If you have to pick just one church to see in London—nay, one church in the entire world—this is the one. The echoes of history are mind-blowing: The current building dates from the 1200s, but it was part of a monastery dating to at least 960. Every English monarch since 1066 has been crowned here (with three minor exceptions: Edward V, Edward VIII, and possibly Mary I). There are 17 monarchs interred here (deaths dating from 1066 to 1760—the crypts here are overstuffed, so now they go to Windsor), as are dozens of great writers and artists. Even if England’s tumultuous history and the thought of bodies lying underfoot don’t stir your imagination, the interior—in places, as intricate as lace—will earn your appreciation. A visit should take about 3 hours and should begin early, since entry lines (1.3 million tour a year) can be excruciating.
Unlike St Paul’s Cathedral, which has an airy, stately beauty, the much smaller Westminster is more like time’s attic, packed with artifacts, memorials, tombs, and virtuosic shrines—a confluence of God, art, and dense history. It’s easy to feel overloaded after just a few minutes. Take your time and don’t get swept along in the current of visitors. Let them pass. There are stories to be told in every square meter of this place—name another building where there is such a staggering continuity of a nation’s heritage.
A visit is likely to start with a welcome from a volunteer; the Abbey follows the Benedictine tradition, which dictates a warm reception for everyone. It’s also still a functioning spiritual center, so there may be calls for prayer or moments of silence as you tour. You’ll be in the Nave, passing Darwin’s resting place (just after the first blue gate), and it only accelerates from there. Bombastic tombs abound; take your time absorbing their colonialist self-importance. Google one and you’ll unravel a tale, such as the one Thomas Banks sculpted (1789) for Sir Eyre Coote, commander of the British Forces in India—[“]death interrupted his career of glory.” Although his battles of conquest slaughtered thousands of Indians, he is attended by a weeping naked savage. All that ponderous stone, yet he (like many others memorialized in the Abbey) is not even buried here—he’s in Hampshire.
The royal tombs are clustered in the region of the High Altar, where coronations and funerals are conducted. The most famous rulers of all time are truly here—not in story, but in body, a few inches behind marble slabs. Some are stashed in cozy side chapels (which once held medieval shrines before Cromwellians bashed them to pieces during the Reformation; some vandalism is still visible), but the oldest are on the sanctuary side of the ambulatory (aisle). The executed Mary, Queen of Scots was belatedly given a crypt of equal stature to her rival, Elizabeth I, by Mary’s son James I, who gave himself only a marker for his own tomb beneath Henry VII’s elaborate resting place. Some Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs are also here (Charles II, Queen Anne, William and Mary) but don’t have elaborate tombs. James I’s infant daughter Sophia, who died aged 3 days, was given a creepy bassinet sarcophagus in the Lady Chapel (peer into it using a mirror).
The audio tour only picks up highlights, and that pushes you along too quickly if you’re truly interested. The Treasures of Westminster Abbey book in the gift shop is useful for identifying oddities and learning about people buried under them, but it’s £15. If you have questions, approach anyone in a red robe; they’re “vergers,” or officers who attend to the church. They lead 90-min. tours (usually at 10am, but up to five times daily, for £5) and if you stump them, you may win an invitation to the atmospheric Library, a creaking loft that smells of medieval vellum and dust, where an archivist can answer you.
The South Transept is Poet’s Corner, where Britain’s great writers are honored. You’ll see many plaques, but 60 percent (Shakespeare, Austen, Carroll, Wilde, the Brontës) are merely memorials. The biggest names who truly lie underfoot are Robert Browning, Geoffrey Chaucer (he was placed here first, starting the trend), Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy (without his heart, which was buried in Dorset), John Gay, Rudyard Kipling, George Frideric Handel (who popularized the use of the Abbey as a concert venue), Dr. Samuel Johnson, Laurence Olivier, Edmund Spenser, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Ben Jonson is commemorated here, but is actually buried in the Nave near Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and new genius on the block, Stephen Hawking. Also in the Nave, in the northwest corner, look out for a batch of prime ministers underfoot.
