A Heady Day Out in the Company of Monarchs

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by eilidhcatriona on July 25, 2009

For many years, ever since I became interested in royal history, and particularly Mary Queens of Scots, I was keen to visit Westminster Abbey, where so many British monarchs are buried. Following my move to London, I finally got my chance and visited with my mum, who is even more interested in royal history than I am, and is always useful to have around when visiting places like this – she’s a walking encyclopaedia of Scottish and subsequently British monarchs.

Adult entry to the Abbey is currently £15, £12 for over 60s, age 11-18 is £6 and free for under 11. There are also family tickets available. The Abbey is open Monday to Saturday, but Sundays are for worship only and so tourists cannot visit. Travelling to the Abbey is very easy – it is located on Parliament Square and is right beside Westminster Underground Station.

You enter the Abbey through the side door, and not from the front. Even so, the scale of the building and the beauty of the architecture is immediately apparent. It really is quite a breathtaking building. I am not religious, but even so I can appreciate the beauty of religious buildings, and Westminster Abbey really is one of the most stunning. It was begun in the eleventh century by Edward the Confessor. Building continued over the next five centuries, and the most recent addition was in the eighteenth century. As always, the sheer scale of the architecture which was created in a time before heavy machinery is simply astounding.

Similarly, think of the age of this building – back to the eleventh century. And then think about the number of monarchs England and Britain have had since then, the number of coronations and royal weddings which have taken place here. As I walked around the Abbey, I was standing on flagstones which people like Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, James I, and our own Elizabeth II have quite possibly walked on. That’s quite a heady feeling, and it followed me all the way through the Abbey.

Following our guide leaflet, my mum and I saw far more than I can possibly tell you about in a review. We saw numerous royal tombs and memorials, all of which my mum was able to give me some information about. The highlight for us of the royal tombs were those of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth had Mary executed as a threat to the English throne, but was in such anguish over having murdered a fellow queen that she had Mary buried with much ceremony in Peterborough Cathedral. When Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, became James I of Great Britain, he had his mother’s remains brought to Westminster and had a wonderful tomb erected in her memory. I had been eager to visit Mary’s tomb and pay homage to our most famous monarch, but I didn’t expect to feel as moved by it as I did.

Another section of the Abbey that I found very moving was the Royal Air Force chapel. This is a small chapel created in memory of those who flew with the RAF during the Second World War. It features stained glass with the badges of the fighter squadrons who took part in the Battle of Britain, and has a memorial roll of those who died in it. This does not only include Brits, but those from British colonies and other countries such as the USA who flew with the RAF. The chapel is a beautiful and fitting memorial to those who fought, and it’s worth stopping and reflecting. There is even a preserved area of bomb damage to really bring home what happened.

We saw the Coronation Chair, which was of some interest to us, but having seen the Stone of Scone in Edinburgh Castle a few years before, we weren’t overly interested in the ancient chair of the English monarchs. It is fascinating that it is 700 years old – I wouldn’t expect a wooden chair to last that long, but it is looked after very well and doesn’t exactly get used very often. There is a nice gap underneath the seat where the Stone of Scone used to sit. I must admit though that the chair would probably look more impressive with the Stone in it – as it is, it is just a very old wooden chair.

I was surprised and delighted to learn that the Abbey has a Poets Corner, where a number of literary figures are buried and remembered. I enjoyed seeing the resting places of wonderful writers such as Dickens, Chaucer and Hardy, and there are memorials to many others including Wordsworth, Keats, Austen and the Bronte sisters. I was pleased to see the Scots Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott also had memorials. I don’t know why, maybe it was the light or the open and slightly higgledy-piggeldy layout of Poets Corner, but I found it quite an uplifting area, and very pleasant to visit. It did not feel sombre, but rather celebratory of these great figures. In addition to writers, the composer Handel is also buried here.

From Poets Corner we headed to the front of the Abbey, and looked up the Nave. From the main door, looking up the nave, the interior of the building is instantly recognisable as it is the section which is seen on television. In this area there is also a memorial to the great Winston Churchill, which rather appropriately is near the grave of the Unknown Soldier.

Throughout the Abbey there are statues and memorials to numerous other figures from history, and more recent years, including Darwin, Brunel, and Martin Luther King. One which was of particular interest to me was a statue of Grand Duchess Elizabeth. I have a great interest in the last Tsars of Russia, and as the wife of the Tsar’s brother, and sister to the Tsarina, Elizabeth or Ella was very much a part of this. Following the death of her husband, she set up a convent and became a nun in her new order of the Sisters of Martha and Mary. She was murdered by the Bolsheviks along with the rest of the royal family, however she was created a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1980s. Hers is a happy and sad story, and it is nice to see her remembered so far from her home.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Abbey, and despite the high entrance price I would like to go back – I think the entrance is definitely worth it for all the history that is contained in the Abbey. My mum and I didn’t visit every section and we spent two hours there, and I haven’t even covered everything we did see in this review as there is just too much, so I do intend to go back. I would strongly recommend a visit to locals and visitors alike, as you there is just so much to see and learn.
Westminster Abbey
20 Dean's Yard
London, England, SW1P 3PA
+44 (20) 7222 5152


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