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Westminster Abbey London
London SW1P 3PA
TfL Fare Zone 1
 
 
 
Westminster Abbey is the older of the two great churches associated with London, the other church being St Paul's Cathedral. Although the Abbey suffered some bomb damage in World War II, much remains of the medieval abbey.  Extensive conservation and restoration makes Westminster Abbey a prime tourist location.
 
Interestingly, the Abbey is a Royal Peculiar which means that this Church of England church is exempt from the jurisdiction of the diocese in which it lies and subject to the direct jurisdiction of the monarch.
 
Early History
The Abbey has been witness to a good part of Britain’s history. It started life in the mid 10th century as a Benedictine monastery founded by St Dunstan assisted by the Anglo-Saxon King Edgar.
 
King Edward I, later canonised as St Edward the Confessor built the stone Abbey in 1045-1050. It was consecrated one week before his death and he was buried in his new church.
 
St Edward’s Shrine & Royal chapels
St Edward's Shrine is behind the High Altar and surrounded by Royal tombs and memorials. The last Anglo-Saxon coronation to be held in the Abbey was King Harold in 1066.
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In the octagonal Chapter House a small door has been uncovered and dated to 1050. It is the only Anglo-Saxon door surviving in the country. The door is believed to have been the monks’ entry from the Abbey Cloisters into the outer vestibule of the Chapter House where they met for prayers.
 
The Infirmary
The monastery’s proximity to the Royal Palace of Westminster guaranteed endowments and the monastic population grew from St Dunstan’s original one dozen to eighty. The monastic buildings grew as well. The monks were very skilled in treating illness and the Westminster Infirmary (hospital), looked after the sick and elderly monks, and dispensed herbal remedies to the local populace.
 
Little Cloister Garden
On the site of the Infirmary is Little Cloister, a delightful garden open for public viewing Tuesdays – Thursday. From it can be seen the ruins of St Catherine’s chapel. Bomb damage in 1941 revealed a lot of the hidden remains of this 12th century chapel. Sick monks would attend services in the chapel and important meetings were held there in The Middle Ages.
 
In 1176 the precedence between the Archbishops of Canterbury and York was decided in Canterbury's favour. It is worthwhile visiting the articles relating to York Minster and Canterbury Cathedral in this website.
 
The Little Cloister is also where Henry III solemnly swore on the Holy Gospels to maintain the Magna Carta. Again, a visit to the article Runnymede Meadows & Memorials in this website is well worthwhile.
 
Cloisters
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Between the 13th and 15th centuries the Cloisters were a hive of monastic activity. The windows were glassed, rushes strewn on the floor and the area heated with braziers, quite a cosy place to be. There were areas for instructing the novices, meditation, relaxation, reading and washing. Today the Cloisters are a quiet and tranquil spot.
 
Chapter House
In the East Cloister is the beautiful Chapter House built in 1250. The monks met here each day to pray and arrange the day’s business. The first English Parliament, the King's Great Council, assembled here in 1257.
 
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In the 14th century the House of Commons regularly met in the Chapter House before moving to the Palace of Westminster. Government records were archived in the room from 1540. The room is lavishly decorated with sculpture and wall paintings and has a fine medieval tiled floor. As previously mentioned, in the vestibule is England’s oldest door.
 
The Nave
The rest of the building to the north houses the church as it is used today. Visitors enter from the West end into the nave. William the Conqueror had enhanced the original stone abbey church in the Romanesque style but advances in building technology ushered in the great period of architecture known as Gothic. Flying buttresses on the outside of buildings allowed the stonemasons to create pointed arches, clustered columns, ribbed vaults, fan vaulting and sculptured detail.
 
The nave in Westminster Abbey employs all these features. Started in 1376 it was not finished until 1517.
 
Unknown Warrior
Below the West Window is a black marble tablet let into the floor. This marks the grave of the Unknown Warrior. It is a memorial to the many thousands killed in the 1914-18 World War who have no known grave.
 
At the eastern end of the nave is the choir screen which contains a monument to Sir Isaac Newton. Among the famous people buried in the nave are Charles Darwin, David Livingstone, Sir Charles Barry, Thomas Telford and Clement Attlee.
 
The Choir
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Behind the screen is The Choir, built in the Gothic Revival style in the mid 19th century. It blends well with the rest of the church. Daily the choir of 22 boys and 12 men (Lay Vicars) sing the service. There is no entry charge for people wishing to attend the service, a worthwhile experience.
 
Built above the choir screen is the organ. Originally built in 1727, the instrument has undergone many refurbishments. This organ has been played by some famous musicians such as John Blow and Henry Purcell.
 
