Set in the heart of London opposite the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey has a dead person to suit everyone's tastes.
The entrance is lined with larger-than-life statues showing past leading political figures including William Gladstone (Prime Minister four different times in the late 1800s), Benjamin Disraeli (before Gladstone and not actually buried here, but with a hulking big statue nonetheless) and William Pitt the Younger (became Prime Minister in 1783 at the age of 24).
Disappointingly, Gladstone's tomb does not appear to be a door set in a pillar that leads below ground to a stone coffin guarded by a powerful demon as suggested in the novel by Jonathan Stroud. (And if you'd read the book, you would have looked too.)
Quashing such ghostly disappoints long enough to walk round the corner takes you to a veritable stack of scientists, including Charles Darwin, John Herschel and Isaac Newton; an undoubtedly mind bending combination for any creationist. The grave of the unknown warrior also lies in this area; a fallen solider whose unidentified remains were brought back from France after the First World War. His marble slab is covered with poppies in memory of those who lost their lives fighting for their country.
As the bodies of the swooning scientifically inclined stack up around Newton's memorial, Royalists can step over their prone forms to ogle the High Alter which has seen 38 sovereigns crowned since 1066. The last occasion that marked Elizabeth II's accession to the throne was viewed by no less than 8200 people with a 400 strong voice choir and 60 orchestral members. Mirrors had to be placed around the Abbey to ensure the latter two groups could see their conductor from behind the pillars.
The format of coronations has fluctuated over the years, with earlier events ending up in riots, heckling and huge banquets after the main attraction. Since a gallery of photographs from Elizabeth II's ceremony shows a four year old Prince Charles looking immensely bored, it might be entirely appropriate to assume that such heckling would be a welcome addition to the next event of this kind.
Regardless of heckling or pageantry, one thing all coronations have in common is the use of the coronation chair; an oak seat commissioned by Edward I around 1300. It was designed to hold the Stone of Scone; a block of sandstone used in the investiture of Scottish kings that Edward made off with in 1296. Supposedly standing at 6 feet 2 inches tall (a giant for the day), Edward's successful theft of the stone is perhaps understandable although since now --with the exception of football-- we like to consider ourself a single nation, the stone resides back in Scotland and is brought to Westminster for new coronations.
The tomb of the stone robber himself, King Edward I, is around the corner from the alter beside the shrine to Edward the Confessor. The first creator of a church on this site, this earlier Edward built Westminster for the Benedictine monks who had settled in the area 100 years before. The Abbey was rebuilt two centuries later, during the rain of Edward I's father, King Henry III, who modelled the new building in the Gothic style that is now seen throughout.
Edward the Confessor's shrine is a fragile area and generally not open to the public. In past times it has been considered a place for miracles with the sick left by the shrine overnight in the hope of healing. Along with redesigning the Abbey, Henry III ordered the creation of the shrine and that his own burial place be alongside it, where it would ultimately lie one coffin along from his son.
For those unmoved by the fate of 13th century stone stealers, the throne stealers two hundred years later might hold more appeal. Behind the High Alter lies The Lady Chapel, built by King Henry VII as a burial place for himself and his family. In fact, his most famous son, King Henry VIII, does not lie here but all three of his grandchildren in that line do.
After his defeat of Richard III, Henry's marriage to the deposed king's niece, Elizabeth of York, united the waring royal lines of the House of York with their red rose emblem and the House of Lancaster with their white rose. The new family crest of the Tudors depicted a red and white petalled flower and ended the War of the Roses.
Dying at the age of 38 after 17 years of marriage, Elizabeth was the first family member to be buried in the Lady Chapel. Henry VII joined her six years later and their tombs lie side by side behind the small alter.
Underneath the alter lies Henry VII's grandson, the teenage son of Henry VIII who came to the throne at 9 and died only 6 years later. His death allowed his half sisters, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I to follow him to the throne in succession.
The sisters were divided in life by vastly different religious agendas. In a desperate attempt to acquire hot chicks and male heirs, Henry VIII abolished the authority of the Pope in England and declared himself head of the church. Mary --being the daughter of his first wife and therefore disapproving of hot chicks-- brought the country back to Catholicism when she began her reign. This was reversed again by Elizabeth (daughter of hot chick #1) to reinstate the monarch as head of the church.
