How to make the most of Westminster Abbey in London
When making the most of Westminster Abbey, one of London’s top 10 attractions, make sure you spare at least 1 hour of your visit to the Abbey. If you spend 3 days in London or 4 days in London, that will give you ample time to make the most of the city. Take your time when visiting Westminster Abbey because there’s so many stories that lie behind the tombs, the burials, the memorials and many more.
You’ll be asking yourself “How the hell did they construct abbeys and churches so beautifully? The intricate detail of chiselling stones into small patterns, the way they carved religious crosses and make them identical to one another. The several rows of small, curved lines in an archway above their main doors. “How did they combine multi-coloured glassed windows in different shapes and turn them into picture stories?” All these thoughts ran into my mind. I wasn’t planning on going inside, but I knew the Abbey has been standing tall since 1066. I was curious to know what lies inside the gothic structure.
Facts about Westminster Abbey
It was rumoured that Saberht, the first Christian king founded a small church near the River Thames. Then, by 785 CE, there were a few monks that lived nearby, it was then enlarged by St. Dunstan of Canterbury in 960. Later in 1065, Edward the Confessor built another site in the church, and King Richard III changed it to Westminster Abbey, and make it look Gothic in 1245, an influence by French architecture. During the Norman colonisation, the nave was designed in the Norman style nave designed in the 1300s by Henry Yevele, an architect of that time. Ever since the 1300s, it has kept its design throughout the Tudor period.
When visiting Westminster Abbey in London, you’ll be going back more than 900 years of British history, exploring , burials, and memorials from the British monarchy, politicians, scientists, writers, and poets. These include Shakespeare, Stephen Hawking, Queen Elizabeth I, King Richard II, Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Geoffrey Chaucer and many more. As for the items and the architecture, you can learn about the Nave, the Quire, the ceilings, and windows and many more.
You will also be immersed in one of Britain’s medieval churches, and Gothic buildings such as the vault, which spans to 102 feet high, the tallest vault in England, and they all have three things in common: architecture, history, and the people.
Take the District or Jubilee line to Westminster tube station and it will be right in front of you. You will see Big Ben first, and the River Thames and the Southbank area are across the Westminster Bridge.
The West End is a few minutes walk from the Southbank area, and Madame Tussauds and Regent’s Park near Camden Town, one of 8 Royal Parks of London is only a short tube ride from Westminster Tube Station.
How to navigate Westminster Abbey
There are no photos allowed inside so I’d be as descriptive as possible.
The entry ticket is £22 on the door and £21 online. The queue can be long but moved swiftly.
A pair of headphones and an interactive small iPad are given to you as you enter the building. Select any languages you prefer if English isn’t your first language, and you can find a private tour guide. Personally, it’s better to take the pair of headphones and explore the Abbey as you please.
The items in the Abbey are numbered and, on the iPad, select the item number you see in front of you, that way, you know you’ve covered every area of the Abbey. For example, to learn more about King Richard III’s tomb, look at the number of his tomb, find it on the iPad, listen to the audio of why, how, and when he died.
Upon entering Westminster Abbey, I felt grateful and lucky to be surrounding by many tombs, memorials, and statues of famous British people. They have impacted the world and our lives for more than a thousand years and far more than anyone can ever imagine. Many British inventions, scientific, historical, and mathematic discoveries were found by the Brits and it is here, that their tombs lay in front of us.
At the top of the entrance, there are various 20th Century martyrs perfectly carved from stone. It’s as if they’re looking down on us, blessing us as we enter the Abbey.
Inside the Abbey
The first thing I noticed was the many coloured 18th Century-stained glass windows. They were created to make patterns and shapes into human figures, telling stories behind it. At times, sunrays reflect the glass windows providing the Abbey inside with a strip of beautiful rainbows.
The second thing I noticed was the sound of the choir. The rich, yet peaceful hums of the choir vibrates harmoniously like the sound of gentle waves at the beach. To this day, Westminster Abbey is still a place of worship and people coming together. You can also visit the Abbey for free during services, but you won’t be able to join a tour.
The Coronation Chair
This chair has been the most important piece of furniture for coronations in Britain for more than 700 hundred years and was ordered by King Edward I in 1296.