Sanctuary and High Altar
The Sanctuary is the heart of the church and holds the High Altar. On either side of the altar are the North and South Transepts. The altar and reredos above it were designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1867.
 
In front of the High Altar is a very rare marble floor dating from 1268. It is a remarkable example of Cosmetti work. This Italian family invented the highly skilled method of laying intricate geometrical designs made up of small pieces of coloured marble onto a marble ground. Materials used include onyx, porphyry, serpentine and coloured glass. Restoration and conservation is currently being undertaken to allow the public to get a closer look at this remarkable floor.
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North Transept (Statesmen's Aisle)
To the left of the High Altar is the North Transept also known as Statesmen’s Aisle. Buried here are Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778); Charles James Fox (anti-slavery campaigner and supporter of American Independence); William Gladstone (four times Prime Minister); and Lord Palmerston.
 
There are also memorials to Benjamin Disraeli (Britain’s only Jewish Prime Minister and brilliant orator) and Sir Robert Peel (Prime Minister and founder of the modern police force) among others.
 
Three small chapels on the eastern side of the transept contain some remarkable monuments. One by Roubiliac to Lady Elizabeth Nightingale is particularly gruesome – a skeletal figure of Death emerges from a cavern to aim a dart at the dying lady.
 
Poets’ Corner
To the right of the High Altar is the South Transept otherwise known as Poets’ Corner. A large rose window lights the transept. Although the stained glass is 20th century, beneath the window are two carved medieval angels, and beside the door leading into St Faith’s chapel are two wall paintings from the 13th century. It is easy to miss these historical treasures because of the overwhelming number of monuments and memorials in the transept.
 
- Geoffrey Chaucer
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Poets’ Corner was originally designated as a burial place for writers, playwrights and poets. Geoffrey Chaucer was buried in the Abbey not because he had written The Canterbury Tales but because he was an important government official. Over 150 years after his death he was moved to Poets’ Corner and in 1598 Edmund Spenser was buried beside him - so started the tradition.
 
- Burials
Among the famous people buried in Poets’ Corner are John Dryden, Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Masefield, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy. Charles Dickens’s role as an advocate for social reform and the abolition of slavery is commemorated each year on the anniversary of his death with the laying of a wreath on his grave.
 
- Monuments
Some of the monuments were not erected until quite a while after the person’s death. William Shakespeare’s monument did not appear until 1790 and ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron did not get a monument until 1969.
 
There are memorials to the poets John Milton, William Wordsworth, Thomas Gray, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Burns, William Blake, T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Writers are well represented with memorials to Samuel Butler; Jane Austen; Oliver Goldsmith; Sir Walter Scott; John Ruskin; Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte; Henry James and Sir John Betjeman.
 
A number of Westminster’s Deans and Cannons are buried in the South Transepts as well as the famous composer George Frederick Handel plus Shakespearean actors David Garrick and Sir Laurence Olivier.
 
St Edward the Confessor's Shrine
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Behind the High Altar and screened off from the West end of the abbey is the Chapel of St Edward the Confessor. His shrine is the heart of the Abbey and the reason that the Abbey did not suffer the fate of many other abbeys during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. The Royal reverence for Edward the Confessor made the abbey the only place to be crowned and buried.
 
In 1539 King Henry VIII assumed direct royal control of the Abbey and in 1540 created the Diocese of Westminster giving the abbey cathedral status thus making it safe from the dissolutions. In 1579, Queen Elizabeth I re-dedicated the abbey as the Collegiate Church of St Peter, (that is a church with an attached Chapter of Canons).
 
Although the Shrine is a magnificent structure it is only a shadow of its former glory. When King Henry III rebuilt the abbey he also rehoused the saint’s body in a magnificent shrine. The body was moved in 1269 into a three tiered shrine decorated with gold images of kings and saints. Pilgrims flocked to the shrine seeking cures and miracles. During the Dissolution the monks dismantled the shrine and stored it away, and re-buried the saint in another part of the cathedral.
 
During Queen Mary I’s reign she brought the Benedictine monks back to make Westminster an abbey once more. The shrine came out of storage and the Purbeck marble base was re-assembled. The saint’s coffin was placed in a hollow in the top of the base, where it remains today. The wooden canopy has been restored and re-painted.
 
The Royal Tombs
Around the shrine are the royal tombs of Henry III; Edward I; Eleanor of Castile; Edward III; Philippa of Hainault; and Richard II and his Queen Anne. To the east is the chantry chapel and tomb of Henry V.
 
