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GOTHIC glory Before the cameras and crowds arrive for the royal wedding, we sent Christopher Nye to take a tour of Westminster Abbey – a venue synonymous with state occasions

Here and top right: at night, Westminster Abbey is atmospherically lit; inside the abbey’s Henry VII Chapel looking east from the entrance

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n 29 April, a young lady and her father, who work together in a small family mail order business, will enter the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey beneath the recently added statues of ten 20th-century martyrs, including Martin Luther King Jr. Maybe she will be inspired by their courage for the joyous but nerve-wracking ordeal ahead of her, making her marriage vows to Prince William of Wales before a global audience numbering in the billions.



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After entering the Abbey, Kate and Michael Middleton will walk past the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and later, like most of the royal brides since 1920, she may lay her bouquet on the tomb. They will see the first of the 2,000 or so guests and walk carefully together over the uneven stone floor of the Nave, over the graves of men like Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. There will be a few seconds of privacy – time for a quick word of encouragement – while they are within the screen that divides the Nave from the Quire, then they’re out again between the choir stalls. The boys singing here are from the Westminster Abbey Choir School, just 33 boys, all boarding from the age of seven, so no strangers themselves to being thrust nervously into the limelight at a young age. From here on the Abbey will feel a little more intimate, with just friends, family and the seriously important people in this central area, called the Sanctuary. When the Queen was married here in 1947 huge banks of added seating allowed for 8,000 guests, but Kate perhaps won’t be too upset that modern health and safety rules have brought the numbers down.

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Westminster Abbey was built by kings, is the burial place of royalty and has held the coronation of every monarch since the time of William I

Above: Princess Elizabeth marries Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten at Westminster Abbey in 1947.Below: royal exhibits displayed in Westminster Abbey Museum

With her family on the left and William’s on the right, she’ll join William Arthur Philip Louis before the high altar, and kneel on the 13th-century mosaic floor called the Cosmati pavement. William is bound to have mixed feelings about this place. He’ll be standing on the spot where the coffin of his beloved mother Diana rested, just below the small pulpit from which his uncle Earl Spencer made the astounding speech pledging to ensure that “William and Harry’s souls” would not be “simply immersed by duty and tradition, but can sing openly as you [Diana] planned”. Here too, was the funeral of William’s greatgrandmother the Queen Mother in 2002, the wedding of the current Queen and Prince Philip in 1947, her coronation in 1952, and, one day, William’s own coronation. As the Dean of Westminster Abbey, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, explains: “A parish church has weddings and baptisms and funerals; so if it’s your parish church then it has all those family associations for you. In a funny sort of way, this is the royal parish church, and the church for the nation.”

A TOWERING ICON Westminster Abbey was built by kings, is the burial place of ruling royalty and has held the coronation of every monarch since William Wales’s 24-times great-grandfather William I of England – aka William the Conqueror, aka William the Bastard (though people didn’t say that so much after the invasion) – was the first to be crowned here on Christmas Day 1066. Indeed the Abbey is a Royal Peculiar, a church that comes under the direct jurisdiction of the Queen rather than the Church of England. A smallish monastery was built here in the year 960, probably on a previous church or even a Roman temple. When Edward the Confessor reclaimed the English Kingdom from the Danes in 1042 he was so thrilled that he rashly promised to make a pilgrimage to Rome. Later rethinking the distance and the dangers between west London and Rome, he asked to be excused his promise

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and the Pope agreed on condition that he restore a church instead. This he did, and Westminster Abbey was completed in late 1065, just in time to bury Edward in it when he died a few days later. The funeral at the brand new Abbey is recorded on the Bayeux Tapestry, and you can see the tomb of St Edward today behind the high altar just a few feet from where William and Kate will be making their vows. There’s plenty of romance here, as most of the Royal tombs are topped by carved effigies of their occupants lying together. There’s Henry VII and his wife – carved by an Italian sculptor who had fled to England after breaking

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A ROYAL INSTITUTION Take a peek inside London’s other celebrated royal wedding venues



A cathedral has existed in some form at St Paul’s – known as the nation’s greatest church – since AD604. The site of many emotional public events, the cathedral became a wedding venue in 1501 when Katherine of Aragon married Prince Arthur. The cathedral was once more chosen for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

Michelangelo’s nose in a fight – Henry V, Mary Tudor sharing a tomb with Queen Elizabeth I, and nearby the woman Elizabeth had beheaded, Mary Queen of Scots, whose head was stitched on again before burial. Kate may wonder what sort of family she’s marrying into. The present Westminster Abbey is mainly the work of Henrys III to VII between 1245 and 1516. They gradually knocked down Edward’s clunky Saxon building and rebuilt in the gothic style, including the highest nave in Britain and the most gorgeous carved stone fan-vaulted ceiling in the Lady Chapel. Then Henry VIII almost destroyed it, when over-enthusiastic henchmen damaged some of the finer works during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The two grand towers at the front were added in 1745.

