How to Tour Westminster Abbey

 

Few places across the British empire encapsulates all that is England more than gothic Westminster Abbey. Born from the vision of the Benedictine monks in 960 AD and still an active place of daily worship, Westminster Abbey remains the focal point of England’s past and present. Simply consider: Westminster Abbey is the site of all coronations since the Battle of Hastings, 16 royal weddings, and the final resting place of more than 3,000 of England’s illustrious citizens including literary giants Chaucer, Dickens and Kipling, scientific pioneers Sir Issac Newton and Darwin, and political luminaries Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell. That’s right. It’s overwhelming. So, in the spirit of breaking down this daunting monument a bit, we’ve prepared some guidance for visiting Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey as seen on Context’s walking tour – Britain Through the Ages

First, Some Westminster Abbey Facts:

  • 40 British Monarchs since William The Conqueror on Christmas Day 1066 have been crowned in the Abbey.
  • The chair on which every monarch has been crowned on since 1308 and which was last used at the coronation of our current monarch Queen Elizabeth II, sits quietly in a corner of the Abbey.
  • 18 British monarchs are buried in Westminster Abbey. They are joined in their tombs and vaults by over 3,000 of the nation’s most illustrious statesmen scientists, musicians, poets and writers and many more are commemorated.
  • At its heart is the Shrine of an English Saint, Edward the Confessor a site of Christian pilgrimage from the 12th Century and it remains so today. He is surrounded by some of his most famous descendants including Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots; Richard II and Henry V, both immortalized by William Shakespeare.
  • But perhaps the greatest man buried in the Abbey, rests in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He was an anonymous soldier from World War I, representing all those who have died in conflict. No one, not even the Monarchs can walk across his tombstone. It is fitting he is buried in the nation’s parish church.
  • Westminster Abbey receives no money from the government or from the Church of England. The Abbey receives about 1 million paying visitors per year and gets most of its money this way.
Exterior of Henry VII's Lady Chapel
Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, the last great masterpiece of English medieval architecture-Westminster Abbey

 

Brief Bits on Westminster Abbey – Architecture

  • The current Abbey was built to replace an earlier Abbey on the site that had been built in 1065 by Edward the Confessor, it was in the Norman or Romanesque style of Architecture.
  • The Abbey today is a stunning masterpiece of what we know as Gothic Architecture spanning 500 years, started in the 1200’s by Henry III, England’s builder king and finishing in the 1700’s.
  • The Lady chapel, built in the early 1500’s provides a complete contrast to the rest of the Abbey, it is one of the finest examples of what we know as perpendicular gothic and has one of the most remarkable stone vault ceilings in England, known as a fan vault, it is almost lace like and will take your breath away.
  • The Chapel also contains one of the largest and finest collections of late medieval statues in England and is the spiritual home of the Knights of the Order of the Bath, an honour bestowed on individuals by our Monarchs since the 1700’s. Their presence in the chapel is represented by stunning heraldic flags each telling their own story.

 

The interior of the Henry VII Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey
The interior of the Henry VII Lady Chapel – burial place of fifteen kings and queens, stands at the far eastern end of Westminster Abbey.

 

Is Westminster Abbey an Abbey or a Cathedral?

  • An abbey from the Latin abbatia, which is derived from the Syriac abba, “father”, is a Christian monastery or convent, under the government of an Abbot or an Abbess.  The first community of Benedictine Monks arrived on the site of Westminster Abbey in 960AD. Edward the Confessor built the monks an Abbey Church in 1065 and Henry III constructed the monks an even grander Abbey Church on the same site.  When touring with Context follow in the footsteps  through the very same cloisters as the Benedictine monks did a millenia ago.
  • During the reign of Henry VIII,  Henry dissolved all the monasteries in England as well as declaring independence from the Church in Rome, which eventually led to England becoming a protestant nation. The monks were thrown out of the Abbey and only returned for a short while during the reign of Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter Mary I. The monks were once again removed by Elizabeth I who created a new charter for the Abbey in 1560 calling it The Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, its actual  title even though the world knows and loves it as Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth I was the last Monarch to be buried in the Abbey with a monument above her tomb, but a secret lies within that tomb, discover it on the tour.
  • In place of the Abbott, a dean was appointed to lead the collegiate body of clergy and lay people who worship and keep the Abbey running. The current Dean Dr. John Hall is the 35th Dean to hold the post since 1560.

You can find out more about the balance between the church and political power in England on our Monarchy and Parliament tour.

Pointed arch north transept door
Detail of the pointed arch north transept door Westminster Abbey

Practical Points of Touring Westminster Abbey

  • When walking around the Abbey, there are lots of small steps and uneven surfaces. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes.
  • If you have binoculars bring them as it will enhance the experience of your visit. Gentlemen are asked to take off their hats and no food or drink is allowed in the Abbey.
  • There is a small café in the medieval cellars of the Abbey, and there is a coffee stall in the exterior grounds of the Abbey. There are toilets in the café for people using the café but there are very limited toilet facilities once you are in the Abbey so we recommend those needs are taken care of before your tour.
  • Every hour on the hour, the Abbey asks that Visitors stop and stand silently while short prayers are held. You do not have to take part in those prayers but it’s a great time to just stop and take in all the majesty of the building.
  • If you wish to pray at the shrine of St Edward the Confessor you would be welcome but it is not possible to visit it at any other time. Photos are not allowed in the Abbey.
On Tour with Context-Westminster Abbey, Britain Through the Ages
On Tour with Context-Westminster Abbey, Britain Through the Ages

Westminster Abbey Tour with Context Travel

Why Westminster Abbey is called a Royal Peculiar? What is the gruesome link between Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. To find the answer to these questions and more, book our  Westminster Abbey tour. It’s great for adults and families traveling with children. If booking a private, we can customize the walk according to your interests and desires. Just contact our office for details.

Lion Sculpture in front of Westminster Abbey
Lion Sculpture in front of Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey Timeline

1065  – Original Norman Abbey Built by Edward the Confessor

1066 – William the Conqueror Crowned in the Abbey on Christmas Day

1245 – Henry III pulled down the eastern end of the Norman Chapel to build

a new Gothic Abbey

1269  – The Gothic Abbey was consecrated

1400’s – The Nave and West Front was completed

1516 – Henry VII adds The Lady Chapel onto the East end of the Abbey

1540 – Henry VIII – dissolves the Monastery the Abbey becomes a Cathedral with a Bishop

1556 – Mary I restored the Benedictine Monastery – Monks return to the Abbey

1560 – Elizabeth I removes the monks once more and establishes the Collegiate Church of St.
Peter at Westminster.

1603 – Elizabeth I buried the last English Monarch to be buried with a monument over her tomb.

1745 – The Towers on the west Front completed.

1760 – George II is buried and is the last English monarch to be buried in the abbey.

1870 – Charles Dickens buried

1920 – The Unknown Soldier was laid to rest in the Abbey

1953 – Coronation of Elizabeth II

1997 – Funeral service for Princess Diana.

2011 – Marriage of Prince William to Catherine Middleton

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