Centuries of history come to life on a verger tour of Westminster Abbey

Tourists line up to enter Westminster Abbey in London. Two million people a year visit the cathedral, which contains many historic graves, statues and beautiful architecture and glasswork.


By NANCY NATHAN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: February 1, 2019

I am a cathedrals nut. In France, in England -- and anywhere else I can follow a tall spire to a historic cathedral. Often, I design a cathedrals itinerary.

And when I'm in London, I never pass up Westminster Abbey, one of the greatest.

But you don't have to be a cathedrals nut -- or even an Anglophile -- to treasure time travel in the abbey's aisles. Two million people a year visit this most important royal church, site of every coronation since 1066 and where 17 monarchs are buried. As its guidebook says, "No other church in the land has a history so inextricably bound up with that of the people of the British Isles."

That royal status largely spared the abbey from the fractures that laid waste to many altars, stained glass windows, sculptures and relics in churches across England during the Reformation under Henry VIII in the 1540s and, in the 1640s, during the English Civil War.

The abbey is a pantheon, chockablock with thousands of memorials, many huge and very dramatic, to Britain's most celebrated scientists, writers, explorers, politicians and warriors. The path visitors usually follow, especially using a free audio guide, around the nave and then back to the east end, is a history walk.

If you have time for the 90-minute small-group tours led by the abbey's vergers (lay staff who attend to the cathedral's important visitors and assist the clergy), sign up at the information desk on arrival. The verger tours are always a bit different and a lively history lesson. My most recent verger guide sprinkled the walk with anecdotes about topics such as his role positioning Princes William and Harry on the day of William's 2011 wedding to Kate Middleton.

As we passed through the side aisles lined with dramatic monuments, among the many highlights was the small circular floor marker over the grave of the 17th century playwright Ben Jonson, who died impoverished and begged Charles I for just 18 square inches of abbey space, saying he could only afford to be buried standing up.

At the far west end, by the entrance used for major ceremonies, is the black marble tablet with a surround of red poppies that memorializes Britain's Unknown Warrior, so important that processions for weddings and funerals pass around it, not over it. Nearby, a floor tablet honors Winston Churchill. My guide said Churchill declined to be buried at the abbey, saying he didn't wish to be walked upon in death as he had been in life.

At the screen separating the nave from the choir, there is an enormous monument to Isaac Newton, with a carving depicting his many discoveries. Nearby, in that same area full of scientists, lie Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking. The physicist's ashes were buried last year; an abbey spokesman said that burials of people, such as Hawking, who are not connected to the abbey are highly unusual. There already have been about 3,300 burials at the abbey, but space is tight and since about 1900, even the exceptional burial has been limited to cremated ashes. Memorial tablets are added a few times a year, usually in response to appeals by a group. For instance, this year a memorial to humorist P.G. Wodehouse will be placed in the Poets' Corner, by permission of the dean of the abbey, in response to a petition from the Wodehouse Society.

In Poet's Corner, in the south transept, there's the marble tomb of 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer, whose burial began the custom of Britain's greatest artists being buried or memorialized at the abbey. My guide explained that the ancient Chaucer tomb is tiny because he stood just over 4 feet tall. Many of the memorials - to the likes of William Shakespeare - are just that, but there are graves of others, such as Rudyard Kipling, Robert Browning, Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens, who died in 1870 and whose grave was kept open for a few days while crowds of mourners paid respects. Among the enormous marble monuments is one of composer George Frederick Handel, whose likeness was taken from a death mask.

Every coronation since 1066 has taken place at the high altar, which is surrounded by a 1268 mosaic pavement of 30,000 pieces of marble, onyx and glass made by the famous Italian Cosmati family of artisans. When I went to the daily evensong service recently, I was lucky that my line filed into seats set up right next to that fascinatingly complex Cosmati floor and the tomb of Anne of Cleves, the only one of Henry VIII's wives buried at the abbey. The evensong service at any Anglican church allows you to take in the history and architecture in a quiet way usually impossible during visiting hours.

An advantage of the verger tour is that it's the only way to get into the tiny and ancient Edward the Confessor shrine, a raised area behind the high altar. The pious Anglo-Saxon King Edward, who founded the abbey, was made a saint, making the abbey a pilgrimage destination. His tomb is the only medieval English saint's tomb with the full body buried within it. (They have checked.)

Arched niches around the elevated tomb were used by centuries of pilgrims kneeling below; those kneeling pilgrims took pieces of the Cosmati twisted decoration around the tomb, though some pieces remain near the top. Kings and queens who reigned after Edward, from 1200 to 1400, wanted to be buried near him. You can take in the scene of the small chapel, with the gilded bronze effigies of all those monarchs, while your verger guide relates their vivid histories.

