10 facts about Westminster Abbey

The west front of the Abbey © VisitBritain/Britain on View

Westminster Abbey is famous for its royal spectaculars and soaring Gothic architecture, but there are many largely unknown – and sometimes rather strange – reasons for visiting the Abbey.

WORDS CAROLINE ELLIS

Westminster Abbey
The west front of the Abbey © VisitBritain/Britain on View

1 Very ap-peal-ing
You can often hear the ringing of its bells well before you reach the Abbey. There are two Elizabethan bells to call worshippers to services and 10 modern bells for change ringing. A special royal or national event is celebrated by the remarkable full peal. At least 5,000 sequences are rung without a break. This marathon takes over three hours and is all done from memory.

 2 Wax and wood
The Abbey museum holds the unexpected sight of the lifelike figures of many monarchs, some in full costume. The effigies used to be displayed on top of the royal tombs and were often paraded at the funerals. Some were created from death masks. Coming face-to-face with these realistic figures can be an unnerving experience.

3 Abundance of tombs
The royal tombs and Poets’ Corner are well known, but did you know that there are 450 tombs and monuments in Westminster Abbey? For several hundred years anyone who could afford the fees could be buried in the Abbey, and then came the gradual change to public figures. The tombs of the not-so-famous can be just as fascinating as those of the celebrated. Look for the skeleton emerging from Lady Nightingale’s tomb – it’s a grisly vision of death.

Lady Elizabeth Nightingale
The remarkable monument commemorating Lady Elizabeth Nightingale

4 Chapel in the wall
The five-foot Chapel of our Lady of the Pew is hollowed out of the thickness of the north wall of the Abbey. This tiny space was dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the 1300s and it was said that Richard II prayed here before riding out to confront Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt. The Pew means a small enclosure and it’s standing room only.

5 Cromwell’s cranium
A stone in the pavement of the Lady Chapel of Henry VII records The Burial Place of Oliver Cromwell 1658–1661.  But in 1661 the monarchy was restored and the body of the Lord Protector was thrown out of the Abbey. It was dragged to Tyburn Gallows and hung on the anniversary of the execution of Charles I. Cromwell’s head was stuck on a pole outside Westminster Hall, where for many years it was a chilling reminder of the English Civil War.

6 Glorious gardens
When you sit in the lovely College Garden by the Abbey it is almost impossible to believe you are in the heart of the hubbub of Westminster. It is said to be the oldest garden in England and originally grew food and medicinal herbs for the monks.

7 England’s oldest door
An oak door by the Chapter House was recently dated to about 1050 AD. Pieces of hide were noticed on the door in the 1800s and a legend grew that this was the flayed skin of a thief nailed to the door as a warning. But investigations showed that it is in fact cowhide, fixed to the door as a smooth base for decoration.

8 End of the world…
The sanctuary of the Abbey is covered by a Cosmati pavement, made up of thousands of cut pieces of mosaic and porphyry. Its brass lettering now just tells us its date (1268), the king (Henry III), and where it came from (Rome). But lost lettering helped explain a symbolic meaning which a calculated how long the universe would last – 19,683 years.

9 Bearded woman
St Wilgeforte was a favourite of women who wanted to be rid of abusive husbands. The saint was said to have grown a beard after praying to be made repulsive to escape a forced marriage. Her statue is of one of the many sculptures of saints and angels in the Lady Chapel of Henry VII.

10 Grand graffiti
Since 1308 nearly every monarch has been crowned on the famous Coronation Chair. But, up close, you will notice that is that it is covered in graffiti – the work of schoolboys and other visitors in the 1700s and 1800s.

Visit www.westminster-abbey.org for more information and for opening and service times.

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