Victorian London - Buildings, Monuments and Museums - Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey ...This venerable pile is opened for divine service daily, at 10 in the morning, and 3 in the afternoon, when the choral parts, aided by its powerful organ, are performed in great perfection. Admission to the choir is at those hours free; but to view the whole building, which may be seen for 6d., in the summer from 9 to 6, and in the winter from 10 to 3, admission is obtainable at the door in Poets' Corner, the only one open upon ordinary occasions. The cloisters, that, to the admirers of architectural antiquities, will prove a real treat, are always open; the dwellings therein being principally inhabited by the officials of the establishment.

Westminster Abbey was commenced by Henry III., who, with his son, Edward I., erected all the eastern part of the present church; the nave and its aisles were principally erected by different abbots in the succeeding reigns, down to the time of Henry VII., but the western towers were not completed till the reign of George II., when Sir Christopher Wren had the honour of finishing the great work. This magnificent pile is built in the form of a Latin cross, in the pointed style of architecture; and to its eastern extremity is attached the Chapel of Henry the Seventh, who founded it as a royal burial-place for himself and succeeding sovereigns and princes. The view of the interior of the Abbey, from the west end, is uncommonly grand ; from this point the whole body of the church is brought into view, and many others might be mentioned, where the various divisions and ornaments of the building range in very beautiful perspective. The west window is enriched with full-length paintings on glass of Moses and Aaron, the Patriarchs, &c. ; and the large and elegant rose-window in the north transept is embellished with similar paintings of Christ and the Apostles. The marigold window in the south transept was erected in 1814, and is still more elaborate in its designs than the one just mentioned ; but, from being glazed with plain glass only, its appearance is far less impressive. The choir, which, is comparatively of modern date, was constructed under the direction of  the late Mr. Keene, surveyor to the abbey. It is executed in the  ancient Gothic style. The nave is separated from the choir by an elegant stone screen, erected from designs by Mr. Blore. The mosaic pavement before time altar-piece is a very interesting specimen of ancient art, though damaged. The modern marble altar-piece, which was designed by Sir C. Wren for the chapel at Whitehall, and given to this abbey by Queen Anne, was taken down at the coronation of George IV., and the original altar- piece restored as nearly as possible to its ancient design. Immediately behind the choir is the very interesting Chapel of St. Edward the Confessor, in the midst of which stands the shrine in which the ashes of that superstitious yet pious sovereign lie entombed. here also is a beautiful but dilapidated screen, on the frieze of which the principal events of the legendary history of that king are sculptured in bold relief; near it are the coronation chairs, in the frame work of the oldest of which is the famous stone which Edward the First brought from Scone in Scotland, and is traditionally said to have been the very pillow on which Jacob reposed, when he had his beatific vision in thin Holy Land. Round the chapel are the tombs of Henry the Third; Edward the First and his faithful Queen, Eleanor; Edward thin Third and Queen Philippa ; Richard the Second and Anne his first Queen; and Henry the Fifth. The recumbent effigies of Henry III., Queen Eleanor, and Edward III., are particularly beautiful works of art. A splendid monumental chapel, enriched by numerous statues and other sculptures, surmounts the tomb of Henry the Fifth. Nine or ten other chapels, dedicated to various saints, open to the ambulatory round the choir, and like the transepts and aisles, are crowded with monuments of the illustrious deceased: of these, Islip's Chapel is particularly elegant. In the north transept were buried, near to each other, the great Earl of Chatham, those two great rivals Pitt and Fox, Grattan, the Marquis of Londonderry, and Canning. Here also are the monuments of Lord Mansfield, the Earl of Chatham, Sir Eyre Coote, C. J. Fox, and .J. P. Kemble. The south transept is generally called Poets' Corner, from being chiefly appropriated to the reception of the monuments and mortal reliques of poets and men of letters. Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, Camden, Ben Jonson, Milton, Sir W. D'Avenant, Dryden, Butler, Gay, Rowe. Thomson, Gray, Goldsmith, Addison, Handel, Garrick, R. B. Sheridan, and numerous other persons of distinguished genius, have memorials here. In the neighbouring aisles are the splendid monuments of Lord Robert Manners, Admiral Vernon, General Wolfe, the Right Honourable William Pitt, and many others, Sir Isaac Newton, the great Earl Stanhope, Sir Godfrey Kneller, Major Andre, Lord Howe, Dr. Watts, Dr. Burney, Dr. Arnold, Dr. Croft, Mr. Percival, and a crowd of other eminent characters, have also memorials here. The most beautiful of these performances, both for design and execution, is the monument of John, Duke of Argyle and Greenwich.
    The Chapel of Henry VII., which Leland, from the florid richness of its architecture and airy lightness has designated the "Wonder of the World," experienced a thorough reparation between the years 1809 and 1823, at an expense of 42,000l., supplied by Parliament. It is one of the most expensive remains of the ancient English taste and magnificence. The exterior is ornamented by fourteen octagonal towers, from which spring an equal number of beautiful flying buttresses, that extend to and strengthen the roof; the whole being adorned with a profusion of sculpture. This chapel was originally designed by its royal founder, whose name it bears, as a sepulchre for himself, and others of royal blood, and in which none but such as could trace a regular descent direct from royalty were to be interred; a rule that has hitherto been preserved inviolate. Of the interior the very beautiful tomb of Henry VII. and Elizabeth his Queen occupies the centre: various other monuments are likewise arranged here, and in the aisles. The best are those of the Countess of Richmond, mother of Henry VII.; Queen Elizabeth, and Mary Queen of Scots; the figure of the Countess of Richmond is one of the finest ever cast. In the north aisle are deposited the remains of the murdered princes, Edward V. and his brother Richard; and here also is preserved the armour of General Monk. The aisles are divided from the nave by the stalls and banners of the Knights of the Bath, to whose use this chapel was appropriated in George the First's reign. The tracery and pendants of the vaulting are exceedingly elegant; and many of the statues which decorate the walls display great character amid excellent workmanship. The chapel of St. Blaize, the Cloisters, the Chapter House (now the Record Office), Chapel of the Pix, and other ancient parts of the Benedictine Monastery connected  with the Abbey, are all deserving of attentive inspection. In the Chapterhouse is kept the original Domesday Book, which was compiled in the time of William the Norman, and is still in fine preservation.

