London Travel Guide: Westminster Abbey

A trip to London is not complete without a visit to Westminster Abbey. Although its correct name is the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter, Westminster, it has been known as Westminster Abbey since it first opened for worship in 1065, and Westminster Abbey it will remain.

A view of Westminster Abbey on a sunny day in London, UK.

The Abbey is still a working church dedicated to regular worship services, although it is no longer an Abbey since it does not house monks or nuns.  

Westminster Abbey is a “Royal Peculiar” which means it is subject only to the sovereign, and not to any bishop or archbishop.


History of Westminster Abbey

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In 1065, a large Romanesque-style stone church was completed. It had been commissioned 25 years earlier by King Edward I. Unfortunately, Edward was too sick to attend the dedication of the church and he died just a few days later.

Through the years, the Abbey has been remodelled, repaired, and refurbished. In the 1200s, King Henry III decided to rebuild the Abbey in a Gothic design with fan-vaulted ceilings and that is essentially how it has remained. In 1937, a massive pipe organ was installed for the coronation of Edward VI.


Prominent Events Occurring at Westminster Abbey

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From the first day it opened, the Abbey has been the site for special events, particularly for coronations, weddings, and funerals.

Coronations 

Every coronation ceremony since 1066 has been held at Westminster Abbey. The current queen, Elizabeth II, was crowned in this church in 1953 in a ceremony that was, for the first time, broadcast on television and aired around the world.

In 1937, Elizabeth’s father, George VI, was crowned at the Abbey after his brother, King Edward the VIII, abdicated the throne.

Weddings 

Westminster Abbey is a popular venue for royal weddings. There have been a total of 16 weddings since the church opened its doors. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip wed here in November 1947. Two of Elizabeth and Philips’s four children, Prince Andrew and Princess Anne, followed their parents’ example and also had their wedding ceremonies at the Abbey.

The most recent, so of course, the most memorable wedding to take place in Westminster Abbey was the 2011 nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The event was attended by more than 2,200 people.

Other weddings of note that have been held at Westminster Abbey include Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1960, and in 1923, King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth II.

Funerals

When visitors walk through Westminster Abbey, they notice markers on the floor with names of well-known poets, artists, authors, and composers. Other historical names include prime ministers, kings, queens, and aristocrats. It does not take long for a person to realize the people memorialized by those markers are buried underneath the Abbey floor.

Approximately 3,300 people are buried at Westminster Abbey. The bodies are kept in vaults underneath the floor and a commemorative plaque is placed on the floor in that person’s honour. Often, the body is right under the plaque. Other times, it is just nearby.

The most recent burial to take place in the Abbey was that of Stephen Hawking, mathematician, physicist, and author. Hawking died in 2018 and his ashes were buried near those of Charles Darwin, naturalist and famous author of “On the Origin of the Species,” which was published in 1859. Also buried nearby is Isaac Newton, an astronomer, alchemist, physicist, and author who died in 1727.

In 1989, the actor Sir Laurence Olivier died, but his ashes were not buried in Westminster Abby until more than two years later, in 1991. They were placed near those of other British actors, David Garrick and Sir Henry Irving. They are all near the Shakespeare Memorial.

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Shakespeare Memorial

A brief list of those whose names visitors will see as they walk through the Abbey and look down at the commemorative plaques are:

  • David Livingstone, writer, physician, explorer, and missionary.
  • George Fredric Handel, one of the greatest Baroque composers. There is a memorial plaque for Handel as well as a monument above the plaque that was carved by the sculptor Louis Francois Roubiliac.
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet. He is buried in the Poet’s Corner with more than 100 others, including Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Robert Browning, and Alfred Lord Tennyson.
  • Lewis Carroll is buried there, as are all of the Brontë sisters (Anne, Charlotte, and Emily), Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, and Jane Austen.

There is a Grave to the Unknown Warrior that honours those who lost their lives fighting in WWI. This is the only grave or memorial in the entire Abbey that visitors are not allowed to walk on.

Funeral services for Princess Diana were held at Westminster Abbey, although she wasn’t buried there. She was buried on the private grounds of her family home.


A Visit to Westminster Abbey

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If you visit London, you must visit Westminster Abbey. It is located on Parliament Square directly across from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Buckingham Palace is only a 10-minute walk away.

You can get there from any Underground station. You can ride a bus or hop on a riverboat. A taxi can also take you there.

The Abbey is open every day except Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. On Wednesdays, it is open until 6 p.m. On Sundays and other religious days, like Christmas and Easter, the Abbey is open for worship only. Anyone is welcome to worship, and no one will be turned away. On days of worship, there will be no tours of the rest of the Abbey.

Visitors are advised to dress modestly and remember that Westminster Abbey is a church. Wearing shorts, bare shoulders, and short dresses should be avoided.

Adult tickets are approximately $27. Children under age 5 are free. There are family rates and discounts for seniors. Audio guides in 14 languages are free with the entrance ticket.