Westminster Abbey is one of the most visited and iconic landmarks in London. There has been a church on the site since the tenth century and the present building has accumulated more history and prestige than can be covered in a short article.
Beyond the awe-inspiring exterior and the inner magnificence, the Abbey is basically an exalted burial ground. The tombs of Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Elizabeth I, Charles Dickens, and scores of other royal and famous figures draw millions of visitors each year. However, there is always an 'off the beaten path' point of intrigue worth visiting, even in a well-trodden area. In Westminster Abbey that point of intrigue is a simple black slab located in the nondescript cloisters, which holds the remains of 26 monks.
The stone is easily overlooked, as there is nothing pointing it out, no description of its history, no swarming crowds, and no reason to even notice it as you walk around the often-deserted cloister corridors. The history-minded or just outright curious, however, may want to know more about these anonymous medieval monks interred amongst the best and brightest of British history.
In the late 1340s, the Black Death (or bubonic plague) arrived in London and killed nearly half the population within about a year's time. There is really no epidemic in modern memory that compares to the death toll, panic, and complete social upheaval brought about by the plague of the fourteenth century. In fact, with a modern mind, it's difficult to even imagine the level of horror and devastation once incited by something that is curable with antibiotics.
But, these 26 monks, 'who died of the black death', witnessed the horror firsthand and they must have been in close association with the afflicted, as they obviously didn't flee the city or hide behind cleansing fires or ban people from entering the church.
I found a priest and an Abbey guide and asked for more information in regard to the monks' identities and biographies. The church was open to plague victims and anyone requiring aid, so it's likely the clergy were actively engaged with helping the suffering and lost their lives in doing so, but beyond that bit of speculation, said the priest, 'they are known only to God'.
So, on your next visit to Westminster Abbey, stop by the cloisters, pay your respects to the unknown monks, and make an effort to learn more about the less famous figures of this great building.
I've seen this stone at Westminster. It has haunted me ever since. I often wonder who these monks were and what they were like. They were mass buried probably because of the lack of space with so many people dying all around them in the city of London. Burial was probably done as soon as possible to keep the Black Death from spreading even faster. This stone is black and it stands out in the halls around the Cloister at Westminster. If you visit Westminster, take time to find it....it's huge....and hard to miss. See if it will have the same affect on you as it did me. Black death or not....life is a short.....just a blink. Enjoy yours.