What’s so special about Westminster Abbey?The earliest report of a church on the site of Westminster Abbey was in the 960s or 970s, but the links between the site and the Royal Family date form 1042 when Edward the Confessor rebuilt the church in the Romanesque style - it was completed a week before his death and he was the first royal to be buried in the church. It was later the site of the coronation of William the Conqueror and has been the site of all the coronations of English monarchs ever since. The current building was begun in 1245 but has been added to throughout the centuries, with the most recent building work completed in 2013. It’s not just been the site of Royal coronations but also weddings, including Queen Elizabeth II’s to Prince Philip and Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton, and funerals, including the Queen Mother and Princess Diana. It’s considered a particular honor to be buried inside Westminster Abbey, with places reserved for national figures from various disciplines. It’s also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.
Why isn’t it a cathedral? And what’s an Abbey?Westminster Abbey is technically neither an abbey or a cathedral. It’s known as an abbey because it was originally a Benedictine monastic church, with the Abbot of Westminster holding an important position in the House of Lords. On the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539, and he granted it the status of a cathedral instead, which saved the building from being destroyed in the manner that many other convents, monasteries, and abbeys around England were. His Catholic daughter Mary I gave the building back to the Benedictines, but after her death they were kicked out yet again by Elizabeth I, who was a Protestant. She established the building as a ‘Royal Peculiar’ - a church which answers directly to the monarch rather than to a bishop, and it’s retained that status ever since.
What's there to see at the abbey?The abbey is large, with many side chapels and naves to explore. You can find all manner of tombs and memorials in Poets’ Corner, the Lady Chapel, and throughout the main body of the church, and lovers of science and literature will be sure to discover the resting place of one of their heroes. You’ll also see the coronation chair, in which monarchs have been crowned for over 700 years, the Quire, where the choir sings during services, the ancient Pyx chamber, the Chapter House, and the Abbey gardens. For an additional fee, you can visit the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee galleries in the stunning 13th-century triforium of the church, where you can see the abbey’s treasures. These include an illuminated 14th-century guide to coronations, a medieval altarpiece, and the royal marriage license of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Who’s buried inside the abbey?There are more than 3,000 individuals whose remains are interred in Westminster Abbey. Many of England’s monarchs and their consorts were buried in the Abbey, including Henry VII, his granddaughters Mary I and Elizabeth I, James VI (or James I), the first king of both Scotland and England, and Mary, Queen of Scots. Other notable British figures buried in the abbey include Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, and Isaac Newton. Poets’ Corner is mostly home to writers and poets including Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Alfred Tennyson, and Laurence Olivier. Poets’ Corner is also home to a memorial stone featuring the names of 16 Great War poets who wrote during World War I. Many other notable figures from British history have memorials in the abbey but are buried elsewhere, some to look out for include Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Winston Churchill, C.S. Lewis, and Oscar Wilde. Oliver Cromwell was originally buried in Westminster Abbey, but after the restoration of the monarchy, his remains were removed and buried in a pit in the nearby St Margaret’s churchyard.
How long does a visit take?The length of time required to visit depends on whether you’re using the multimedia guide, taking a tour, or wandering through the space by yourself. A tour with a verger takes 90 minutes, and we’d recommend about the same amount of time if you’re intending to discover everything inside the Abbey and visit the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee galleries. There’s no time limit on how long you can stay inside the church, so you don’t have to rush.