Church, burial ground, coronation site and much more, Westminster Abbey continues to attract visitors over 900 years after its founding. In many respects the architecture is common. There’s the traditional cross-shaped floor plan with a nave, north and south transepts and several round side areas. But both its execution and use raise The Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster (the official name) to among the highest examples of church construction.
For, here lie buried kings and poets, scientists and philosophers who have themselves raised humankind to the highest levels. Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell (discoverer of electromagnetic theory, which later lead to radio and TV), Chaucer and Kipling, Dr. Samuel Johnson (creator of the first English dictionary) and many other justly famous names are interred here.
Here lie many of the kings of English history. Henry III, for example, who reigned from the age of nine for 56 years, is buried in the Abbey. Much of the current structure owes its origins to his efforts.
New discoveries are still being made within its walls. As recently as 2005 the burial tomb of its founder, Edward the Confessor (Edward I) was discovered beneath a 1268 AD Cosmati mosaic. A number of other royal tombs dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries were also found using ground penetrating radar.
But far from being merely about the dead, here the centuries of history come alive. Still an active church, Westminster Abbey is the site of services and events for all denominations. Used for every coronation since William the Conqueror’s in 1066, pageantry combines with austerity to create an atmosphere of grandeur.
That grandeur can be seen in the enormous vaulted ceilings, typical of early Gothic design. But the artistic grandeur combines with technological brilliance. Just as one example, the support arches are not the ornate visible ones, but are actually enclosed within the thick stone roof.
The art housed by the Abbey makes the site worth visiting. Inside the west entrance is a portrait of Richard II, painted in 1390, making it one of the oldest known contemporary portraits of a British monarch.
There are several outstanding monuments in the nave, including those depicting Winston Churchill and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior of WWI. This last was the last full-body interment in the abbey. Only containers of ashes are allowed now.
From the cloister, walk to the octagonal Chapter House near Poet’s Corner, one of the earliest constructed sections, built at the time of Henry III. Here you can see the mixture of architectural styles forming the Abbey, as the result of additions made over the centuries.
Stroll over to the south transept to view the original rose window with its nearby rare medieval sculpture. Three dimensional art was often considered sinful during the period.
Then stand near the center where the various architectural elements join and take in a 360 degree view. Almost 1,000 years of history in a brief glance, still alive and still being made.
The Abbey is easily reached by the tube (the London Underground subway system). Exit at the St James Park stop.