully accomplished their task. The temple functions to this day and at the sight of it is difficult to remain indifferent.

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Westminster Abbey: a sight to behold

Photos of Westminster Abbey in London in the late 19th or early 20th century show us the same structure that we can see today in the center of Westminster. In this temple were crowned all the monarchs of England, starting with the aforementioned Harold II. It is a true symbol of Britain, its sacred relic, embodied in austere stone.

Westminster Abbey in London - Highlights

Westminster Abbey: a sight to behold

Today, in the central gallery of the temple you can see icons by Sergei Fedorov, the famous Russian painter and iconographer. But the most famous part of Westminster Abbey is the so-called Poets’ Corner. It’s a special place where the ashes of Geoffrey Chaucer, Alfred Tennyson, Samuel Johnson, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, and other poets and writers who are famous around the world are buried. Even David Garrick, the distinguished English playwright and actor, is buried there. Also in Poets’ Corner you can find quite a few busts, sculptures and monuments. In particular, John Milton, John Keats, Henry James, Percy B. Shelley, Eliot, Baker and many other artists, not only poets and novelists, are immortalized in stone here.

Westminster Abbey in London - Highlights

In addition to the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in London, it is worth visiting Henry VII Chapel (which crowns one of the cross beams of the temple), the royal seat of Edward I. All these places are open to tourists; moreover, various concerts are often held here, not only of spiritual, but also of secular music. So a visit to Westminster Abbey in the evening will probably provide you with a much more extensive cultural program than you anticipated.

Westminster Abbey in London - Highlights

According to the most conservative (and fairly relative) estimates, more than 3,300 people have been buried on the grounds of Westminster Abbey over the course of its existence. And that’s assuming that prior to 1607, burials were not counted at all! Where so many people crammed in here – it’s hard even to imagine. And there are also legends that the oak door leading to one of the towers of the church is upholstered in human skin. It is believed to be about a man who dared to write blasphemous inscriptions on the walls of the church. The local Catholics decided to deal with him in their own way: they skinned him alive and nailed it to one of the doors, so to speak, as an edification. The legend persisted for almost 300 years, until a modern expert examination issued its verdict: the skin was that of an ordinary cow. On the other hand, the same expertise has confirmed that the oak used for the door dates back to the middle of the 11th century. In general, it is one of the oldest wooden doors in the world. Also, in fact, a landmark.

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