Inside Westminster Abbey | Everything You Need to Know
Westminster Abbey stretches across 32,000 sq.ft and is a vast monument. With all of its many elements, it can’t just be called a Royal Church. Also known as the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster, this abbey is the most notable religious building in the entire United Kingdom.
After William the Conqueror was coronated at Westminster Abbey in 1066, all the Royal coronations have taken place here. The Westminster Abbey is the burial site for more than 3300 people of the past, boasting a rich and eventful history. Before you plan a visit, read further to find out more about what is inside Westminster Abbey.
Architecture of Westminster Abbey
The current building of Westminster Abbey is mainly from the reign of Henry III. He pulled down the Eastern part of the 11th century abbey and commissioned the construction of this new building in 1245 and picked it as his burial site. The Romanesque Nave that was attached to this building remained the same for about a century, after which it was reconstructed again inspired by its old design. The Henry VII Lady Chapel has a glorious fan-vaulted ceiling made from late medieval architecture.
Inside Westminster Abbey
The Cloisters were once the busiest parts of the abbey as this is where the monks spent most of their time. This is where they meditated, exercised and they also head to the other monastic buildings through here. The current cloisters in the building date from the 13th to 15th centuries as they had to be reconstructed after a fire in 1298. There is also a memorial fountain in the cloister garth that pays respects to Lancelot Capability Brown, an English landscape architect known as the last of the greats from the 18th century.
A pilgrimage for literature lovers, Poets’ corner has more than 100 burials and memorials for poets and writers. The first poet to be buried here was Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of ‘The Canterbury Tales’, in 1400. Almost 200 years later, Edmund Spenser, the writer of ‘The Faerie Queene’, dedicated to Elizabeth I, asked to be buried here. After this, a tradition of burials and memorials began which continues to this day. Some other writers included here are Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, C.S. Lewis, Ted Huges, and many more.
If the Cloisters were where the monks meditated, the Chapter House was where they gathered with the abbot to pray or ‘hold chapter’. The construction of the Chapter house was completed around 1255 as a part of Henry III’s rebuilding of the abbey. It is the largest one of its kind and is octagonal-shaped with tiered seating to hold up to 80 monks. It has a central pillar that fans out to form a vaulted ceiling.
Henry VII Lady Chapel
Henry VII Chapel was constructed in the 16th century and was dedicated to Virgin Mary, giving it the name Lady Chapel. It is the burial place of more than 15 kings and queens, including Queen Elizabeth I, Edward V, Richard Duke of York, George II and many more. Henry VII spent huge sums for the construction of the Lady Chapel, but it wasn’t completed until almost 6 years after his death. Later, to honor his wishes, the king and his wife were buried under their magnificent bronze effigies.
Because of the death of Henry III, the reconstruction of the abbey stopped mid-way and the old nave made with Norman architecture remained attached to the new building. The reconstruction then began in 1376 and took almost 150 years to complete. The new design closely resembled the old design, but the decoration wasn’t as lavish as the eastern part of the abbey. It is situated at the western end of the abbey and also holds many graves and memorials, including Charles Darwin, Sir Winston Churchill, and Stephen Hawking.
Westminster Abbey has been holding choir and music every day for more than a thousand years. If you visit the abbey on any day, you will be able to hear the choir singing from their stalls, a tradition that goes back to the 10th century. There are also other stalls in the Choir that are assigned to clergy, officers, and the High Commissioners of the Commonwealth countries for when they attend the abbey’s services.
There are 30 kings and queens buried at Westminster Abbey, beginning with King Edward the Confessor. There is a magnificent shrine dedicated to him that stands right behind the High Altar. The tomb of Henry III, the one who built the abbey, is also placed near him. Queen Elizabeth I is buried at the Lady Chapel’s north aisle, along with her half-sister, Queen Mary I. Charles II, Queen Anne, Queen Mary II and King William III are buried in a vault in the south aisle.
Westminster Abbey is home to many memorials on the site. But there is also one dedicated site to Christian martyrs who gave up their lives because of their beliefs. This includes victims of Nazism, religious prejudice, and communism in the 20th century. Each statue is carved from limestone, all of which sit atop the West door, a place that had remained empty since the middle-ages. Unveiled in 1998, the statues include Dr Martin Luther King Jr, St Oscar Romero, Manche Masemola and many more.
One of the oldest surviving parts of Westminster Abbey, the Pyx Chamber is a low vaulted room that is a part of the Undercroft. It lies off the East Cloister underneath the monks’ dormitory. It gets its name from “Trial of Pyx”, a trial that melted down measured silver to show that the coinage was pure. It may have been used as a sacristy (storage for religious objects) during Henry III. Later on, a large medieval chest used to hold vestments, and other chests included important documents like foreign policies and treaties.
One of the most precious and famous pieces of furniture in the world, the Coronation Chair sits in St George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. For coronations, the chair is placed facing the High Altar and has been in use since 1308. King Edward I gave the order to make a chair enclosing the famous Stone of Scone, a stone upon which many Scottish monarchs sat for hundreds of years. This chair has been used for 38 coronations for the reigning monarchs and also 14 queen consorts who had separate coronation ceremonies.
Chaplains: If you wish to speak to a member of the clergy, a pastoral meeting can be arranged for you based on availability. Speak to an Abbey Marshal upon your visit to make the arrangements.
Luggage: Large luggage items or bags of any size with wheels are not allowed inside the abbey. Excess Baggage Company offers luggage storage facilities at Charing Cross and Victoria stations, both at walking distances from the abbey.
Toilets: Toilets are located in the Cloisters.
Baby Changing Facilities: Guests with babies can use baby changing facilities at the Cloisters.
Dining: You can eat your packed food at the Cloisters or you can buy food from the Kiosk at Westminster Abbey.
Shopping: You can visit the Westminster Abbey shop located at the Broad Sanctuary.
Wheelchair: The abbey is wheelchair accessible apart from the some areas that are not feasible to access through wheelchairs. However, wheelchair users and their carers can enter the abbey for free. You can also ask for a wheelchair upon your arrival. Please speak to an Abbey Marshal. There are also wheelchair-accessible toilets at the Cloisters.
Visually Impaired: You can avail audio-described tour of the abbey.
Hearing Impaired: The entire abbey main building is equipped with a hearing loop system for those who use hearing aids and is used at all the services. You can avail a British Sign Language tour or printed tour transcripts available in 14 languages as well.
Assistance Dogs: All kinds of guide dogs, assistance dogs and hearing dogs are welcome. No other types of animals are allowed into the abbey.