Friday, March 17, 2006

Westminster Abbey

I did eventually make my way to Westminster Abbey on Wednesday. I'll fill in it's history tomorrow if I remember to bring my guide book with me :) It's one of the few churches that you have to pay to enter; this isn't simply because it's a huge tourist attraction with a lot of staff but because it continues to be an active church that refuses state or secular funding and thus remains independent. After spending years trying to throw off the imposed rule of the state when the monks were informed that a bunch of loud, rowdy noblemen were going to use their chapter house as the meeting place for parliament, I guess they decided that the royal rule could sod off and they've been holding firmly to their independence ever since.

It takes longer than you think to go round it - even if you're not reading every single memorial plaque or tombstone. I was there for several hours before having to run for a bus stop and barely got back to work in time to start my shift. (mmmm all day exploring on my feet and then a 6.5 hr shift, damn but my feet hurt by the time I collapsed in bed that night!).

It is incredible and beautiful inside, though in a more morbid way than other churches I've visited. Or perhaps, rather, than the sense of awe it gives and the feeling of being inspiring relate not to God but rather to the works of mortal man. It is very much like walking through a cemetary - except one that's inside, warm and largely full of very very rich people (or people who had rich friends). Overall there feels like their are few images of Christ or the saints but many of mortal men/women, heraldic emblems to represent households, and where a saint or angel might be shown in other churches in Westminster Abbey there seems rather to be an image of a bishop or cardinal looking down at you. There is an immense sense of power lingering from these people inthe past but it's hard to see their reverence past the trappings of wealth and the narcissim that seems inherent in their 'look at me, remember me!' funeral trappings.

To be fair, although this is part of the feeling that emnates from these hugely elaborate tombs and statues this doesn't necessarily mean that these people were narcissistic. Certainly for the royalty it would have been expected that they have these huge elaborate tombs [some of them complete with their own metal fencing. I like Elizabeth's, she even has the fleur-de-lis to emphasise England's claim to France (well, they ruled over parts of it at various times depending on who married who)]. For some it was simply the way that things were done; if you had the money you paid the Church vast sums of money to say masses for your soul and you had a nice large tomb with a statue of you looking penitent lying on top of it.

All of which conspires to give Westminster a very different atmosphere. It's also very crowded. I mean there are heaps of alive people there in a literal sense although you never feel mobbed. It's rather that there seem to be tombs, statues and memorial plaques everywhere. You realize that what look like long, low, flat, dark stone benches tucked up by the wall are actually sarcophagi that are so old that any writing on them or design has rubbed off. You look down at your feet and many of the flagstones either are memorials or acknowledge someone buried beneath you (which is rather an eerie feeling as you walk).

I was disappointed that there were no transi tombs or images relating to the Three Dead & the Three Living but I did find one that represented the changing attitudes to death post-Black Death. There was a fantastic tableau showing a man and woman clutching hold of each other on a ledge while a skeletal Death, dressed in rags, begins to step out from under them and menacingly turns a spear towards them.

Part of the fun of Westminster Abbey is finding all the famous people that you recognise that are either buried or recognised there. The Abbey is quietly cordoned so as to control the flow of traffic in certain directions so that you go around the abbey in one direction and eventually see all of it. Royalty and nobility first - Edward the Confessor, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and many others. The poets corner has memorials to everyone from Dickens to Shakespeare to Lord Byron. Chaucer is actually buried there. [I got to touch Chaucer's tomb! So cool in a rather macabre way). There's also statues for admirals, scientists, soldiers etc... Seeing Isaac Newton's memorial was very cool having finished reading the Da Vinci Code. The grave of the unknown warrior is very touching. He is represents the unknown, the faceless, the unnamed dead of the first world war.

~ Abbey History ~
A Benedictine monastery was established by St Dunstan (AD 909-988) om what was the marshy Isle of Thorney. King Edward the Confessor re-endowed the monastery, and founded the present church in 1065. William the Conqueror was crowned there in 1066. Henry III's architect Henry Yevele rebuilt much of the church in 1245. The nave was completed in 1376. The eastern end of the church was extended by Henry VII who had the Lady Chapel built. Finally in 1734-45, the twin towers on the west front were completed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.

The crown jewels used to be kept here and looked after by the monks before being moved to their present location in the Tower. You can go into the storeroom/vault where the treasures were kept. Now they're just held at the Abbey overnight before a coronation.

The Chapter House, where the monks gathered, was used as the House of Commons from 1257-1542, much to the displeasure of the monks. The wall paintings in there are incredibly old and some parts of them can still be seen.

The coronation chair made in 1301 for Edward I is on display there. It has been used for every coronation since his and was built to house the stone of Scone (now returned to the Scots).


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