For around the last thousand years or so, if you were to become the King or Queen of England, there is only one place where would you go for your coronation, your wedding or ultimately your funeral.
Westminster Abbey is arguably the most important place of worship in Britain and if you’ve had the chance to visit this masterpiece of gothic architecture, you’re sure to realize why.
The Abbey is ideally located in the Westminster Borough of London, which is also home to the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street, St. James Palace and Buckingham Palace as well as a number of other historic and popular tourist spots.
The church has a history that dates back to AD 960 when it was originally founded, but what we see today is the result of a reconstruction effort that took place between 1245 and 1517 which makes it about over 700 years old.
Today the Gothic-style cathedral is not only a fully functioning church and a place that performs important duties for the royal family, but also a major tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
When I write about tourist destinations here in Asia, its often the case that there is very little in terms of English language resources available, so I need to spend a lot of time translating any information that I think is relevant.
For the places I visited on my Euro-Trip however I’ll be able to depart from my usual blogging style as they have already been written about extensively. I feel like it would be pointless for me to sit here and relay all of that information to you when it is so readily available elsewhere.
So what I aim to do with this blog post and the other Europe blog posts to follow is to more or less share some of the photos I took, give some impressions of the tour and also some practical information about visiting.
To start, I guess I’d like to say visiting Westminster Abbey was a bit of a ‘religious experience’ for myself. Probably not in the way you are thinking though.
Westminster Abbey is not only the burial place for British royalty, but also for others who were of significance in English history. In total, the Abbey commemorates (and is the burial place for) over 3,300 individuals who played an important role in English and world history.
Despite knowing the historical and architectural significance of Westminster Abbey, my main motivation for visiting wasn’t to check out the graves of dead Kings and Queens, nor was it for anything to do with Christianity - it was to enjoy some amazing architecture and to visit the grave of Charles Darwin, both of which I came away quite content with.
It may seem a bit ironic to have an agnostic superhero like Charles Darwin buried in such an important religious building, especially when you consider that his research and discoveries have invalidated quite a few of Christianity’s claims.
Darwin however was an important figure in English history and in death was given the respect that the people of the time thought he deserved.
While I won’t go into a lot of detail about the history or architecture of the Abbey, I think there are a few interesting historic facts about it that can be mentioned - most of which I don’t think are often mentioned in other articles:
- What’s in a name? “Westminster Abbey” isn’t actually the official title of the church which is the “Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminter”. Coincidentally it isn’t even an “Abbey”, as it holds a special designation known as a “Royal Peculiar” meaning that it is a church responsible directly to the sovereign.
- As mentioned above, since 1066, the church has been the place to go if you are to be coronated as the King or Queen of England. In that time 39 coronations have taken place at the Abbey with the most recent one in 1953 for Queen Elizabeth II.
- Over 3,300 people have been buried or commemorated in the church including seventeen monarchs as well as notable figures like Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and Isaac Newton. If you are interested in literature don’t forget to stop by “poets corner” which commemorates many of England’s greatest literary figures.
- A point of confusion is whether or not Westminster Abbey is Catholic or not. First I’ll mention that there is also a “Westminster Cathedral” which is Catholic, but it is not the same location as “Westminster Abbey”. The Abbey of course was originally run by Benedictine Monks and under the sphere of Rome’s influence, but that all ended during the “English Reformation” when King Henry VIII decided he wanted to get a divorce and for better or worse changed the course of world history. Westminster Abbey has been a part of the Anglican Church since the early 16th Century.
- Translation work for the King James Bible (KJV) was undertaken by committees of scholars at the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and at Westminster. Westminster in particular was responsible for the books of Genesis - 2 Kings in the Old Testament and the Epistles of St. Paul in the New Testament. While non-Christians will argue it was just a translation of the bible, the translation is considered by others as one of the most important books in English culture.
- If you know me, you know I like old doors - Westminster Abbey is home to what is known as the ‘oldest door in the realm’, an oak door that connects the cloister to the abbey and carbon dating has its origins dated back to approximately 1050AD. Its also really short.
- A Posthumous Execution? England was a bit of a barbaric place back in the day, so when the monarchy was restored after the English Civil War, the body of Oliver Cromwell was dug up from the Abbey and given a ‘ceremonial execution’ with his head being placed on a pike in a public square elsewhere.