Coronation Chair
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Grouped around the back of St Edward the Confessor’s chapel are ambulatory chapels. Beside a short flight of steps is the Coronation Chair last used during the Coronation of the present queen. The chair dates from 1296 and used to house the Stone of Scone underneath the seat. The stone has now been returned to its rightful place in Scotland.
 
Lady Chapel
At the top of the steps is a pair of finely wrought bronze gates emblazoned with Tudor coats of arms. This is the entrance to the superb Lady Chapel. The Chapel is a magnificent example of medieval architecture.
 
Begun in 1503 and funded by King Henry VII, the chapel has a roof of breathtaking fan-vaulting and carved stone pendants. Around the walls are 95 statues of saints and behind the altar is the tomb of Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York. Also buried in the vault beneath the monument is King James I.
 
In 1725 the chapel was first used for the installations of Knights of the Order of the Bath and the heraldic banners of the knights hang over the oak stalls. The hinged seats have wonderful misericords carved underneath.
 
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The chapel fairly blazes with colour from the banners and the East Window. The window commemorates fighter pilots and crew who died during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Badges of the participating squadrons are incorporated into the design of the window.
 
South Aisle
Beneath the floor of the south aisle of the Lady Chapel lie the remains of Charles II, William III and Mary I, and Queen Anne but there are no monuments to them. George II, the last monarch to be buried at the Abbey, is interred in a vault below the central part of the chapel.
 
The monuments in the south aisle are to Mary, Queen of Scots and Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. In the north aisle of the chapel is the most impressive tomb to Queen Elizabeth I and her half sister, Mary I.
 
Abbey Museum
Walking back through The Choir on the south side is the entrance to the Abbey Museum. It is housed in the vaulted undercroft of Edward the Confessor’s original church below what was the monks’ dormitory.
 
The Collections contains some very rare and unusual items. There are a number of historic funeral effigies including Edward III, Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth I, Charles II, William III, Mary II and Queen Anne. Later wax effigies include a remarkable likeness of Horatio Nelson clothed in his actual full dress uniform.
 
A corset of Queen Elizabeth I, found on her effigy, is also on display together with the funeral helm, shield and the saddle of Henry V. The most recent addition to the Collection is the 13th century alter panel featuring the Abbey’s patron saint, St Peter, most beautifully cleaned and restored.
 
The Museum is open daily from 10:30 – 16:00 but may be closed for State ceremonial occasions.
 
The Abbey Precincts in November
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Around the 11th of November each year, little memorial cemeteries made up of miniature crosses and red poppies appear on the grass surrounds of the Abbey. Individual service organisations hold private services around these little memorials and it is very moving to witness these tributes to all those who have died in service to their country.
 
Plan Your Visit
Opening Hours
All year, except religious holidays such as Easter and Christmas and the following exceptions.
 
Main Abbey Church
Open    
Please refer to Abbey website for each day’s opening times  Web:Westminster Abbey website/ Main Abbey Church
 
Closed 
Sunday                       Worship only. No Tourist Visiting
Easter and Christmas   Worship only. No Tourist Visiting
 
The Cloisters
Open with Abbey ticket – please refer to the Opening Times link above
 
Admission Costs
Admission costs are involved. We therefore recommend that visitors visit the Abbey web site for full details  Web:  Westminster Abbey Admission costs
 
Audio Guides & Other Guides
Audio Guides are available from the Abbey Information Desk near the North Door. There is a Verger led tour available plus Blue Badge guide tours. Please refer to  Web:  Westminster Abbey Guided Tours
 
Disabled Access
Wheelchair confined visitors should use the wheelchair ramp at the North Door. There is wheelchair access to various areas of the Abbey, however some areas of the Abbey are unavoidably inaccessible due to the age and design of the building. Please refer to the Abbey website for details Web:  Westminster Abbey Disabled Access
On this website there is a link to the 'Disabled Go' website which has detailed visiting information.
 
Contact & Further Information
For detailed information on opening times and costs, etc.  call at the Chapter Office, Dean's Yard, Westminster Abbey, London SW1P 3PA or
Telephone   +44 (0)2072 225 152  
Mail   This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 
 
Getting There
To find the best way for getting to Westminster Abbey, visit TfL Journey Planner.
 
- By Underground
Westminster Station       Jubilee, District & Circle Lines
St James's Park Station   District and Circle Lines
 
- By Tour Bus
Do not forget that Visitors can use their ‘Open Top’ tour bus ticket to travel to Westminster Abbey, 10 Downing Street, Horse Guards, The Banqueting House, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben precinct.
 
- By Bus
We suggest that you use the Transport for London 'Journey Planner' on this page.
 
- By Car
Not recommended.
 
Google Maps - Westminster Abbey