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Westminster Abbey is the setting for coronations, State funerals, and the burial place of many of England’s most famous kings and queens.
The Abbey was founded in 616 when a fisherman witnessed a Thorney Island vision. A shrine was then kept throughout the ages until some Benedictine monks built an abbey in the 730s. Edward the Confessor ordered the construction of a better building in 1045, and it was consecrated a week after his death.
Henry III knocked it all down in the 13th-century and began building it again from scratch. This construction was largely completed by Richard II 260 years later. Religious persecution throughout the 16th and 17th-centuries threatened many English churches and abbeys with destruction, but Westminster Abbey’s royal connections always kept it safe for the nation.
By the 18th-century it had risen to become the third-highest seat of learning in the country after Oxford and Cambridge.
William the Conqueror was the first king to be crowned at Westminster Abbey, on Christmas Day in 1066. The famous Coronation Chair may look modest, but it has been used at every coronation ever since. The only monarchs to skip the tradition were Edward V and Edward VIII.
The Scottish equivalent of the Coronation Chair is the Stone of Scone, which used to lie in the gap at the base of the chair. It was forcibly taken from the Scots in 1297 when Edward I dragged it back to London, but it has now been returned to its rightful place in Edinburgh.
Westminster Abbey is also famous for its funerals. Every king and queen from Edward the Confessor to George II can be found buried here, with the exception of Henry VIII and Charles I, who are both buried at Windsor Castle.
Charles I’s nemesis, Oliver Cromwell, was also given an elaborate funeral here in 1658, only to be dug up and hung when the monarchy was restored under his son. Such was Charles II’s anger, that he left his head upon Westminster Hall for twenty-five years until it finally fell off in a storm. It now resides in Cambridge. His body is believed to buried somewhere under Marble Arch.
The Chapel of Edward the Confessor  is one of the most famous tombs in Westminster Abbey, whilst the Henry VII Chapel  is easily the most beautiful. Banners of the Knights Order hang all around the choir stall, and the burial tomb of Henry and his Queen can be seen at the back.
Other monarchs interred in the Lady Chapel include Elizabeth I, Mary I and Edward VI. Most poignant of all is Innocents’ Corner , which contains the bones of the two princes murdered in the Tower of London.
The full list of kings and queens buried inside Westminster Abbey is: Anne, Charles II, Edward the Confessor, Edward I, Edward III, Edward VI, Elizabeth I, George II, Henry III, Henry V, Henry VII, James I, Mary I, Mary II, Mary Stewart, Richard II and William III.
One of the most popular parts of Westminster Abbey is Poets’ Corner  – the burial place of the nation’s greatest playwrights. You can see graves or memorials to Geoffrey Chaucer, Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens (who was apparently buried here against his wishes, on the orders of Queen Victoria).
Other writers include Milton, T S Eliot, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Rudyard Kipling, Dylan Thomas, Jane Austin and the Brontë Sisters. William Shakespeare is buried at Stratford-upon Avon, but still has a grand statue to commemorate him here.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
The last time I went to Westminster Abbey was back when William and Kate got hitched, so I thought I’d go back and have a proper look. It certainly looked a lotdifferent from when I saw the wedding highlights on the telly. For starters, there are no green trees up the aisle, and you can’t even look down the nave. I didn’t realise this before, but when there’s no big event going on they stick a big screen halfway up the nave and split the church in two. The people who want to come and listen to a mass come in the front door and see the first half, whilst all the tourists see the good stuff at the back.
The Westminster Abbey tour begins in the centre of the church, alongside the golden altar and choir stalls. They give you a little map and an audioguide narrated by Jeremy Irons and then off you go… you walk around at your own pace punching the numbers into the audioguide to find out who is buried where.
I thought the audioguide was a bit rubbish, to be hones. It’s not detailed enough… it seems to skip a lot of the interesting stuff. For example, when you reach the RAF chapel it will tell you about the stained-glass window at the back, but it completely fails to mention that Oliver Cromwell used to be buried in the floor. Unless you happened to notice the plaque by your feet you would have strolled straight past, none the wiser.
