I hadn't been to Westminster Abbey – or the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster - to give it its full name, since I was a teenager, back in the days when there was no entry charge. In case you're unaware, the Abbey can trace its history back more than a thousand years to 960 AD when it was first built as a monastery for Benedictine monks. This building was re-endowed by Edward the Confessor and consecrated on 28 December 1065. The only parts of the original building that are still visible today are in the Pyx Chamber in the cloisters and in the columns and round arches of the undercroft.
The Pyx Chamber
The present Gothic church was consecrated on 13 October 1269. Henry VII added the Lady Chapel, which was consecrated on 19 February 1516 and two hundred years later Hawksmoor completed the unfinished western towers.
Henry VII's Lady Chapel
Westminster Abbey was first used for a coronation when William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas Day in 1066, and it has been the coronation church for the monarchy ever since, with the exceptions of Edward V and Edward VIII (who abdicated before his coronation). The Coronation Chair is presently being renovated, but I was assured by one of the Abbey staff that they don't know something of huge importance; it is just a formality. The Abbey is also used for great state funerals, the most recent being those for Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, and Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, in 2002. On a happier note, it was also where Prince William married Catherine Middleton on 29 April last year.
A visit to the Abbey starts at the Great North Door and includes the use of a free audio tour, narrated by the softly seductive tones of Jeremy Irons, who is appropriately filming an adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV plays as I write. He describes the noteworthy places on the tour, including many royal tombs. Of great importance are the tomb and shrine of the saintly Edward the Confessor, as well as the tomb of Elizabeth I, where she is buried over the body of her half-sister, Mary Tudor. Rank is important, even after death. Although their father, Henry VIII is buried at Windsor, their grandfather Henry VII is buried in the Lady Chamber that bears his name.
Westminster Abbey is probably strongly associated with Poets' Corner. Here you can play spot the famous writer as you walk among the memorials dedicated to Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy, Chaucer, (the first poet to be buried there) Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters … the list is endless. The memorial to Handel, the composer, can also be found in this section of the Abbey.
Beyond the royal tombs and memorials to literary and musical figures, there are many statues and plaques commemorating prominent politicians from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These can be found in the North Transept near the North Rose Window.
The North Rose Window
Possibly more important than any of these is the Grave of the Unknown Warrior that serves as a memorial to all of those who died in the service of their country.
Tomb of the Unknown Warrior
Don't miss a visit to Westminster Abbey when you are in London and visiting the other local sites, such as The Houses of Parliament. Even if you have been before, give it a second chance. You may even be lucky enough to hear the organ played, as I was when I visited recently.