Meditations on Westminster Abbey
I'd first read of this place when I was a teenager. I used to confuse one of my high school classmates by having him guess who was buried there. He never guessed right, not once. Whereas I'd memorized a large portion of those who claimed it as a final resting place. Not to sound ghoulish, but I'd wanted to visit this former cathedral/burial place for some time. It was a key location on my recent visit to England, and I was glad I took the time and effort to walk to it. It was the highlight of the time I spent in London. It wasn't about spending time with the dead. No, it was about what the place can teach us about life.
Westminster Abbey was built some 1056 years ago. It's probably the oldest building I'd entered during my U.K. Holiday. On this trip I'd visited Leamington Spa, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Oxford, and London. All of which I'll talk about in later entries. Westminster Abbey is one of those places that had the most impact on me, you'll see why later on.
Outside the Abbey was young man, presumably a historian. He may have been a teacher, as he talked to some young people. I stood by, and listened to what he had to say.
He pointed to the ten statues that stand above an entrance to the Abbey.
He said, “Among those statues is one American. Can you see who it is?”
I said nothing, but instead scanned those figures with my eyes. I instantly saw who he referred to. It was the figure of a robust, broad-shouldered man. He wore the robes of a Southern Baptist preacher. He was a man who had a dream, that all men would stand as brothers.
“That's right!” the historian said. “That is Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader. He is honored here as a martyr because he died for his cause. There is a child at his feet. The reason for that is to show that though he died, his cause lives on.”
I have to confess, I cried a little when I heard him say that.
I then wondered if the child at his feet was Emmett Till; the young African-American man who'd been murdered for talking to a white woman. He too is a martyr in my book.
The first thing I wanted to do there was take a photo of Sir Isaac Newton's tomb. You're not allowed to take photos in Westminster Abbey. I was a bit annoyed at that, but I understood why they'd not allow photos. First, it is a working church. In fact I was encouraged to attend a service there, as was everyone who visited that day. Attendance is free, of course, but tours are not. There were two separate lines; one for tourists, the other for churchgoers.
Another reason why I feel you're not allowed to take photos inside the Abbey is because it's sacred. Granted, Trinity Church (where Shakespeare is buried) is also sacred, as is the chapel at Oxford. Westminster Abbey is a bit different. It's not only a royal peculiar, it's also Britain's equivalent of Arlington (where America's hallowed dead are buried). I would also imagine that's because they want people to take the tour, and not spoil it for others. Fair enough, nobody likes spoilers.
When I entered the Abbey, I was presented with an electronic device, a sort of media player. It reminded me of the electronic game Merlin from the 1980's, only this was much smaller. It had a tiny LED screen which allowed me to keep track of what part of self-guided tour I was on. Different recorded track numbers corresponded to different rooms in the Abbey, which were labeled on a map. I put the device to my ear, and was instantly surprised. The voice recording in English was that of Jeremy Irons! Scar was giving me a tour of Westminster Abbey! Well, the Lion King is based loosely on Hamlet, so it made sense.
The first graves I saw were those of Darwin and Wallace. A bars-relief of evolution's co-father clearly marked his final resting place. I saw co-father, because both Darwin and Alfred Wallace developed the same theory, but published his work first. It also helped that he was a fellow of the Royal Society, whereas Wallace was not. I remembered the words of Mr. Kort, my high school bio teacher, who said, “Wallace got the shaft!”
I looked to the floor, and found I was standing in front of the grave of John Herschel, son of William Herschel. Both men were scientists. His father discovered Uranus (stop tittering at the back! It's pronounced “Oo-ran-us!”). Whereas John was an early pioneer of photography. He also named seven of Saturn's moons, and well as four of Uranus's moons. Darwin is buried right next to him.
Near the altar rested Sir Isaac Newton.
Contrary to what you see in photos, the big statue of him does not contain his corpse. He's buried in the floor next to the altar! That means he's massively important. There's no birth or death dates on the slab that sits over his grave, just his name. He's so famous that he doesn't need an epitaph. I stood within millimeters of that slab, but didn't want to stand directly on it. I wondered if it was rude of me to talk on the tombs of other hallowed deceased in the Abbey. In some places, like the corridor were Darwin and Herschel are buried, you can't help by step on their graves.
I bowed my head, paid my respects, and then moved on.
The RAF chapel impressed me as well. It is small, but humbling. Dedicated to the people who fought in the Battle of Britain, it bares the names of those who commanded the air war against Nazi Germany.
It reminded of stories my paternal grandfather told me about the Blitz. He said, “The V2 rockets sounded like lawnmowers.” It must have been one of the scariest sounds of all time, especially when there was more than one rocket being fired. I then thought of the dogfights that happened over the heads of British citizens; who'd watch spitfires take on Luftwaffe planes above their own homes.
In Westminster Abbey I was able to do something that few living people were able to do centuries ago; stand within inches of kings and queens. The room were Elizabeth I is buried is vary narrow, so I had to hug to wall. Even Jeremy Irons warned me, “The space here is confined, so please keep moving.” I did as he said, and nearly brushed against her tomb. I saw how regal she would have looked, and yet she was small-framed. Small, yet powerful. She reminds me of another redhead I know, but that's another story.
