Westminster Abbey: Honoring Kings, Queens & Poets

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.