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Why Westminster Abbey is One of the World's Great Churches

Only have time to see one church in London? You can't beat Westminster's mix of history, monarchy and artistry.

If you had to pick one church in London to see, pick Westminster Abbey (Broad Sanctuary, SW1; tel. 020/7654-4900;; £10 adults, children 11-17, seniors, and students £6; Mon-Tues and Thurs-Sat 9:30am-3:45 pm, Wed 9:30am-7 pm, closed Sun and occasionally for special events; Tube: Westminster). Heck, even if you had to pick one church in the world, it's hard to do better. The echoes of history here -- the current building dates from the 1200s, but it was part of a monastery dating to at least 960 -- are simply mind-blowing: Every English monarch since 1066 has been crowned here (with three minor exceptions: Edward V, Edward VIII, and possibly Mary I). Seventeen monarchs are interred here (their deaths date from 1066 to 1760), as are dozens of great writers and artists. Even if England's tumultuous history or the thought of bodies lying underfoot don't pluck the strings of your imagination, the interior -- in places, as delicate and as intricate as lace -- will earn your appreciation. A full visit should take about three hours.

Unlike St. Paul's Cathedral, which boasts a stately beauty, the much smaller Westminster is more like time's attic, packed with artifacts, memorials, tombs, and virtuosic shrines. It's easy to feel overloaded after just a few minutes; by the time you've pocketed the change from your admission ticket, you're already treading on the final resting place of poor William Bradford (died 1728 at age 32). It only gets busier from there. Take your time and don't get swept along in the current of visitors. There are dozens of stories to be told in every square meter of this place.

Inside the sanctuary, tourists are corralled clockwise from the North Transept. The royal tombs are clustered in the first half of the route, in the region of the High Altar, where coronations and funerals are conducted. Hard to believe as it is, but some of the most famous rulers of all time are here -- not in story, but in body, just 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 game himself only a marker for his own tomb beneath Henry VII's elaborate resting place. James I's infant daughter Sophia, who died after three days, was given a vividly creepy bassinet sarcophagus in the Lady Chapel.

Only tombs are labeled, so it helps to have an audio guide. Rentals stop by early afternoon. If you have questions, approach anyone in a red robe; they're "vergers," or officers who attend to the church. They also lead 90-minute tours at least once daily (usually at 11am, for £4). If your question stumps even 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 most (Shakespeare, Austen, Carroll, Wilde, the Brontes) 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 (buried without his heart), John Gay, Rudyard Kipling, 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 and Charles Darwin.

Now for a few Abbey secrets:

  • That oak seat between the Sanctuary and the Confessors' Chapel, near the tomb of Henry V, is the Coronation Chair. Unbelievably, every English monarch since 1308 has been crowned on this excruciating-looking throne. The slot under the seat is for the 336-pound 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 700B.C. After spending seven centuries in the Abbey (except for when Scottish nationalists stole it for four months in late 1950), the Stone was returned to Scotland in 1996, where it's on view at Edinburgh Castle. It will return to its slot 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 modern-day Marble Arch), hanged, decapitated, the body tossed into a common grave, and its head put on display outside the Abbey. The joke was on the Royalists -- 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.
  • The Quire is where the choir sings the daily services; it comprises about 12 men and 22 boys who are educated at the adjoining Westminster Choir School, the last of its type in the world. The wooden stalls, in the Gothic style, are Victorian, and are so delicate they have to be dusted using vacuum cleaners. (Considering how many royal Henrys are buried here, it's fitting that Henry brand machines are used.)
  • The Da Vinci Code's climax took place in the octagonal Chapter House, but the movie was shot elsewhere. From 1250, the graceful room still has its original floor of handmade tiles and its mural depicting the Apocalypse, considered the most extensive and best-preserved of its type in the country. Its southwestern stained glass windows, the last ones before the exit, were blown out during World War II; look closely for the single replacement pane depicting bombs falling and buildings burning.

The Abbey's oft-overlooked Museum, beside the Pyx Chamber, contains some amazing treasures, including Edward III's death mask (thought to be the oldest of its kind in Europe; it's made of walnut and doesn't ignore his facial droop, which resulted from a stroke), ancient jewelry "found in graves" (we know what that means -- pried from skeletons), the fake Crown Jewels used for coronation rehearsals, 14th-century leather shoes and Roman tiles unearthed on the grounds, and the fateful Essex Ring, which Elizabeth I gave to her brilliant confidant Robert Devereux, telling him to return it if he needed her. He tried to, but his enemies intercepted it, and he was beheaded at the Tower of London in 1601. Oops.

Time seems suspended in the Cloister, or courtyard. But better gardens are hidden away. At the Museum, head for the corridor to the left and you'll find the fragrant and fountained Little Cloister Garden, blackened by 19th-century coal dust, and beyond that to the right, the wide College Garden, a tempting courtyard with daffodil beds, green lawns, and five plane trees dating to 1850. The garden has been continuously planted for 900 years, when it grew herbs for an adjacent hospital. Westminster School, started by the abbey's monks in the 1300s, stands nearby. (Incidentally, there haven't been monks in Westminster Abby here for 550 years, yet Londoners persist in calling it an "Abbey"; the formal name is The Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster.)

This article is an excerpt from Pauline Frommer's London, 1st Edition, available in our online bookstore now.

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