Above: aerial view of Westminster, showing the Houses of Parliament flanked by the River Thames and Westminster Abbey surrounded by its original gardens. Below left: visitors are able to take various types of abbey tours including vergerled, audio and guided tours

ST GEORGE’S CHAPEL, WINDSOR CASTLE Numerous royal weddings have taken place at St George’s Chapel, particularly during the 19th century. The building was founded in 1348 by Edward III as a symbol of his devotion to the church. The marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles was dedicated at the chapel following a civil ceremony at Windsor’s Guildhall in April 2005.

ROYAL CONNECTIONS The Abbey’s treasures haven’t always been as well protected as they are today. Edward the Confessor’s body was dug up many years after his death and he was found to be so well preserved and “flexible” that he inspired miracles and was sainted. The fine mosaic decoration from his and other tombs was stolen by early-medieval souvenir hunters. Edward 1 (1239-1307) had his tomb broken when people stood on it to watch another funeral and he was found to be 6’2” tall, hence the nickname Longshanks. When a hole appeared in the tomb of Richard II (1367-99) a Westminster schoolboy stole his jawbone (it was returned

CHAPEL ROYAL, ST JAMES’S PALACE The Chapel Royal was built in the mid 16th century and is located in the main block of the Palace. It was a popular setting for weddings during Queen Victoria’s reign. The queen herself married at the chapel on 10 February 1840 and her eldest daughter, Victoria, also exchanged vows there in 1858. The venue is ideal for smaller occasions as the chapel seats just 100 people.

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CHURCH OF REMEMBRANCE More than 3,300 people are buried in Westminster Abbey, though only ashes are interred these days, including statesmen William Wilberforce, Gladstone and Disraeli. Poets’ Corner is filled with graves and memorials to Britain’s great artists, writers and actors. But don’t think that this is just a mausoleum. Westminster Abbey is a working church, with services every day, including other weddings and christenings held in the chapels around the Abbey. Royal weddings have come back into fashion here again only relatively recently. The wedding of 12-year-old Aveline to Edmund Crouchback in 1269 began a flurry of royal weddings in

Clockwise from left: memorial plaques and graves of famous poets in the abbey’s Poets’ Corner; the 1973 wedding of Princess Anne to Captain Mark Phillips took place at the abbey; the nation’s ‘parish church’ towers over the landscape


in 1906). Henry V’s wife’s coffin was left on display and the diarist Samuel Pepys kissed her 200-year-old lips so he could say he “kissed a queen”.

the late 1300s, but since then it is only the House of Windsor that has really taken a shine to Westminster Abbey. George VI and the Queen Mother were married here in April 1923, the current Queen in 1947, her sister Margaret in 1960, Princess Anne in 1973, and Andrew and Sarah Ferguson in 1986. Charles and Diana were married in St Paul’s, making Westminster Abbey extra thrilled to have got William and Kate. The Abbey is currently in manic restoration mode. A £1million donation from Bank of America Merrill Lynch is paying for a programme of restoration including the Cosmati pavement before which the couple will say their vows, and the earliest contemporary painting of a British monarch, Richard II (he of the stolen jawbone) that Kate and her father will see first as they enter the West Door. You can see it all too. The Abbey’s status as a Royal Peculiar means that it receives no money from the Church of England so has to charge an entry fee (of £15 for adults). Odd, that Britain’s museums are free but you have to pay for the nation’s “parish church”, but for an extra £3 the 90-minute verger’s tour is well worth the money. It also keeps the crowds manageable and allows those who have come to worship to do so in peace. h

PLANNING YOUR VISIT GETTING THERE: By car, drivers will need to heed Central London parking restrictions; for details visit There are no parking facilities at the Abbey. By train, the nearest London Underground stations are St James’s Park and Westminster. Regular red London buses will take you

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close to the Abbey doors. For more information on London transport call 0843 222 1234 or WHERE TO STAY: The Sanctuary House Hotel on Tothill Street is located in one of London’s oldest areas just a couple of minutes’ walk from Westminster Abbey and other nearby attractions.

Rooms start from around £90 per room per night. Tel: 020 7799 4044. WHERE TO EAT: The Cinnamon Kitchen is set in the Grade II-listed former Westminster Library in the heart of Westminster and offers Indian haute cuisine created using age-old

recipes. Tel: 020 7626 5000 DON’T MISS: the Abbey’s 90-minute verger’s tour for an extra £3 on the admission fee. MORE INFORMATION: Westminster Abbey is open Mon to Sat from 9.30am. Closing times vary. Tel: 020 7222 5152.

Westminster Abbey  

An article about Westminster Abbey for Heritage magazine, (now Discover Britain). From 2011, for the wedding of William and Kate Middleton