* That oak seat in the last niche before your exit is the Coronation Chair. Unbelievably, nearly every English monarch since 1308 has been crowned on this excruciating-looking throne. The slot under the seat is for the 152kg (336-lb.) Stone of Scone, said to be used as a pillow by the Bible’s Jacob, and a central part of Irish, Scottish, and English coronations since at least 700 B.C. After spending 7 centuries in the Abbey (except for when Scottish nationalists stole it for 4 months in late 1950), the Stone was returned to Scotland in 1996, where it’s on view at Edinburgh Castle. It will return for every future coronation.
* Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew the monarchy and ran England as a republic, was buried with honors behind the High Altar in 1658. Three years later, after the monarchy was restored, his corpse was dug up, dragged to Tyburn (by the Marble Arch), hanged, decapitated, the body tossed into a common grave, and its head put on display outside the Abbey. (Didn’t they realize he was already dead?) Today his much-abused cranium is at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. Cromwell’s daughter, who died young, was mercifully allowed to remain buried in the Abbey. In the window above the grave, look for a hole that was left after a 1940 Blitz bombing.
* The High Altar, with a mosaic floor laid in the year 1268, is where coronations take place. The actual event sounds glamorous, but it’s actually excruciating for everyone involved: Some 8,500 spectators are packed into this small space and the monarch’s crown weighs a brutal 5.5 pounds.
* The Quire is where the choir sings; it comprises about 12 men and 30 or so boys who are educated at the adjoining Westminster Choir School, the last of its type in the U.K. The wooden stalls, in the Gothic style, are Victorian, and are so delicate they’re dusted using vacuum cleaners.
A 2018 addition, made out of a very old space never before open to the public, is the 13th-century Triforium, a sort of horseshoe-shaped attic 70 feet up, with an astounding view down the length of the sanctuary—a lift tower was grafted to the venerable building just for it. This once-dusty aerie is now a mind-blowing museum about royal connections with the Abbey called the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries (book a timed ticket in advance). You’ll find such fascinating stuff as Prince William and Kate’s marriage license, the lavishly illuminated book the Litlyngton Missal (1384), and the startlingly lifelike effigies used in centuries of monarchs’ funerals—many, like Mary II, wearing their original garments. Back on the ground, look also for the panel concealing the Chapter House, which was made between 924 and 1030 and is Britain’s oldest door. Time seems suspended in the Cloister, or courtyard. Writer Aphra Behn was buried in the East Cloister near the steps of the church when she “dyed” in 1689 (her wry inscription: “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality.”). Even better gardens are hidden away: Look for the fragrant and fountained Little Cloister Garden, blackened by 19th-century coal dust, and beyond that to the right, the wide College Garden (open Tues–Thurs), a tempting courtyard with daffodil beds, green lawns, and five plane trees dating to 1850. The garden is thought to be Britain’s longest-established one, having been cultivated for nearly a millennium. Westminster School, started by the abbey’s monks in the 1300s, stands nearby; past students include Christopher Wren, Edward Gibbon, John Gielgud, and pop musicians Thomas Dolby and Gavin Rossdale. (Incidentally, there haven’t been monks in this complex for 550 years, yet Londoners persist in calling it an “Abbey.”)
Get a real sense of the majesty of the space at a service. Evening prayer services with choirs from around the world are at 5pm weekdays; sung Eucharist is on Sundays at 11am, plus a Sunday organ recital at 5:45pm and evening service with simple hymns at 6:30pm (but check ahead, since services are sometimes shuffled to smaller, but equally historic, chapels). Holy Communion is daily at 8am, Matins are at 10am, and Evensong is Saturdays at 3pm. There’s also a daily Eucharist at 12:30pm in the Nave. Next door, pop into St Margaret’s Chapel (free), which the monks built in 1523 so they’d be left alone in peace. The Germans didn’t comply: Some southern windows were destroyed by a bomb and were replaced by plain glass, and in addition to damage to the north wall, Pew 3 remains charred.