Despite this, the two women lie together in a small room leading off from The Lady Chapel. The tomb itself only depicts Elizabeth's effigy with Mary buried below her half-sister. This unfairity would doubtless not have surprised Mary, who was declared illegitimate after Elizabeth's birth and made to wait on her new baby sister while her father threw Europe into chaos to divorce her mother. Despite this, the latin epitaph by the foot of the joint tomb seems to hope for an non-earthly reunion since it reads:
"Partners in both the throne and tomb, here rest we, 2 sisters, Elizabeth and Mary in the hope of one resurrection."
If Elizabeth turns out to be keen on such heavenly forgivenesses, another person she might want to talk to is her second cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, who is buried directly opposite her on the other side of the Abbey. As Henry VII's great granddaughter, Mary was a Catholic with a claim to the English throne, making her a threat to the Protestant Elizabeth, especially in the wake of all the religious toing and froing. Elizabeth imprisoned her younger cousin for 19 years (including notably, for this blog, time with Bess of Hardwick in Chatsworth House). Eventually, Mary was found guilty of conspiring against Elizabeth and was executed in 1587.
… 16 years after which, Elizabeth dies childless and leave the throne to Mary's son, James VI of Scotland and I of England. He promptly constructed a new tomb for his mother designed to be at least as grand as Elizabeth's own. Which goes to show that life (or lack of it) does make mockery of us all.
At the far end of The Lady Chapel is an alcove known as the Royal Airforce Chapel, dedicated in 1947 to the men who lost their lives in the Battle of Britain during the Second World War. At its entrance lies a stone marking the first burial place of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, a strange location for the man who lead the English Civil War to dispose and behead Charles I. In fact, his body only lay here for 2 years, whereupon the monarchy was reinstated with Charles's son, Charles II, and Cromwell's remains were dug up, hanged and decapitated.
Apparently, the only thing worse than a Roundhead is the fear of a zombie Roundhead.
Close to the cloisters is the Poet Corner; the hang-out for dead writers. This was first kicked off by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1400, best known for his Canterbury Tales. However, Chaucer was not given this place of honour because of his literacy works but because of his job as a civil servant to the Palace of Westminster. The role of 'Collector of Customs and Clark of the Works' gained him a plain grave in the Abbey and it was not until 150 years later than his literary achievements got him moved to a more prestigious tomb and started a craze.
Surrounding Chaucer are both burials of exceedingly notable artists such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Laurence Olivier and George Frederic Handel as well as memorials to pretty much everyone else of note, including William Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte and Lewis Carroll. To be honest, with Westminster Abbey already packed with famous bodies to the extent you fear for its structural stability, I find the grave-less memorials an unnecessary clutter, given that each owner is properly acknowledged at his or her own grave site.
Handel's monument (which does genuinely lie over his grave) shows the portly composer holding music from the first line of his famous Messiah; 'I know that my redeemer liveth'. His funeral in 1759 was supposed to be a private affair but was attended by 3000 mourners. Seemingly with a desire to replicate this, the Abbey held its first concert in honour of the 25th Anniversary of Handel's death. The audience squashing inside the building to see the 500 choral and orchestral performers complained about the over powering heat.
... which apparently caused the Abbey to declare it a complete success and has had regularly organised music and art performances every year since.
The price to enter Westminster Abbey is a reasonably hefty £18, although this does include a free audio tour. Due to the sheer number of graves in the Abbey, the tour only selects a few highlights so it is worth keeping your eyes open for key people who are not mentioned. Close to Poet's Corner for instance, lies the tomb of Anne of Cleves; forth wife of Henry VIII and notable for managing not to be beheaded in the Tower of London. There is also Anne Neville, wife of Richard III, who in Philippa Gregory's fictional account of the period is implied to be partially responsible for killing her nephews, the Princes in the Tower (although frankly, Richard himself still looks like a mighty fine candidate for that). There are also doubltess countless others I almost certainly missed.
Despite being the main resting place for anyone who ever was, Westminster Abbey tries hard to hold onto its primary purpose as a religious church. In this, I would say its attempts are notable but are somewhat overwhelmed by the grave gawking. There are services every day that are free to attend and once an hour, a minutes quiet reflection is announced.
The other notable point is the coffee shop does great cakes for those who feel like gnawing on something after contemplating so many bones. Mum (who been cajoled into joining me) and I bought each other necklaces at the Abbey gift shop. Mine is an angel (totally just like me. Yes).