Some of the most important occasions in the life of Queen Elizabeth II – her marriage in 1947 to Philip Mountbatten and her coronation in 1953 – took place at Westminster Abbey. On September 19, 2022, his state funeral will also take place there, marking the end of a 96-year life and seven-decade reign as the monarch of the United Kingdom. Westminster Abbey has been the backdrop to important royal events for over 1,000 years. Here are five fascinating things you might not know about the iconic world heritage site.
1. Westminster Abbey is not an abbey at all
The word “abbey” refers to a building used by monks or nuns; nor live in Westminster Abbey today. But the name is a holdover from the building’s early days, says Dr. John Cooper, director of the Society of Antiquaries of London, in an email interview. “Westminster Abbey was founded as a monastery of Benedictine monks around the year 960, a century before Anglo-Saxon England was conquered by the Normans,” he says. “The Benedictine monks wore black robes and devoted themselves to a simple life of poverty, chastity and obedience. But as the Palace of Westminster became the center of English royal government and ceremony, the Abbey became the place where coronations and many royal burials took place.”
During the Reformation, King Henry VIII dissolved all English monasteries. The Abbey is now known as “royal private“, because it does not technically belong to the Church of England, but directly to the monarchy. “The two most famous examples [of royal peculiars] are Westminster Abbey, where Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral will be held, and St George’s Chapel in Windsor, where she will be laid to rest with her late husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, in a private service,” explains Cooper.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Westminster Abbey is no longer the name of the building. “Formally,” says Cooper, “it is the ‘Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster’, but almost everyone calls it by its historical name of Westminster Abbey.”
2. Not much remains of the original abbey
While Westminster Abbey was originally consecrated in 1065 CE, during the reign of King Edward the Confessor, most of this original building was demolished in the 13th century when Henry III rebuilt the church. “The earliest buildings of the abbey survive only as archaeological traces,” says Cooper. “But much of Henry III’s 13th-century Gothic Abbey can still be seen today, including the chapter house with its tiled floor, the Purbeck marble sanctuary of St Edward the Confessor and the wall paintings of Saint Christopher and Doubting Thomas were rediscovered in the 1930s.”
And while the two iconic towers at the front of Westminster Abbey may look medieval, they are actually the youngest part of the building, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and completed in the 1740s.
3. He is loaded with body
There are over 3,000 people buried in Westminster Abbey, so most visitors can’t resist stepping on them a lot of graves. But some tombs are more remarkable than others.
For centuries the abbey was the final resting place of the kings and queens of England; 30 of them, to be exact. The royal tombs are some of the best known places in the church. “As a Tudor historian, my favorite place in the abbey has to be Henry VII Chapel in the east,” says Cooper. “As a king who had taken the throne by conquest, Henry VII was obsessed with displaying his legitimacy to rule. By creating a magnificent new royal mausoleum at Westminster Abbey, he ensured that he and his successors would be commemorated in perpetuity in the largest church in England.”
The last monarch to be buried there was George II, but in the mid-1600s a practice began of burying non-royals at Westminster Abbey. Of course, it was not an honor for just anyone: These graves are a veritable who’s who of English literature, science and culture, including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and over 100 other poets and writers, the scientist Sir Isaac Newton, prime ministers Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger , and naturalist Charles Darwin. The most recent burial in Westminster was that of physicist Stephen Hawking, whose ashes were buried near Newton in 2018.
4. It houses the most famous chair in the world
The coronation chair is one of the most famous pieces of furniture in the world. It was originally commissioned in 1300 by King Edward I to hold the huge Stone of Scone, which Edward had taken from Scotland. Also known at the Stone of Destiny, the huge block of sandstone is where Scottish kings were crowned from around the year 498. Once placed in the custody of the Abbot of Westminster, the coronation chair – a large oak throne – was built to sit on.
The coronation chair was painted with colorful plants, animals and birds, all accented with gilding. There have been 38 coronation ceremonies at Westminster, with the future monarch seated in the coronation chair, including Queen Elizabeth in the 1950s.
Stone has been stolen under the chair in 1950 by Scottish nationalists, although it was salvaged in 1951. In 1996 the British government decided to officially return it to Scotland, and when not in use in ceremonies of coronation, he now stands at Edinburgh Castle.
5. One of his greatest treasures is hiding in plain sight.
On the way to the chapter house, visitors pass through a small, seemingly unremarkable wooden door. It is in fact one of the last remnants of the original abbey, and possibly, says Cooper, Britain’s oldest gate.
“The oak door in the vestibule of the chapter house has been dated by dendrochronology around the time of the reign of Edward the Confessor, just before the Norman Conquest,” he says. “The ring pattern reveals that the wood came from the east of England.”
The gate would have originally been about 9 feet (2.7 meters) high, probably with an arched top. But, explains Cooper, it “was cut down to be recycled in the abbey of Henry III, built from 1245”.
According to Westminster Abbey’s official website, “After the boards were joined, both sides were probably covered with cowhide, added to provide a smooth surface for decoration (there is no trace of paint remaining). Then the ornamental iron hinges and decorative straps were fitted in. Only one of the original straps remains today with trapped skin underneath (on the inside face of the door)… In the 19th century, the fragments of cowhide were spotted for the first time and a legend developed that this skin was human it was speculated that someone had been caught committing sacrilege or robbery in the church and had been flayed and his skin nailed to this door to deter others.
At Westminster Abbey, even the simplest things are quite remarkable.