source: Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

see also J. Ewing Ritche in About London, 1860 - click here
see also J. Gustave Dore and Blanchard Jerrold, in London: A Pilgrimage, 1872 - click here

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Westminster Abbey, from its historical associations the most famous of all English buildings with the exception of the Tower, was originally founded by Edward the Confessor between the years 1055 and 1065. Previously, however, it is believed that Sebart, king of the East Saxons, built a church upon the present site some time during the seventh century. The name Westminster was used to distinguish the abbey from the cathedral church of St. Paul, which. was once known, as East-minster. Of the Confessor's work but little remains saving the pyx-house, which lies to the south of the present abbey adjoining the chapter-house, and that part of the cloister which Westminster schoolboys now use as a gymnasium. Henry III, who exhibited a rare taste in building, erected the principal portion of the existing edifice; he pulled down the greater part of Edward the Confessor's work, and built a chapel to the Virgin at the east end. Henry VII. in his turn demolished Henry III.'s work, and immortalised himself by his chapel, which now stands behind the head of the cross in the form of which the abbey has been constructed. With the exception of the two towers, the upper parts of which were built by Wren, at the western entrance - the foot of the cross - which faces the Aquarium and the Hotel Westminster Abbey as regards it outward aspect is very much what Henry VII. left it. Inside, the abbey is at once imposing and inspiring. The height of the building, the symmetry of its proportions, the solemn grandeur of "the long-drawn aisles" the fact that the sightseer is at every step treading upon the graves of England's wisest and noblest, cannot but render a visit to Westminster-abbey a thing to remember and to respect. Possibly to some minds this house of God may have been made, through an over-zealous desire to pay due regard to the worthy, a too conspicuous monument of man's achievement; at all events, most liberal-minded men will allow that the abbey is overcrowded with sculptural designs which have not always been executed with the artistic sense which is in favour today. An attempt to describe the statues, the bas-reliefs, the busts, and the allegorical illustrations in marble of departed prowess and virtue, would occupy more space than is permitted us. A few of the must prominent relics we may, however, refer to. The chapel of Edward the Confessor, which lies behind the present altar-screen, contains the shrine of that monarch, besides which devout persons used to sit in order to cure themselves of earthly disorders. The remains of Henry III. are also supposed to rest here; also what is left of Edward I., Edward III and Henry V., whose saddle and helmet, used at Agincourt, are fixed to a rail over the gallant monarch's tomb. Against the a1tar-screen stand the coronation chairs, two highly uncomfortable receptacles made of wood, disfigured with the initials and names of ambitious persons who have years ago eluded the vigilance of the abbey's officials. Under the seat of the king's chair is the identical stone which Edward brought from Scone, and on which the Scottish kings were crowned. The second chair was made for the coronation of Mary the much beloved consort of William III. Round the Confessor's chapel are a number of smaller chapels filled with the tombs and emblazoned eulogies delicately expressed in Latin, of bygone peers and peeresses. Immediately behind the sarcophagus of Henry V. is the chapel built by Henry VII., intended as a place of sepulture for himself and his successors, as fine a specimen of what is called florid Gothic architecture as exists. The exterior was restored by Wyatt. The gates aret brass, cunningly wrought, but are now dingy and look more like iron. Knights of the Bath are intstalled in this chapel, and at some distance above the stalls