Compared to other great places of worship, Westminster Abbey isn’t marked by a holy, mystical vibe. It’s not even the head church of England (that honor is reserved for Canterbury Cathedral). But this fascinating jumble of early English Gothic architecture is such a rich repository of British history, the kids can’t help but be enthralled.
When you first enter its dark recesses, don’t be intimidated by the crowds; pick up a pamphlet near the door so you can work your way methodically through the abbey, identifying all the tombs and memorials, whether they lie among the worn stones underfoot or are mounted on the side walls. Though the central nave may be reserved for worship services, find a vantage point on one of the aisles to drink in the soaring fan-vaulted space with its intricately carved choir stalls, familiar from such famous events as Princess Diana’s funeral.
Founded by the saintly king Edward the Confessor in 1065, this church started out as a Benedictine abbey; in 1066 it was immediately pressed into service for not one but two coronations—the Anglo-Saxon king Harold who succeeded Edward in January, followed by the Norman invader William the Conqueror in December. Since then, nearly every English sovereign has been crowned here, and many are also buried in the Abbey. My daughter was mesmerized by the tomb that contained both Catholic Mary I and her half-sister, the Protestant queen Elizabeth (not to mention Mary Queen of Scots on the other side of the same chapel). Near the tomb of Henry V (my sons gaped in awe at his detailed armor) is the Coronation Chair, made at the command of Edward 1 in 1300 to display the sacred Stone of Scone, upon which Scottish kings were crowned (it has since been returned to Scotland).
As if all the royal tombs weren’t enough, Westminster Abbey also has a unique don’t-miss feature—the side nave known as Poet’s Corner where the ashes of famous writers from Chaucer to Dickens are interred; there are also monuments to Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, and a host of other literary figures. When my kids were younger, this corner didn’t mean so much to them, but on our last trip, the older two had finally read enough literature that they wandered around simply awestruck.
Note that on Sundays the Abbey is open for worship only; no tourists are allowed.
Right across the street sit the Houses of Parliament, housed in a splendid 19th-century building designed to echo the Gothic arches of the Abbey. You’ll instantly recognize its landmark clock tower, which most tourists know as Big Ben (fun trivia: Big Ben is actually not the tower, or the clock, but the largest bell inside the tower). Just make sure not to confuse Westminster Abbey with nearby Westminster Cathedral, an impressive Roman Catholic church in its own right—but it’s nowhere near as fascinating as the Abbey.