Beyond Edward's small and dark chapel is the huge, spectacular, light-filled Henry VII's Lady Chapel of 1516, with its soaring fan-vaulted ceiling rising high above the gilded bronze tombs of Henry and his queen, Elizabeth of York. Most cathedral nuts consider this chapel's English Perpendicular ceiling among the greatest of that late Gothic style, particularly because it introduced pendants hanging far below the ceiling, with spectacular carved fans spreading above each of those pendants.

This one large room houses a colorful panoply of English history, from the rows of multicolored flags of the members of the Order of the Bath high above to the stained glass window honoring RAF pilots of the 1940 Battle of Britain. In the floor are markers of the many royals buried until the late 1700s, when they ran out of space; starting with George III, burials were at Windsor. There's a marker over the space where Oliver Cromwell lay for three years before the body of that English Civil War leader, who led a revolt against the monarchy, was taken to a city gate and hanged in public when Charles II retook the throne.

To each side of the Henry VII chapel are narrow spaces, narrow because they were intended to be private, that might hold more history per square meter than any others, anywhere. Queen Elizabeth I's bright white marble effigy, well more than life-size, lies at the center of the north chapel under a barrel vaulted arch. She holds the orb and scepter, and a carved ruff covers her chest. A golden crown with stones sits behind her head. The elderly queen's face and long fingers were taken from casts made after death in 1603. In the same narrow chapel, visitors pass two memorials to infant daughters of James I, one peeking out at you above blankets in her stone cradle. Close by, a marble sarcophagus designed by the great architect Christopher Wren holds bones discovered in the Tower of London in 1674. It's now debated whether they belong to the young "Princes in the Tower," the sons of Edward IV who some believe were killed in 1483 while held prisoner there by order of Edward's brother and rival, Richard III.

On the other side of the Henry VII chapel lies the richly decorated marble effigy of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was accused of treason and executed in 1587 by order of her cousin, Elizabeth I. Also, there are simple floor plaques marking the burial below of four Stuart monarchs, from Charles II to Anne.

On your way back to the main part of the abbey, you'll pass the Coronation Chair. Unbelievably, this high-backed simple wooden armchair, dated from about 1300, has been used at every coronation since, and will be again, for the next monarch. Faint traces of original paint remain, along with graffiti carved by Cromwell's troops in the 17th century and by boys from the Westminster School in the 18th. (At the next coronation, as with that of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, it is likely that the abbey will be closed for several months while galleries are erected to expand seating from the current 2,500 to 8,000.)

To see the oldest areas of the building, find the east cloister. Along it is the entry to the 13th century octagonal chapter house, where monks prayed and the predecessor to Parliament met in the 1300s. Original tiles and wall paintings survive. Further along is the oldest part of the abbey, the undercroft, used as the treasury.

A new museum overlooks the nave, through the stone arches of the 13th-century triforium, where monks once did laps in penance. The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries, 180 steps up in a space never before visited, display artifacts including monarchs' effigies made over many centuries to be used in royal funeral processions.

Two small London churches are as old as Westminster Abbey and escaped the 1666 Great Fire of London unlike 84 others, including the medieval St. Paul's Cathedral replaced by Christopher Wren's huge domed Baroque cathedral of today.

A short walk from St. Paul's is the oldest, St. Bartholomew the Great. Its half-timbered gatehouse and dark Norman interior signal the vast difference between St. Bartholomew's and all the post-Great Fire churches that dot London. It has impressive tombs, and one of only two pre-Reformation baptismal fonts, where the painter William Hogarth was christened in 1697. In a workshop once part of the church, a young American named Benjamin Franklin went to learn the printing trade. St. Bartholomew's is a frequent setting for films, including "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Shakespeare in Love."

In another direction from St. Paul's, down Fleet Street from Ludgate Hill, you can find the Temple Church, built in 1185. It is round, modeled on Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. That's no accident. Henry I introduced the Crusading Order of Knights Templar to England, organized to protect pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land. Directly on the stone floor of the Temple lie carved effigies of several knights from the 1200s, bearing swords and armor, including William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke and adviser to King John before the Magna Carta and sometimes called the last great feudal baron.

Like St. Bartholomew's, the Temple Church escaped the Great Fire. But on the last night of the Blitz in May 1941, a bomb did great damage to the structure and some of the effigies. But the restored Temple Church, like the abbey, rewards the London visitor seeking evidence of English history from the very earliest medieval period.