hang the tattered banners of many famous members of the order. On the left of the chapel, which contains the tomb of Henry VII. and Edward VI., is the burial place of Queen Elizabeth; on the right lies Mary Queen of Scots. At the south-east corner is the slab which rests over the remains of Lady Augusta Stanley, wife of the present Dean of Westminster, and the intimate friend of Queen Victoria. Fresh flowers and chaplets lie over the grave of a lady whose memory is cherished, not only by her sovereign, but by hundreds of poor and suffering creatures whom she was wont to relieve. To the left of Lady Augusta Stanley is the marble tomb of time Duc de Montpensier, brother of Louis Philippe, King of the French. The last distinguished Briton buried in the abbey was Sir Gilbert Scott, the architect, whore slab in the nave is decorated with a cross of flowers constantly renewed by loving hands. A few yards from Scott is the grave of Livingstone. Poet's Corner, which forms the most southern portion of the arm of the cross, is by no means the least imposing portion of the building. Here is the grave of Charles Dickens, by whose side is Cumberland, the dramatist. At his feet is Sheridan, and above is Handel, the composer; close by are Tom Campbell, David Garrick, and Samuel Johnson; marble busts of Thackeray and Macaulay are placed on brackets within a few feet of these illustrious dead. Close to Edward the Confessor's shrine, and up a winding flight of steps, is a collection of waxen effigies to which the general public are not admitted. The figures are life size, and are enclosed in glass cases, on which the vulgar have scratched their names with persistent enthusiasm. They are eleven in number, and are considered remarkable as portraits. Charles II. stands in ordinary costume, with, however, an undignified smut on his nose. Next to his merry majesty is the Duke of Buckingham, lying in state, a coronet upon his head. Queen Anne, looking uncomfortable, in her state robes and crown, is sitting on her throne, and holds with some difficulty her orb and sceptre. The Duchess of Buckingham and her little son, and the Duchess of Richmond (1702), are standing immediately opposite the dead Duke; and the Earl of Chatham, in his robes of office, does not look quite the energetic statesman we would fain regard him. William and Mary are in a glass case together, and by their side is Queen Elizabeth, with a magnificent ruff of real lace, and next to her is a life-like effigy of Nelson. Admission to see the wax-work may be obtained from the Dean or a member of the chapter.
    At the south of the abbey are the cloisters, which contain some of the oldest graves in the country; one inscribed with the name of Gervasius de Blois, Abbas, 1106, is in excellent preservation. From the cloisters admission is gained to the chapter-house, which was built by Henry III., in 1250, and restored by Sir Gilbert Scott in 1865. The building is an octagon, with a central pillar rising some 35 ft. composed of Purbeck marble. Former1y the chapter-house was used as a council chamber for the monks and the abbot, and we are assured that offending recluses were flogged at the central pillar. The House of Commons subsequently met here until the days of Henry VIII., after which the house was used as a depository for public records.
When the documents were removed to Fetter-lane, it was considered desirable that the chapter-house should be restored, and accordingly Sir Gilbert Scott was employed, with results which the public may see without charge to-day. The illustrations of the on the walls were executed by one of the monks attached to the abbey in the fifteenth century. The chapter-house also possesses a modern picture representing a fifteenth century lady taking sanctuary in the Abbey, painted by Mr. William Holyoake. In the vestibule is a Roman sarcophagus, discovered in the North Green ten years ago.
Services are held every day in the abbey to which the public are admitted free. Admission fee to the smaller chapels, including that of Henry VII., is 6d.

