Westminster Abbey: History & Travel Guide
Westminster Abbey is one of the most visited churches in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Traditionally, the kings of England are crowned and buried here, right in the heart of London. The solemn coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place here—and also the moving funeral of Lady Diana. A visit to the majestic church is a must on trip to London.
In this article, you will find the most important and exciting information about Westminster Abbey.
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The story of Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey dates back almost a thousand years: to 1045. The then ruling King of England, known as the pious Edward the Confessor, had Westminster Abbey built in the Romanesque style. He chose the site of a Benedictine abbey, which was founded here in the middle of the 8th century. 20 years later, on December 28, 1065, the work was completed. The festive inauguration of the church took place without the king because he was seriously ill. Before his death, he was canonized and was the first monarch to be buried in Westminster Abbey. Years later, under the reign of King Henry III, the originally Romanesque church was replaced by a sacred building in the early Gothic style.
But that was not the last rebuild or expansion for Westminster Abbey. The church has been transformed by the influence of various architectural styles throughout its long history. During your trip you will experience an exciting journey through the history of English architecture.
The west façade on the main aisle, for example, dates from the 15th century—and offers the first structural feature: the four Christian virtues of Truth, Justice, Mercy and Peace frame the portal together with ten martyrs. If you look closely, you can see the great American human rights activist Martin Luther King, among others. The first two main towers were built in the 18th century. The magnificent interior of the church is shaped in the Gothic style.
Like St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey is shaped like a cross to commemorate the death of Jesus Christ and the resurrection.
The coronation chair and the famous Stone of Scone
A highlight of the church is the wooden coronation chair. This is now over 700 years old and thus one of the oldest thrones of all. Almost every monarch in England and later Great Britain was crowned on this wooden chair—most recently Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
But where did the chair come from? In 1297, the carpenter Master Walter made the chair on behalf of King Edward I, who was in office at the time. Among other things, the four lions that form the legs of the oak-made throne are characteristic.
In 1296, Edward I did something monstrous. He stole the so-called Stone of Scone from Scotland. This stone is one of the most important symbols of the Scottish nation. The Scottish kings have been crowned on this stone since the Middle Ages. Edward I stole it from the Scots and brought the Stone of the Kings to London as spoils of war. There he had the stone built into his own coronation throne. Edward I demonstrated to the Scots that he also ruled over the whole of Scotland.
However, there were some attempts by Scotland to recapture the stone, for example in 1950: Scottish students stole the stone from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day and smuggled it into Scotland. But police quickly found it and brought it back to Westminster. It was not until 1996 that the stone returned to Scotland in a solemn ceremony after 700 years.
Today the wooden chair is on a high pedestal. So, you can’t touch it, just marvel at it.
Royal weddings have always been held in Westminster Abbey. On November 20, 1947, Queen Elizabeth II and Philip Mountbatten tied the knot here. Probably the most famous wedding between her grandsons, Prince William-Kate Middleton also took place here. The ceremony was performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. 1,900 invited guests attended the church ceremony. In addition to the royal family, the Middleton family, members of foreign royalty, representatives from the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, the British Army and many other important civil servants were present. British pop legend Elton John also attended the wedding. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered to Buckingham Palace to witness the first kiss between Kate and William. Around 2 billion people worldwide watched the ceremony.
The graves at Westminster Abbey
Westminster is home to over 400 tombs of kings, national heroes, politicians, artists and scientists. The physicist Isaac Newton, the writer Charles Dickens and the composer Georg Friedrich Händel lie in the church.
Westminster Abbey has a special area commemorating the war. It contains the graves of unknown soldiers and warriors. It is intended to commemorate all the unidentified fallen soldiers of the British Armed Forces. According to royal tradition, the wedding bouquet of the Duchess Kate was placed on the tomb. The ritual began in 1923 when the mother of Queen Elizabeth II placed her daughter’s wedding bouquet on the tomb in 1915, to commemorate her brother Fergus.
Gardens in Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey has four very beautiful gardens. The monastery garden (The Garth), The Little Cloister, College Garden and St. Catherine’s Garden.
The monastery garden is a square green grassy square. It is a very quiet and secluded area.
The little cloister is surrounded by many beautiful, fragrant plants. There is a fountain in the middle of the garden. At that time the garden served as a place of recovery.
There are many herbs in the College Garden that were used for medicinal purposes at the time. St. Catherine’s Garden is part of the area from which the ruins of the old monastery can still be admired.
College Garden is a private park in Westminster Abbey, London. It is open to the public every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoon throughout the year. Visiting hours are 10am to 6pm in summer and 10am to 4pm in winter. The garden is accessible from the abbey, and there is no charge for sightseeing.
Traditions of Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is a very active church with approximately one minute of Christian prayer every hour. Everyone is invited to take part and use the moment of silence to briefly relax. There is also a service several times a day. Priests and clergy are very open-minded here and look forward to a personal conversation.
Westminster Abbey Tickets
In order to avoid long waiting times, it is worth booking the ticket online directly. With the admission ticket you go to the entrance of the church and pick up an audio guide there. You can explore the church on your own and listen to audio commentary tell the historical story.
Tip: If you want to visit several sights, such as the London Eye Ferris Wheel, Tower Bridge, Hyde Park and enjoy a boat trip on the Thames, I can recommend to get a London Pass. You can book it for one or more days and and thus save a lot of entrance fee. The “fast track” offer access to many attractions in London which help you avoid long queues!
Westminster Abbey Entrance Fees
Westminster Abbey tickets are available to book online. After entering Westminster, you will receive your audio guide. If you have decided on the online ticket, definitely remember to take the printout of the ticket with you. You will receive the confirmation at the same time as the booking.
The table below shows the ticket prices for Westminster Abbey.
|To join the prayer||Free|
1 adult and 1 child
Important info: Unfortunately, photography and filming are not permitted in Westminster Abbey.
Westminster Abbey Contacts
Duncan Jeffery, Head of Communications, 020 7654 4888
Victoria Ribbans, Deputy Head of Communications, 020 7654 4890
Eleanor Lovegrove, Senior Press & Communications Manager, 020 7654 4926
Grace Robinson, Press & Communications Assistant, 020 7654 4887