The wooden chair has four gold painted lions as its legs. 90% of the gold vanished from the rest of the chair. Several four-leafed clover shaped holes decorated above the lions. It was thought the clovers were to mark good luck and fortune for whoever sat on this chair. It’s astonishing how detailed the chair has been carved but there are no cushions or pillows attached to the seat. I imagine the hundreds of kings and queens sitting on the chair and the stories it would have told. Read more about the Coronation chair here.
The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior
Surrounded by hundreds of poppies, the polished stoned burial of an Unknown Warrior is seen here. Poppies mark Remembrance Day of the British soldiers who fought in the First and Second World Wars and the nation celebrate it every year in Whitehall.
The gold inscription in capital letters say: “Beneath this stone rest the body of a British Warrior. Unknown by name or rank. Brought from France to lie among. The most illustrious of the land. And buried here on Armistice Day. 11 Nov: 1920, in the presence of. His Majesty King George V. His ministers of State. Thus are commemorated the many. Multitudes who during the Great. War of 1914-1918 gave the most that. Man can give life itself. For God. For King and country. For loved ones home and empire. For the sacred cause of justice and. The freedom of the world. They buried him among the kings because he. Had done good toward God and toward his house.” A strong message indicates he was an important soldier who did a lot for the nation and to respect those who died in the war. Read about the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior here.
The marble-stoned effigies of past British scientists from the 17th Century to the present are carved and polished into perfection, down to the small detail of robes to the small curls and waves on their hair.
The many faces were carved and shaped to look as if they were important. The angles of the way they turn their heads upright. It was as if their face expressions spoke to me, “I’m important, please remember me for my work.” Descriptions underneath were written in Latin, in which translates into old, aristocratic English “here lies what was mortal of Isaac Newton” along with other Latin written marble slabs. Alongside Isaac Newton, ashes of Stephen Hawking and Charles Darwin are also buried here.
You can join choral services daily here. The Quire has been playing music for more than a thousand years till this day. The gold patterns above the benches were shaped into 21 similarly looking high backed chairs of a throne in front of blue wallpaper; 21 holes shaped into stars and 3 leafed clovers were made at the top. Small identical patterns carved with precision. It’s unimaginable what tools were used to create small shapes within the patterns.
On opposite sides of each other, there are two rows of long benches for the choir boys to sit on. There are several small red lamps placed along the benches, and the lights still on. Small clover shaped patterns carved on the back. The black and white squared marble floor were created to look like a giant diamond shaped chessboard. Read more about the Quire here.
The High Altar and the Cosmati Pavement
The Cosmatis was a Roman family made up of seven members who designed church floors into geometric mosaics. They were also church architects and sculptors working together to design the most beautiful art. The Cosmati Pavement is now here brought into the Abbey.
The small dark shades of red porphyry, green serpentine, white mosaics and different coloured marbles are used to create 4 big circular shapes on each of the 4 sides of a large diamond in the middle. Circles were created using mosaics inside the diamond. 4 figure-of-eights were designed on the 4 edges of the pavement and mosaic rectangles were created between the 4 figure-of-eights. The details and precision shows dedication, patience and talent from the family.
The tombs of medieval kings and queens
Here in Westminster Abbey, you will find various tombs of British kings and queens from as early as the 13th Century. The tombs include King Edward the Confessor and Henry III.
King Edward the Confessor was one of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England. He reigned between 1042 – 1066, and was married to Queen of England Edith of Wessex during the duration of his reign.
What’s fascinating was how the structure and the architecture the tomb had been designed. The tomb is closed and is surrounded by a 2-foot 4×4 golden fence. An altar table covered in a blue and green sheet is placed next to the stoned tomb. 2 tall white candles sits on the table with their silver candle holders and a silver cross. There are around eight 8-foot-tall candles surrounding the tomb, and the 20-foot-tall tomb was distinguishable to the rest of the simple 2.5 feet high golden tombs of kings’ and queens’ surrounding it. His tomb sits tall in the middle of the Abbey.
The stoned tomb is beautifully decorated by the Cosmati family with different shades of mosaic brown beige diamonds and circles. 6 dome-shaped archways were created along the tomb, and above the 10 feet tomb, sits 2 green building structures on top of each other with several archways built around them.
The way the tomb was designed, it showed King Edward the Confessor was an important figure in the 11th Century. He built the Abbey and was made a Saint healing the community. He was called the “Confessor” because he was a very holy, religious man who’d often go to church to confess his sins. You can read the description of the tombs here.
The tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary I
These two princesses were the daughters of King Henry VIII with his 6 wives. Elizabeth’s mother was Anne Boleyn and Mary’s mother was Katherine of Aragon.
Mary I was in line with the Tudor family and was the Queen of England and Ireland between 1553 – 1558. She was married to Philip of Spain during the duration of her reign.
Elizabeth I was next in line to the throne after Mary I. She was also the Queen of England and Ireland from 1553 – 1603, also the year of her death but Elizabeth was never married. She was the last line of the Tudor house and was known as the Virgin Queen.
The architecture of both their tombs are fascinating. Both Mary and Elizabeth’s white marbled tombs are placed next to each other surrounded by shiny black marbled pillars. It was like as if they were caged animals that needed to be protected. Gold décor complements the top of the marbled ceilings and white lions underneath.
Several small red and blue monarchy house badges surrounds the top of the tombs and a Latin inscription of who lies in the tomb inside could be found at the top. They were both beautifully decorated with white, gold, and black marbles to show power, wealth, and strength in the community.
The location of their tombs were placed privately, and the pathway to their tombs were narrow to control how many people can see them, away from crowds of visitors.
Read about Princess Mary I here.
Read about Princess Elizabeth I here.
The Lady Chapel and tomb of Henry VII
This 16th Century Henry VII Chapel is still used to this day for services. As I stepped inside the Lady Chapel, it felt I stepped back in time and couldn’t wait to hear the many stories happening there. When I heard the stories on my interactive guide, I could imagine myself being in the story. The feeling it provokes was completely different reading them on the website because I was physically in the room as the stories were told.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped inside The Lady Chapel were the small complicated geometric shapes above the bright cream ceiling complemented with gold pendants and the intricate dark wooden décor above the seats to the left and right of the chapel. The chapel was grand and tall that you could hear loud whispers from other people talking.
The high ceiling, the many bright multi-coloured banners representing personal identifications of different armies and soldiers as well as the bright atmosphere felt I stepped inside a grand room. It was as if I was at a ball.
The long walk from the entrance to the other side of the chapel felt like I was walking down the aisle at my own wedding. The gigantic multi coloured stained-glass windows depicting pictures and stories were hard to make out from the bottom but shouldn’t be taken for granted. The many martyrs carved at the top of the chapel looked down on us, it felt as if they’re blessing us once again.
Read all about The Lady Chapel here.
Because of my love of classic English Literature, I couldn’t wait to get to Poet’s Corner. When I finally reached this area, I felt like I wanted to kiss the grounds the poets were buried in. Since English has been an international language spoken worldwide to this day, I couldn’t imagine the work British poets played since the 18th – 19th Century and how they’ve have been praised internationally for their work throughout history.
Like Scientists’ Corner, here lies marble-stoned effigies of past British poets from the 19th Century to the present. They were carved and polished into perfection, down to the small detail of robes worn and the small curls and waves on their hair. The only difference is there are many marbled books and scrolls that were created next to the effigies.
Like Scientists’ Corner, the many faces were carved and shaped to look as if they were important. The angles of the way they turn their heads upright, it was as if their face expressions spoke to me, “I’m important, please remember me for my work.” Descriptions underneath were written in Latin, in which translates into old, aristocratic English along with other Latin written marble slabs.
The first thing I noticed as I stepped into Poet’s Corner was the tomb and memorial of Geoffrey Chaucer.
Geoffrey Chaucer has always been my favourite poet. If you’ve read some of his work, I found he uses lyrical and melodic tones to his prose as well as his ability to translate Latin and French into Old English. I also found that he’s one of the many 19th Century poets that has been applauded for his achievements by critics. The wits and charm he uses into his art makes him distinguishable than any other poets out there. Alongside Goeffrey Chaucer, here also lies effigies and memorials of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Thomas Campbell, and many others. Read more of Poet’s Corner here.
If you’re interested about 18th – 19th Century English Literature, read more about it before you visit their memorials and burials from TheBooksList.
The Cloisters were where a lot of monks meditate and exercise. It was once the busiest part of the Abbey, and this was also a route to get to the monastic buildings.