source: Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

Stepping away from the river side, we come to the chief temple of the West of London, the venerable and beautiful WESTMINSTER ABBEY. Where this grand building now stands, there once was a marsh covered with briers and brushwood, and surrounded by a branch of the river Thames so as to form an island, which from its rough nature was named "Thorney Island." On this solitary and dreary spot - for the nearest part of Old London was that perhaps where the old Lud-Gate afterwards stood - Sebert, King of the East Saxons, built a church. It was replaced by a monastery named West Minster, to distinguish it from East Minster, as St. Paul's was formerly called. Many fabulous stories were circulated by the old monks, who had a happy knack of drawing attention to their church, and obtaining for their own benefit the gifts of the people. They told of miraculous visits of St. Peter, and holy angels, accompanied with heavenly music; and so succeeded in working upon the minds of a superstitious people, that for many years the fishermen of the Thames, in accordance with a command given in one of these legends, sent presents of fish for the use of the authorities in the Abbey.
    When the Danes invaded England, the little convent was destroyed; but 7 being restored soon afterwards by King Edgar, it dragged on a languishing existence until the time of Edward the Confessor. This good king built the first Abbey of which we have any certain account, a part of which still remains. He personally superintended the work, hastening it on as he felt the approach of a severe illness, which proved fatal a few days after the grand opening ceremony.
    Westminster was now no longer a marshy, deserted island, but a beautiful suburb where the royal palace and other noble buildings stood. To make a nobler and more stately Abbey, Henry III. pulled down the greater portion of the Confessor's building and erected one, the principal parts of which form the larger portion of the existing Abbey. Edward I., II., III., and Richard III. improved the building; and Henry VII. during his reign added the richly decorated and magnificent chapel known by his name. Thus you see, much of this building is over six hundred years old, and, if only for its great age, should be regarded with esteem. Sir Christopher Wren restored it from the ruinous state to which, through neglect and the ravages of war, it had been brought; besides this, lie built the two towers at the western end.
    The interior, especially the view obtained from the western doors, greatly impresses us with its grandeur, as we gaze at the long and lofty aisles, the elegant pillars, and the beautiful harmony of its ribbed vault, all so graceful and delicate, and so venerable. We think, too, of the kings and others through whose enterprise and ability the noble structure was raised. Turning, we notice the statuary crowded around the base. What a contrast! From the dim light of the upper part and the dull grey of the time-worn stonework, our eyes are somewhat dazzled by the glaring white of the marbles, some massive, others crowding one upon another, each storied with men's praises, and each seeming to thrust itself upon us as most worthy our attention. They do not all add to the beauty of the building; but they have been placed here in honour of great and good men, chiefly to the memory of heroes whose fame has been achieved by noble, peaceful deeds, and by the use of the pen rather than the sword.
    In our walks around, we stop before the monuments, and hook interestedly at the features of Wilberforce, Granvilhe Sharp, Buxton, and others of that gallant little band who devoted all their energies to abolish the slave trade; and who, fighting against almost overwhelming opposition, finally obtained freedom for nearly 800,000 slaves in the British dominions. There is a spot in the floor of the nave, not very conspicuous, but marked by a black marble slab, uhich becomes very dear to us as we stand and read the inscription, commencing, 'Brought by faithful hands over land and sea, here rests David Livingstone.' Who can tell the benefits which shall yet follow from this patient and good man's work of peace during the many years lie spent in that dark continent of Africa? Sir John Franklin, too, is honoured by a monument. Of scientific heroes we find here Sir Isaac Newton, the great astronomer; James Watt, the engineer; and Sir Humphry Davy, whose lamp is such a safe-guard to miners.
    Another monument must not be passed without notice. It is that erected in honour of the Wesleys, the founders of the great body of Methodists, whose influence is now felt in all parts of the world. With kindly feeling the late Dean Stanley permitted this monument to be placed in the Abbey. It is of white marble, and on it are carved the profiles of the two brothers, and a representation of John Wesley preaching on his father's tombstone in Epworth churchyard; with this inscription:

