When we arrived in London 2.5 years ago, the first place we visited was Westminster Abbey. It was a no-brainer for a couple of history-obsessed tourists. What could possibly be more British than the church that sees the historic coronations, weddings, and funerals?
Back in 2014, we were so new to the travel game we hadn’t thought to buy tickets (£20 per person) online to skip the queue. But I went back to Westminster Abbey recently, and with words like “queue” officially in my vernacular, I bought my ticket online and was ceremonially ushered to the front. I wholly recommend doing this to anyone looking to visit the church.
When walking in this gorgeous Abbey, the first thing you notice is the sheer size. From the outside, it’s massive, yes, but from just the open foyer, the ceilings reach so high, and the space is so wide, the outside looks tiny in comparison. With your ticket, you get a free audio guide for the Abbey, and I cannot recommend doing this highly enough. Jeff and I have graded every single audio guide based on the sultry voice of Jeremy Irons, and none of them have come close.
As most churches and cathedrals built in Europe, Westminster Abbey was first founded because of a vision. In 960, Saint Dunstan founded the spot for a group of Benedictine Monks, but it was in 1042 that Edward the Confessor rebuilt the church so he could have a proper, royal burial spot. At the time, it was the first church in England built in Romanesque style. The church was consecrated one week before Edward passed away.
Inside the church, you can see Edward the Confessor’s tomb as well as a shrine to him built by King Henry III. Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed inside the church, so any pictures of the interior of the Abbey are courtesy of the site credited in the caption.
Construction of the present church began in 1245 by King Henry III, who also selected the site for his royal burial, but it was not finished until 1517 when King Richard II reigned. King Richard II’s portrait hangs high in the nave of the church because of his influence on the structure but also his importance to the Hundred Years’ War and general British history. Also in the nave is a gorgeous tomb for the unknown soldier. Because of the WWI centenarian going on, the tomb was surrounded by red poppies echoing the beautiful display at the Tower of London last year.
During King Henry VIII’s reign, the abbey was thankfully spared despite his overhaul of national religion. He gave the Abbey the status of “cathedral” in 1540. By doing this, Henry VIII gained an excuse to keep the church standing rather than being demolished like countless other abbeys in England.
King Henry VIII is not buried inside Westminster Abbey. He resides in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle with his “favorite” Queen, Jane Seymour, but former Queen Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife, is buried inside the Abbey. When I asked a guide where she was interred, she rudely told me Queen Anne was not inside Westminster Abbey, but I’m here to tell you, she is. She is easy to miss among the countless stones, but her name is mounted on a wall inside the church. I was sad to not see her my second time inside, but I did see the stone on our first visit.
Before you get to Henry VII’s Lady Chapel in the very back of the church, you can duck into two small side rooms off to the right and to the left. To the right is the tombs for Queen Mary I, or Bloody Mary, and Queen Elizabeth I. The two sisters could not have been more opposing in their religious views, but they were buried together as family in a gorgeous tomb that stands incredibly tall and engulfs the small room.
To the right of the Lady Chapel, three women are buried together: Mary, Queen of Scots; Margaret, Countess of Lennox who was King James I’s grandmother; and Lady Arbella Stuart who was cousin to King James I. Lady Arbella actually married William Seymour who, if you remember, was connected to Queen Jane Seymour, and therefore, the Tudor royal line.
This is what is so fascinating to me: the web of royalty and monarchy through the centuries. Truly astounding how it all fits together and how it sculpted Britain to what it is today.
As you continue on your path around the gorgeous abbey, you find yourself in the Poet’s Corner. This separate area of the church has countless headstones and monuments to the great influences of British literature, theatre, music, and more. William Shakespeare is buried in Stratford-upon-Avon, but he has a gorgeous monument mounted to the wall overlooking a handful of other headstones marking the tombs of Laurence Olivier, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Britten, and the three Bronte sisters.
From here, you turn in your headset and exit the main church and roam around the cloisters; an outdoor monument to other buried citizens surrounding a lovely green with views of the abbey towering above. If you follow the path a little more, you are met with the Chapter House and Britain’s Oldest Door.
The Chapter House is a small area completely surrounded by massive stained glass windows. Built in the 1200s under King Henry III, this small area is for the monks to have meetings, but it later became a place for the King to conduct his meetings. The floor is still the original tile from the 13th century, and the paintings on the surrounding walls date back to the 14th century. While they are currently being restored, I personally loved seeing the original, time-weathered deterioration.
Westminster Abbey has gone through centuries of restoration and conservation. Just a few weeks ago, I walked by and saw the structure covered in scaffolding. Today, it’s mostly repaired, but I wouldn’t be surprised if construction never ends on this gorgeous church. But it is quite impressive to know that despite the fires of 1666, the Blitz and WWII bombings, and even today with the uncertain climate, the Abbey still stands and is just as impressive as it was when it was first built.
I wholly recommend seeing this place if you’re in London. When I spoke to several locals about seeing the Abbey again after 2.5 years, many of them said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve never been myself.” It blows my mind that local Londoners have not yet stepped foot in a structure that is so intrinsic and important to the local history. It’s not just a place for tourists, nor is it just a place to film weddings and funerals of the royals.
Out of all of the cathedrals, churches, mosques, and chapels we’ve seen in our travels, Westminster Abbey takes the prize for most impressive in terms of size, history, and general awe.