10 Facts About Westminster Abbey
More than 1.5 million people visited Westminster Abbey annually, and it’s easy to see why. Nearly a millennium of history, culture, and memory are stored within its Gothic walls. The London landmark, wedged next to the Palace of Westminster in the busy city center, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a can’t-miss experience for anyone visiting the British capital.
1. Westminster Abbey began on an island.
By the 10th century CE, London had been founded and abandoned by the Romans, occupied by the Anglo-Saxons, and invaded by Danish Vikings. When English troops wrested control of the town back from the Vikings, residents began building a permanent settlement on the north and south banks of the River Thames (where the City of London and Southwark now lie). In the year 960 CE, the Anglo-Saxon king Edgar and St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, established a Benedictine monastery on a low-lying island in the Thames to the west of town.
In the 1040s, Edward the Confessor built his royal palace on the island next to the monastery, which he appropriated and expanded to honor St. Peter the Apostle. Edward’s church became known as the west minster, differentiating it from St. Paul’s Cathedral to the east. Eventually, the island became connected to the north shore of the Thames.
2. Westminster Abbey displays more than eight centuries of architectural styles and refinements.
Westminster Abbey has been torn down, added to, and embellished for nearly 1000 years. Edward the Confessor’s elaborate Norman church, consecrated in 1065, built on the remnants of the old Benedictine one. In 1245, Henry III began building a sprawling Gothic-style church (much of the abbey that stands today was Henry’s work). From the mid-13th century through the early 16th century, the nave, bays, and other structures of Westminster Abbey were completed.
Henry VII, the first Tudor king, was the next monarch to make a major addition to the abbey. He constructed the elegant Lady Chapel behind the central shrine of Edward the Confessor beginning in 1503, and he was eventually laid to rest there around 1509. The two western towers designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor were completed in the 1740s. The choir stalls and current high altar were built in the 19th century, and in the 20th century, the abbey was once again restored following bombing raids in World War II.
3. Every monarch since 1066 has been crowned at Westminster Abbey—except two.
From William I (the Conqueror) in 1066 up to Queen Elizabeth II, nearly all English or British monarchs have had coronation ceremonies at Westminster Abbey. Edward V and Edward VIII are the exceptions, because they were never actually crowned.
Thirteen-year-old Edward V, heir to the throne following the death of his father Edward IV in 1483, and his brother were imprisoned in the Tower of London by their uncle, who eventually claimed the throne as Richard III. The two princes were never seen again, and are believed to have been murdered by Richard’s henchmen.
Edward VIII had a very different excuse: He abdicated in 1936, before his coronation, so he could marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson.
4. Westminster Abbey has hosted 16 royal weddings.
Henry I and Princess Matilda of Scotland were the first royals to marry at Westminster Abbey, on an unusual date: the 11th day of the 11th month in the year 1100. Various medieval English earls and kings had their weddings there until 1486, after which no royal nuptials took place at the abbey for more than 400 years. In the 20th and 21st centuries, most of the royal weddings have been for close family members of Queen Elizabeth II, who married Philip Mountbatten at Westminster Abbey on November 20, 1947.
5. England’s most powerful rulers are buried in Westminster Abbey.
The most influential kings and queens in English history have elaborate tombs at the heart of Westminster Abbey. Among the famous are Elizabeth I and her half-sister Mary I (not to be confused with their cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, who is also buried there), William III and Mary II, who ruled jointly; Queen Anne, Henry III, Henry VII, James I, and Edward the Confessor, who started it all. George II, who ruled from 1727 to 1760, was the last monarch interred. Numerous earls and countesses, dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses, and other members of the peerage also have their final resting places in the abbey.
6. Westminster Abbey belongs to the monarch.
The abbey had started out as a Catholic church, but during the religious turbulence of the 16th century, Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, assumed control of their wealth and property, and made himself the head of the church in England. He gave Westminster Abbey the status of a cathedral in 1540 to exempt it from the dissolution order. Mary I temporarily restored the Catholic control of the church in the 1550s. In 1560, Elizabeth I made Westminster Abbey a “royal peculiar,” a church directly under a monarch’s, not a bishop’s, control, and renamed it the Collegiate Church of St. Peter. It remains that way today.
7. More than 100 writers are memorialized in Westminster Abbey …
Poet’s Corner is one of the most popular nooks in Westminster Abbey. In 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer became the first literary figure buried in the corner—not because he was the author of The Canterbury Tales, but because he served Richard II as Clerk of the King’s Works, which oversaw maintenance of royal buildings, including the abbey. Later poets wished to be buried near Chaucer, forming the literary clique. Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser was laid next to him in 1599, followed by Samuel Johnson, Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens (who did not want to be buried in Westminster Abbey, but ended up there anyway), and many more.
8. … along with dozens of scientists.
Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, William and John Herschel, and Stephen Hawking are just five members of the scientific pantheon buried in Westminster Abbey, which includes explorers, physicists, engineers, physicians, and astronomers. Many others are remembered with plaques, busts, and tablets, such as Robert Hooke, Michael Faraday, James Prescott Joule, Joseph Dalton Hooker, and Alfred Russel Wallace.
9. You may come face to face with a medieval king in a new Westminster Abbey gallery.
Unveiled in 2018 after more than 700 years behind closed doors, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries occupies a spectacular space 52 feet above the abbey’s ground floor. The newly restored gallery holds priceless items from the abbey’s library and archives, not the least interesting of which is its collection of centuries-old funeral effigies—life-size wax dummies that stood in for the actual corpses during elaborate funeral processions. Visitors can gaze upon the uncanny likenesses of kings and queens dating back to the medieval period, including a sumptuously robed and bewigged William III.
10. Dendrochronologists found Britain’s oldest door in Westminster Abbey.
In 2005, scientists studying the tree rings in a particularly old door discovered that its wood had been harvested sometime around 1032 and the door constructed in the 1050s, the same time that Edward the Confessor was building the Norman-style abbey. Not only is it the oldest door in the United Kingdom, but it’s also the only one that can be identified as Anglo-Saxon in origin. Currently it stands 6.5 feet tall and 4 feet wide and leads to a small vestibule from the passageway to the Chapter House.
Incidentally, Westminster Abbey is also home to the UK’s oldest piece of furniture still being used for its original purpose: the Coronation Chair. When Edward I (a.k.a. Edward Longshanks) stole the Stone of Scone, a legendary rock on which medieval Scottish rulers were crowned, from the Scots in 1296, he had the chair made to house it. The chair has been used as the seat of the new English or British monarch in every coronation ceremony since 1308. The Stone of Scone, though, was returned to Scotland in 1996.