- Westminster Abbey is home to the UK version of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tombs, which have been erected in many nations around the world as a memorial for a nations war-dead and have become sacred places. The tomb in my native Canada is an especially beautiful version, but here in Westminster, the level of respect given to this tomb is so high that not even a member of the royal family can walk across it. It is only fitting that this tomb is found in Westminster Abbey.
- While it’s unfortunate that you can’t take photos inside Westminster Abbey, there are a few places on the grounds where photos are permitted. The Chapter House for example is one of those places where those with cameras must visit. The Chapter House, which was constructed in 1250 for the daily meetings of the monks who resided at the Abbey later became a meeting place for the King’s Council and the Commons, the predecessor of today’s Parliament. The architecture of the octagonal chamber is spectacular and makes for for pretty nice photos!
Now lets get into some of my thoughts and tips for others for visiting:
It’s a Busy Place
The first thing you have to know about visiting the Abbey, whether its off-season or not is that an estimated two million tourists visit each year. You are going to be visiting the cathedral with hundreds, if not thousands of others who may be travelling individually or travelling in large tour groups. With that amount of people it can be a bit difficult to really enjoy all the fine details of the historic church before you get pushed on to the next stop.
Something you’ll have to get used to while travelling through Europe are the constant Security Checks that you’ll have to go through before gaining access to historic sites. The Security Checks are a lot like what you have to go through at the airport, so my advice for getting through as quickly as possible is to not bring very much with you and to refrain from wearing boots or belts with metal inside as you’ll have to take them off. If you’re a photographer like myself, do not bother bringing a tripod or monopod (of any size) as they will likely ask you to check it in which can be time consuming.
One rule that irritates me when visiting tourist sites, especially those where you pay a hefty admission fee is the “No Photos” rule. This is strictly enforced at Westminster Abbey by the security personnel who walk around as well as the clergy who are also on the floor performing various tasks. It’s obvious that they can’t stop everyone from taking photos or the occasional selfie, so when you visit you’ll see guests sneaking some photos which may give you a bit of courage to take one of your own - If you get caught however, like I did, you’ll get a stern “NO PHOTOS” warning which can be a bit embarrassing.
If you are planning your trip in advance, the best thing you can do when visiting Westminster Abbey, and any major tourist destination in Europe, is pre-purchase your tickets. If you visit the Abbey’s website, you can buy your tickets online and then either print out the web-ticket that they send you or save the PDF file on your smart phone. This will ultimately save visitors quite a bit of time, especially during the summer months when the queues to get in can be quite long. If skipping the ticket line is not enough of an incentive to buy your tickets online, you can also save a bit of money as the online tickets are £20 while on site purchases are £22 for adults.
Check the Westminster Abbey website for Children, Family and Group rates.
Its not really neccessary to join a tour group or have a guide while visiting the Abbey, but it is important that you pick up an audio-guide at the entrance and stop to listen to all of the important information that is presented. Personally I tend to frown upon tourists who hold audio-guides and stand in the same place for long periods of time, but when it comes to Westminster Abbey, there is just too much information and way too much going on in terms of detail that you may ultimately regret not listening intently. If you don’t get an audio-guide you will definitely miss out on quite a few important historic details. You may also want to consider downloading the free Westminster Abbey Audio Tour App (iOS / Android) before leaving home so that you can easily use your smartphone.
Audio-Guides are included in the price of admission and are available in over a dozen languages.
Plan For a Full Day
Depending on how much time you have in London, you’ll probably want to full day of exciting activities. The important thing to remember though is that a visit to Westminster Abbey is going to take the better part of an afternoon. There is just way too much to see and learn, so don’t think that you’re going to be able to walk in and walk out in an hour, that would be a complete waste.
We started our day with a visit to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard ceremony in the morning, then stopped for some breakfast (Tea and Crumpets!!) before arriving at Westminster Abbey around 1:00pm. We probably spent the better part of three hours inside the church before moving on to check out the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (which are a short two-three minute walk away from the exit.) We then walked from there to Trafalgar Square, where I wanted to get some photos of the beautiful Canadian embassy, then had some dinner and finally over to the river to check out the night view of the London Eye.
When in London there are few tourist spots as significant as Westminster Abbey - It’s one of those must-visit locations and like close-by Buckingham Palace there are always throngs of tourists visiting. Still, a visit to Westminster Abbey is a rewarded experience for any traveller which offers an interesting look into the last several hundred years of British history.
The purpose of this blog post was to just share a few of the photos I took at Westminster Abbey - There is already more than enough information online about this historic location. If you are reading however, I think some of the tips listed above should help out if you plan on visiting!