Bradshaw’s Hand Book, Part III, The West – Westminster Abbey and precincts (no.17)

Westminster Abbey, says Mr Bradshaw is a ‘..magnificent edifice, .. said to have been founded by Sebert, King of the East Saxons in 616. This spot of ground was then a small insulated tract, surrounded by the Thames, and called Thorney Island..’. The Abbey, the Collegiate Church of St Peter to give it its full name, was enlarged and rebuilt by Edward the Confessor, and Henry III, and in 1502 Henry VII laid the first stone of his mausoleum, an absolutely breathtaking chapel, and also granted further land to the Abbey. During the dissolution of the monasteries, 1836-40, Henry VIII appropriated much of the Abbey’s revenues and converted the Benedictine monastery into a Cathedral. Sir Christopher Wren undertook repairs in the 1600s and today it is one of the iconic buildings in London, attracting many visitors. Entry is expensive, £15-£20/head, and the annual ‘ticket’ costs £34-40, so take your time! However, there are free organ recitals every Sunday evening, just 30 minutes, which enables visitors to sit in and enjoy the nave.

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey, the west front

The Cathedral is ‘.. a designated World Heritage Site and ‘Royal Peculiar’, which means the Dean is directly answerable to the monarch. The coronation of Kings and Queens has taken place here since 1066, and many of the nation’s Kings and Queens are buried in the Abbey. Principal among them is St Edward the Confessor, King of England from 1042 to 1066, whose shrine is at the heart of the Abbey. Also buried or memorialised here are over 3,000 great men and women from almost every century of these islands’ history: statesmen and politicians, lawyers, warriors, clerics, writers, artists and musicians..’.

Westminster Abbey, the North door
Westminster Abbey, the North door
Pyx Chamber, Westminster Abbey
Pyx Chamber, Westminster Abbey

Edward the Confessor’s Abbey was consecrated in 1065 but only the Pyx Chamber (not open to the public) and Undercroft (now the Abbey Museum) remain from this building.

A reconstruction of the Norman Abbey at Westminster
A reconstruction of the Norman Abbey at Westminster
The Abbey and the Old Palace of Westminster
The Abbey and the Old Palace of Westminster

This amazing picture shows the island, as well as the Abbey and old Palace of Westminster. (Site here.)

Ground plan for the Abbey and precincts
Ground plan for the Abbey and precincts

Westminster Abbey, interiorWestminster Abbey, Nave and Choir Screen

Edward VII’s Chapel is stunningly, amazingly, breathtakingly beautiful, almost a ‘froth of architecture having ‘..the character of embroidery..’, in Mr Bradshaw’s words. You have to visit! I thought of the tourists who stood beside me in the queue, earlier in the day, and voted for coffee rather than ‘yet another church’ – a whole experience, a revelation, something which, for them, cannot easily be regained, has voluntarily been missed in favour of an everyday cup of coffee.

The celing of the Edward VII Chapel, Westminster Abbey
The ceiling of the Edward VII Chapel, Westminster Abbey
Edward VII Chapel
Edward VII Chapel

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Photographs are not permitted in the church,  but I wandered through the remaining buildings, trying to capture a sense of the old Abbey. The large cloister surrounds a garth, (an enclosed yard), which is one of three original gardens in the Abbey. The green of the garth symbolises regeneration, perhaps prompting reflection as the monks walked through the cloisters.

The Large Cloister, Westminster Abbey
The Large Cloister, Westminster Abbey
The Large Cloister, Westminster Abbey
The Large Cloister, Westminster Abbey
The garth in the Large Cloister, Westminster Abbey
The garth in the Large Cloister, Westminster Abbey

And in one corner, against a wall, grave of Abbott Laurentius, who died in 1176. But I couldn’t find any further information about him.

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DSCF7077The little cloister is another of the original gardens, set aside for patients recuperating from illness – and those of us who garden will understand the beneficial effect of running water, and scented flowers.

The gate into the Little Cloister, Westminster Abbey
The gate into the Little Cloister, Westminster Abbey
The Little Cloister, Westminster Abbey
The Little Cloister, Westminster Abbey

The college gardens are only open to the public on selected weekdays, and I was unlucky. This would have been the infirmarer’s garden, a ‘Brother Cadfael’ garden, and, according to the website, probably unique in England – I will have to return. But today I went out instead into Dean’s Yard.

The entry into Dean's Yard
The entry into Dean’s Yard
A detail from the doorway
A detail from a doorway in Dean’s Yard
Dean's Yard, Westminster Abbey
Dean’s Yard, Westminster Abbey
The gate into Westminster School
The gate into Westminster School

The Chapter House was also closed to the public, but I could see the roof from outside the walls of the Abbey.

The Chapter House roof, from outside the walls of Westminster Abbey
The Chapter House roof, from outside the walls of Westminster Abbey

And from the Houses of Parliament one gets a good sense of the Abbey, with the Jewel Tower in the foreground – a remnant of the old Palace of Westminster.

Westminster Abbey from the site of the Palace of Westminster
Westminster Abbey from the site of the Palace of Westminster

The Right of Sanctuary belonged to the Church and even to property surrounding the Church. ‘..The general sanctuary afforded a refuge to those only who had been guilty of capital felonies. On reaching it, the felon was bound to declare that he had committed felony, and came to save his life..’ – the punishment was voluntary exile from the country. ‘..A peculiar sanctuary might afford .. a place of refuge even to those who had committed high or petty treason; and a person escaping thither might, if he chose, remain undisturbed for life..’. These privileges were abolished by Henry VIII, but are remembered in the road names around the Abbey: ‘The Sanctuary’, ‘Little Sanctuary’, and ‘Broad Sanctuary’.

From the Almonry ‘..the alms of the Abbey were distributed, and it was here in 1474, that William Caxton produced the first printed book..’. The building was situated at the corner of Great Smith Street and Victoria Street. The area became a notorious slum also known as ‘The Devil’s Acre’, but Mr Bradshaw’s indicates the area had been cleared by the time he was writing.

The Almonry, where Caxton set up the first printing press
The Almonry, where Caxton set up the first printing press
The Devil's Acre slum, an engraving by Gustave Dore from 1872
The Devil’s Acre slum, an engraving by Gustave Dore from 1872

Westminster School was ‘..founded towards the close of the eleventh century..’. ‘By 1179 .. a decree of Pope Alexander III required the Benedictine monks .. to provide a charity school to local boys. Parts of the school’s buildings date back to the 11th century, older than the current Abbey..’. The school enjoyed Royal sponsorship and it was only in 1868 that it became independent of the Abbey, and began to change into its modern form.

The Phoenix on the roof of the school, commemorating its revival after WWII
The Phoenix on the roof of the school, commemorating its revival after WWII

Sites which might interest you

A look at the secular enclave within Westminster Abbey

 

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