A symbol of the UK’s Anglican community, it is a place of great cultural relevance; it houses and commemorates intellectuals and leaders, believers and atheists, supporters and opponents of the laws of God and man, kings and commoners, politicians and artists.
On 15 June, the ashes of the well-known British scientist, Stephen Hawking (1942-2018), will be placed next to Isaac Newton’s and Charles Darwin’s graves. In this monumental building more than three thousand figures from across the UK and the world are laid to rest or are remembered.
Declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, Westminster Abbey, called the parish church of the world, is considered to be a sanctuary of knowledge, art, innovation and history.
Situated close to the British Houses of Parliament, the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter, Westminster was originally a Benedictine monastery from the year 960.
In the middle of the 11th century, King Edward the Confessor ordered its reformation and expansion to create a church in honour of Saint Peter the Apostle. However, unfortunately, the project was not consecrated until the end of 1065 when the King became unwell and part of the building was converted into his grave shortly after.
In the 13th century, King Henry III decided to re-build the structure in a gothic style and ordered the creation of a grand place of worship but also a place for the coronation and burial of monarchs.
The church was consecrated on 13 October 1269, but Henry also died before the works were finished. His remains rest close to those of Edward the Confessor. Since then, the abbey has witnessed 38 coronation ceremonies and the coronation chair still stands there as it has from the end of the 13th century.
In addition to hosting 16 royal weddings and numerous religious services, amongst those Princess Diana of Wales’ funeral in 1997, the church houses over 600 monuments and wall tablets and the remains of hundreds of people.
The tradition of celebrating matrimonial unions dates back to 1100 when Henry I married Princess Matilda of Scotland. The most recent wedding ceremony took place in April 2011 when Prince William (eldest son of Princess Diana and nephew of Queen Elizabeth II) married Catherine Middleton. The figures buried there include various members of the Royal Family, amongst them Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, James I, Anne of Denmark and Edward VI amongst others.
Also buried in the abbey are the scientist Jon Windebank, the writer and historian William Camden, the dramatist John Gay, the doctor, explorer and missionary David Livingstone, the musician and composer John Parsons, the poets Edmund Spencer and Alfred Tennyson and the actors David Garrick, Henry Irving and Laurence Olivier.
One of the most visited graves is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Established in 1920 to pay tribute to those who fought in the First World War (1914-1918) and to those who gave their lives in subsequent conflicts.
‘They buried him among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward his house’, a fragment of the inscription reads, making reference to a biblical text.
Despite not being buried there, writers Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, Charlotte, Anne and Emily Bronte, William Shakespeare, the physicist Michael Faraday and Princess Diana of Wales are commemorated with memorials or commemorative plaques.
Above one of the main doors there are 10 statutes of 20th century martyrs, amongst them Martin Luther King Jr from the United States and Oscar Arnulfo Romero from El Salvador.
As well as housing and honouring men and women of their time and country, the building is considered to be a marvel of gothic architecture; it has the highest gothic vault in England (31 metres) and has valuable paint, sculptural, textile and other works.
It also has a wide collection of documents, photos and books from different years and historical moments. During the Second World War (1939-1945), fixed objects and graves were protected with thousands of bags of sand, whereas tapestries, statutes and archives were moved to other buildings.
Nowadays, in addition to being one of the most interesting tourist sites in London and treasuring a large part of the United Kingdom’s history, the abbey is a place of active worship. It has daily programmes for prayer and art which include holding ceremonies on anniversaries and special events. (PL)
(Translated by Corrine Harries) – Photos: pixabay