JOHN WESLEY, M.A., Born June 17th, 1703:
Died March 2nd, 1791.
CHARLES WESLEY, M.A., Born December 18th, 1708:
Died March 29th, 1788.
'The best of all is, God is with us.'
'I look upon all the world as my parish.'
'God buries His workmen, but carries on His work.'

In the Poets' Corner, amongst a number of monuments are those of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Gray, Thomson, Goldsmith, Ben Jonson, and Handel. Here also is the grave of Charles Dickens.
    The Abbey was formerly the burial-place of the Sovereigns of England. There are reposing within these venerable walls the remains of Sebert, Edward the Confessor, Henry III., Edward I., Edward III., Richard II., Henry V., Edward V., Henry VII., Edward VI., Mary I., Elizabeth, James I., Charles II., William III. and Mary, Anne, and George II.
    We will now visit the 'chapels.' In these, many persons of distinction are interred, and have monuments raised to their memories. But the chapel that most interests us is that built by Henry VII. To reach it we ascend the black marble steps, pass through the open brass gates, and then meet such a sight as will be remembered for a lifetime. From the gloomy porch we suddenly emerge into a blaze of light and decoration. Our eyes are instantly directed upwards to the richly carved ceiling. All this stonework was wrought men who lived nearly four hundred years ago. So skilfully have they employed their tools, that their work defies description. On either side of the chapel are the stalls of the Knights of the Order of the Bath, and above are placed their banners, swords, and helmets. At the end stands the magnificent tomb -of Henry VII. and his Queen. In the south aisle of the chapel, we linger round the fine monument erected to Mary Queen of Scots; and in the north aisle a very similar one is placed to Queen Elizabeth, n ho, with her sister Mary, is buried beneath.
    Next, passing to the Chapel of St. Edward, we come to the renowned shrine of Edward the Confessor. The tomb of this good king is a mere wreck of what it once was; but in one or two places we see a little of the minute and delicate colour-work with which it was decorated. The shrine was built at the command of Henry III., to receive the treasured remains of the Confessor, and was most gorgeously decorated with paintings, jewels, and gold. Close by is the tomb of Henry III., which originally was also very richly decorated. What a contrast is the tomb of the bold warrior, Edward I.! It is in a rough, unpolished structure of five slabs of grey marble, without the least decoration, that his remains lie. Above the tomb of Henry V. are the saddle, helmet, and shield that he evidently used so well at the battle of Agincourt.
    We now come to the Coronation Chairs, one of which was made for Mary, Queen of William III. The one now before us was placed here by Edward I., and has let into it in front, just beneath the seat, the celebrated stone from -Scone, which was brought here amongst the regalia from Scotland by Edward. It used to be asserted that this stone is the same which Jacob had for a pillow at Bethel; but, of course, this is an absurd tradition. In this chair all the reigning sovereigns have been crowned since Edward I., the last one being our most gracious Queen, Victoria.

source: Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)