Like the Lady Chapel, as I walked from one end to the other, I felt I was walking down the aisle of my own wedding. When I walked on the 1000-year-old stony ground, touching the walls, I felt a part of the monk community. I imagine seeing black robes worn by the monks, and I could hear high and low humming noises monks make as they meditate and pray. I could hear the crowd of voices as they exercise together 1000 years ago, and I could imagine the hustle and bustle that went on within the Cloisters.
Although I didn’t see the rest of the cloisters, it should not be forgotten. In addition, the cloister garth is kept well maintained and what you see in pictures is what you see in real life. Read about The Cloisters here.
The Chapter House and the Pyx Chamber
Because it was so busy, the staff wanted to control the crowds that visited the Abbey and was directed to the exit. I didn’t get the chance to see The Chapter House and Pyx Chamber but, in the future, I would love to visit Westminster Abbey again to finish my tour.
Read about Chapter House and the Pyx Chamber on their website. There’s also lots of advice to take before you go there.
The Chapter House was the eleventh item on the list. It was a meeting place where the monks gathered with the abbot to ‘hold chapter’: to pray, read from the rule of St Benedict, discuss the day’s business and at what time the abbot decides on punishments.
The twelfth and final item was the Pyx Chamber dating back to 1070. The Chamber was used for royal treasuries in the 13th Century and used for church vestments.
Westminster Abbey architecture
I can’t stop here without talking about the architecture, and it should be the second thing to focus on. I couldn’t take my eyes off them for one second. I learned not only about the tombs of kings, queens, poets, scientists, and politicians but a lot about the architecture itself.
When I stepped inside, the first thing I did was look up to the ceiling. It rose to more than 100 feet high. The ceiling in the Nave had different geometric shapes, patterns and colours, something quite common in the 12th Century. Gothic architecture was the typical style of the 12th Century.
The Nave is the central part of the Abbey and it’s where most of the burials are found. I’ve never seen the symmetry and geometric detail like the ceiling above the Nave before. I was in awe, since there were around five-diamond shaped patterns with gold patterns complementing the geometry. Since travelling around Europe, I’ve seen architectural designs like no other, but I skipped British architecture because I took it for granted. Living here for more than 20 years, I didn’t think I needed to. Now was the right time to delve into British architecture.
My favourite architecture was the fan vaulted roof in the Lady Chapel, the multi coloured glass-stained window depicting badges of the fire squadrons during the Battle of Britain in 1940, as well as lilies, stars and emblems of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The complex detail that went into the small patterns inside the circular shaped ceiling shouldn’t be taken for granted. Compared to other European architecture, British architecture was influenced by the Normans, Anglo-Saxons, and the Romans. In addition, the implementation of Gothic architecture has been influenced by the French between the 12th to the 15th Century, then flourished its influences from Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. Read more on the Gothic architecture between the 12th – 15th Century.
I am glad that I went inside Westminster Abbey because not only did I learn about British history and the people that were involved in the Abbey, I wanted to know more about the architecture, its history and influences. The two designs that were memorable were the ceilings in the Nave, the fan vaulted ceiling in the Lady Chapel and the exterior of the Abbey.
The first thing I thought about was the detail the stonemasons, the scaffolders and other builders had put together to make something so beautiful. I always knew they used stone masons, man powered cranes and horse drawn wagons. I also knew they used lime, soil, and water but it must have taken them a great deal of time and money to make it perfect. I’m always so thankful to them because I don’t think they’d know the massive impact it would have on people’s lives thousands of years later. If only they know what they built would be a number one tourist attraction in history.
I stared at the abbey for several minutes thinking about its perfection. Initially, I only wanted to spend time outside the abbey, but my curiosity of the abbey drove me to go inside. This is what I learned:
- Westminster Abbey – home of Kings and Queens from medieval Britain going back to the 12th Century. These include royal tombs of King Edward the Confessor, Henry III, Henry VI, Richard III, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Mary I, George II and so many others.
- British poets’ and politicians’ burials going back to the 18th to the 19h Century. These include Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and the Bronte sisters.
- Architecture going back to the 12th Century.
- What the Abbey is used for now.
The only downside to it is that you’re not allowed to take photos. It’s something worth remembering during your trip.
Westminster Abbey is better in real life than it is in pictures, so when everything is back to normal, give Westminster Abbey a visit. Even if you don’t want to pay to go inside, join the free service where you can at least admire the architecture.
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Take care and be safe!!!