It also has an annoying habit of telling you about a few tombs, and then skipping straight over their neighbours. That’s no so bad when you’ve never heard of the occupant, but why do they tell you lots about Edward III and nothing about Henry V? Henry V was one of our greatest-ever kings and I find it incredible that we’ve still preserved his tomb – but the audioguide doesn’t seem to be very impressed.
The guide is also silent on the Prime Minsters buried in Westminster Abbey. It fails to point out where Winston Churchill is, for example, and says nought about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier either. I know that sounds unbelievable, but it’s true! Maybe Jeremy Irons had the day off when they did the burials. So take a tip from me and dont rely on the audioguide, or you’ll miss out lots of interesting facts – buy an actual guidebook and follow that instead.
Now that all of my moaning is out of the way, let me tell you that it’s a truly amazing place. It’s unlike any other church that you’ll have seen. The tombs and memorials and statues are piled up tight on top of each other and the whole thing is cramped like you wouldn’t believe. The monuments aren’t just in the walls either, there are plenty of plaques on the floor as well. You can walk past ten tombs every ten paces. Some of them are marble statues, whilst others are ten foot tall marble effigies.
The best part of Westminster Abbey is unfortunately the one place that you can’t actually go, because it’s too fragile: the tomb of Edward the Confessor. It’s protected in the centre and all you can do is snatch glimpses of it past the tombs of famous kings like Henry V. Henry VII gets an entire chapel to themselves, and it’s so impressive that Elizabeth I decided to sneak in round the side.
After that you come to Poets’ Corner with the big statue of Shakespeare. Most of the other writers just get a plaque on the wall or the floor, and it’s difficult to see most of them because this is where all the tourists congregate. Shakespeare is probably the only Englishman they know, so they stand there for half an hour admiring it.
After that it’s nice to get a bit of peace and quiet in the cloisters and the gardens. The audioguide turns off at this point so you can wander around and have a bit of peace and quiet.
The Chapter House is worth a look, and halfway round the cloisters is the Abbey Museum. It’s surprisingly small given the history of the place, but there’s a few bits and pieces in there that are worth seeing. They have a great collection of effigies of famous kings and queens. It’s like an early version of Madame Tussuads, I suppose, but with better clothes.
> Read Craig’s latest review of Westminster Abbey “Everyone who comes to London should visit Westminster Abbey... simple as that. It’s the second best building in the capital after Parliament, and contains the single greatest room in the Henry VII chapel. Unfortunately it’s also bloody expensive considering that it’s a church, but I suppose even God has his bills to pay. You definitely need to listen to the audio-guide all the way around otherwise you’ll miss a lot of interesting things, but I also recommend getting a good book and a map beforehand, because the guy on the audio-guide (Jeremy Irons) inexplicably misses out a lot of stuff… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of the Evensong at Westminster Abbey “You know you’re getting old when you’d rather go to a Westminster Abbey Evensong than a night out clubbing, but ah well – I am at that stage in life now. I am officially an adult. Let me just start off by saying that I am not religious in the slightest. I make Richard Dawkins look like the Pope. I totted up all the evidence for God and Father Christmas once, and Santa came out top – so that gives you some idea of what I think about Jesus. But I don’t think it really matters when it comes to enjoying a service at Westminster Abbey. There certainly isn’t any pressure to convert. The bouncer priests don’t look deep into your soul before they let you in… continued.”
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If you enjoy visiting Westminster Abbey then how about attending a choral Evensong service? You can attend another Evensong service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. You might like to visit Westminster Cathedral and climb the bell tower as well. Check out our list of churches in London and religious events and church services for some more ideas.
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Evensong Mass at Westminster Abbey From Westminster Abbey WestminsterYou can enjoy a choral Evensong service at Westminster Abbey for free, which combines a traditional mass with a choir.
Watch Casablanca outside Westminster Abbey Westminster Abbey WestminsterWatch Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergmann in Casablanca in Dean's Yard, round the side of Westminster Abbey.
Watch Romeo & Juliet at Westminster Abbey Westminster Abbey WestminsterLuna Cinema will be screening Baz Luhrmann's version of Romeo and Juliet in Dean's Yard, round the side of Westminster Abbey.
Watch Notting Hill outside Westminster Abbey Westminster Abbey WestminsterLuna Cinema will be screening the Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts movie 'Notting Hill' in Dean's Yard, by Westminster Abbey.
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