WESTMINSTER ABBEY ... One of the most interesting edifices in the kingdom. The building, which is in the the best style of Gothic architecture, was begun by Henry III, 1245, and occupies the site of a still older structure, erected by Edward the Confessor, 1065. The extreme length of nave and chapels, east to west, is 530 feet, the transept 214 feet. Here is the place of coronation. Here, also, rest the remains of kings, statesmen, warriors, poets, and others - the great men of the nation. Divine service is conducted at 8 and 10 a.m and at 3 p.m. daily, and on Sunday evenings, after Easter to end of July, at 7 p.m. Vergers show the Abbey daily, except Sundays, from 9 till 6 in summer, and from 11 till 2.30 in winter. The fee to view the choir and chapels is sixpence per person. There is no charge for viewing the nave, transepts and cloisters. On Mondays all may be seen free.
WESTMINSTER COLUMN, BROAD SANCTUARY ... AT THE WEST END OF THE ABBEY. A polished red granite pillar, surmounted by a statue of Victory, erected to the memory of those educated at Westminster School who fell in the Russian and Indian wars, 1854-59.

source: Reynolds' Shilling Coloured Map of London, 1895


Addison wrote of Westminster Abbey that in the poetical quarter "he found there were poets who had no monuments, and monuments which had no poets." The Poets' Corner in the South Transept of the Abbey was not appropriated to its peculiar purpose until Spenser had been buried near Chaucer's remains. Here are monuments to Shakespeare, Milton (who asked "What needs my Shakespeare for his honour'd bones The labour of an age in piled stones?"), Beaumont, Ben Jonson, Butler, Dryden, Addison, Samuel Johnson, Goldsmith, and nearly all the greatest English poets and prose writers, although some of them are buried elsewhere. Room has also been found for memorials of men like Handel and David Garrick, who won distinction in other walks.

source: The Queen's London, 1896


This, the most famous of the chapels of Westminster Abbey, is immediately behind the High Altar. Edward the Confessor was the founder of the present Abbey, and his shrine was built by Henry III., but only the marble basement of the original structure remains. The chapel also contains the tombs of Henry III., Edward I., Edward III., Richard II., and Henry V., and of six queens. The Coronation Chair (on the left) was made for Edward, and encloses the celebrated stone on which first the Irish and then the Scottish kings were crowned. Since the time of Edward I., who brought the stone to London in 1297, the chair has been used at every coronation. That to the right was made for the use of Queen Mary when she and William of Orange were crowned.

source: The Queen's London, 1896


Gilbert Scott designed the altar and reredos which were erected in Westminster Abbey in t86;. The four figures standing out from the alabaster reredos are by Armstead, and represent Moses, David, St. Peter and St. Paul and the Last Supper over the altar is in glass mosaic by Salviati. The mosaic pavement within the rails was brought from Rome in 1268. The tombs to the left are those of Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster, of Aveline his wife, and of Aymer de Valence, cousin of Edward I. To the right is a restored portrait of Richard II., the earliest contemporary portrait of an English Sovereign, hung against tapestry brought from Westminster School. Many of our rulers have been crowned in front of the altar, from William the Conqueror on Christmas Day, 1066, to Queen Victoria on June 28th, 1838.

source: The Queen's London, 1896


It is impossible to get a view of the whole length of Westminster Abbey without including St. Margaret's Church, which, however is itself of considerable interest from its associations with Parliament, and as having been founded by Edward the Confessor. But all secondary claims are forgotten beside the noble Abbey, where all our monarchs since Harold have been crowned, and where so many other historic scenes have been enacted. It was founded in did, restored by the Confessor, and later by various English kings. Fourteen kings and as many queens are buried within its walls and here also rest crowds of great men whose names are household words wherever the English tongue is spoken. The Abbey is 375 feet in length, and measures 200 feet across the transepts.

source: The Queen's London, 1896


Visitors to Westminster Abbey must have noticed that the nave - the most impressive interior of any London church - is unusually long and lofty relatively to its breadth. Looking east, the choir screen is the most notable object. Against this are two large monuments designed by Kent and executed by Rysbrack. That to the right commemorates James, first Earl of Stanhope, who died in 1720; that to the left marks the spot where lies all that is mortal of Isaac Newton, philosopher and mathematician. The organ stands on each side of the screen; the pulpit is an excellent specimen of work in coloured marbles. In the aisles on either side of the nave are numerous memorials of the illustrious dead.

source: The Queen's London, 1896