Her half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots was laid to rest to the chapel across from her. I too stood within millimeters of her; something no commoner would have been able to do in her lifetime.
While I was in the St. John the Baptist chapel, I had a profound experience. I saw the tombs of nobles that died young. Well, young by our standards. My mother passed away at age sixty-nine, so that's still all-too-brief a life in the 21st century. However, to the people of Elizabethan England, that was a good age. There were nobles in that chapel that passed away at age forty-six! It put my own thirty-seven years into perspective. I was already aware that people back then died much younger, but it got me thinking. If I were one of those people, I'd be preparing to enter the Abbey on a pall, not on my own feet. Then again, people back then died of all sorts of easily treatable things today. Add to that the lack of hygiene, sanitation, and antibiotics and you have ready made death. I felt fortunate to have been born nearly six-hundred years later.
After my brief visit with Gloriana, I pressed on.
Poet's corner was the last stop on the tour. It was also one of the most profound.
Now, just to clarify any misconceptions here, Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral. Shakespeare is buried in Trinity, in his hometown. D.H. Lawrence rests in New Mexico. Not all of the writers and poets honored in Westminster Abbey are actually buried in the Abbey. Some of them are interred in other places. Those who are not buried there have their actual resting places marked on their plaques. Poet's Corner isn't just a place to lay the great writers, musicians, and actors to rest, it is also a place to remember them.
I smiled when I saw the tomb of Rudyard Kipling. I nodded to him, and thought of If, one of my favorite works by Kipling. I loved his work when I was a child, and a teen. I noted that his gravestone was modest. It had the Bear Necessities. I'm sure he would have appreciated that joke.
I saw the marker for Sir Laurence Olivier. I remember when he died in 1989. Rather than think about his death I remembered Clash of The Titans, The Marathon Man, Spartacus, and Sleuth; all these great movies where I'd seen him.
I thought to myself, “Zeus,” and smiled.
I then saw the tomb of Handel. Yes, I did hear the Hallelujah chorus when that happened.
After that point my tour was at an end.
The last two things I saw were The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, and the Coronation Throne. The throne is behind glass, and kept in a small room. The flag that draped the coffin of The Unknown Warrior hangs overhead.
I reflected at The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. I read the inscription, and noted that a Congressional Medal of Honor, and the Victoria Cross, were both on display. Both had been awarded to this man, who was “known only to God.” I then recalled that Duchess Kate placed her bouquet on his tomb after her wedding to Prince William. A kind gesture, for a man that may not know how important his sacrifice was.
One thing I missed was I neglected to find the tomb of William Pitt. I probably walked right past it, and didn't realize it. I wondered if it was painted black and gold, and if the epitaph read, “Here we go Steelers! Here we go!” I have to confess, I didn't know he was buried there until after the tour had ended. I've seen his family crest my entire life. It shouldn't have been too hard to spot. I presented my friend Justine with a Terrible Towel, though. I think that gives me some Pittsburgh cred overseas.
I left Westminster Abbey a bit shaken, but in a good way.
I thought about the tombs of all those I'd seen. I felt honored. Though I felt a bit icky when standing next to the tomb of Edward I. He was the king that fought William Wallace. I must have given him a dirty look for that, but didn't let it bother me. You don't know how many times I saw Braveheart when I was a teenager. I kept my composure, and resisted the urge to quote it at his tomb. I was fine with everybody else I visited.
Three things occurred to me as I walked to Parliament.
There are three basic things that all humans want. All three are expressed at Westminster Abbey.
First, to be loved.
Second, to be remembered.
Third, to live freely.
There is both love and honor in that place. It is a place where those who built an empire, and sustained a nation, are commemorated. The people who rest there influenced not just Britain, but the entire world. William Pitt didn't know the colonial city named after him would become the steel capitol of the world. Rudyard Kipling didn't know he'd influence generations of children to read. Queen Elizabeth I didn't know she'd make Britain one of the world's first superpowers, or that literature of her time would still influence us now.
It's not just those three people either. Everyone who is buried there, or honored there, did something to make the world. Sure, I thought of Clash of the Titans before I thought of Olivier in Hamlet, but that's a complement as well. I remembered a movie from my childhood, that I loved, and he was in it. I read about Darwin in high school, and we're still arguing about his findings, even today. Newton pretty much invented our concept of the modern scientist. The list goes on and on, more so than I have time to write here.
I was glad I got to see it. Even now as I write this, I feel like I'm there. Speaking of which, there's still some pebbles in the treads of my sneakers; some which had to come from Britain, along with the dust of Westminster Abbey. I feel myself fortunate to carry that with me.
I feel honored that I was able to pay my respects to the hallowed dead. Because of them, the world has its shape.
Author's Note: You are allowed to photograph in the Chapterhouse, and some outside corridors. However, no photography is permitted inside the Abbey proper. When a tourist asked if she could photograph The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, the docent on guard politely told her, "no." This is also the only grave you cannot walk over.
The interior photos you see are of the Chapterhouse, and a plaque dedicated Sir Edmund Halley.
Text Copyright Riley Joyce 2016
Photos also Copyright Riley Joyce 2016