In November 2010 a royal spokesman announced that Westminster Abbey would be the venue for the 2011 wedding of Catherine (Kate) Middleton and Prince William, who is second in line to the British throne after his father Prince Charles.
The royal wedding is expected to draw huge crowds of curious British spectators and well-wishers but many tourists are expected to visit from overseas too. In particular it’s expected that many Americans will decide to vacation in London around the time of the royal wedding.
James Berresford of VisitEngland commented that “This is very good news for tourism in England. We at VisitEngland really congratulate the happy couple. We think it’s great news for them, but it also creates a great feel-good factor for England when a royal wedding happens.”
Berresford predicts that thousands of international visitors will flock to join the royal wedding celebrations and there will be “huge interest in travel to England as a result of Kate and William’s wedding. So many of the attractions associated with the monarchy are hugely popular. We estimate that something like 800 million dollars is spent each year on attractions that are associated with royalty. It’s big business.”
Certainly tourists planning a trip to Britain to watch the royal wedding will inevitably spend time in London – and Westminster Abbey, a pivotal building in British history, is well worth visiting. During the weeks before the wedding security will be tight and visits to the Abbey will be restricted. Once the wedding has taken place, though, tourists will have the opportunity to visit the abbey and will get more out of their visit if they learn a little about the building before they arrive. Here are some key facts on this magnificent building’s history and national significance.
The abbey’s official name is the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster but it is always popularly referred to by the British as Westminster Abbey. The large and imposing Gothic church, just by the Palace of Westminster – England’s seat of government – and the iconic Big Ben, is the traditional place for crowning and burying English (and later British) kings and queens.
The abbey is a Royal Peculiar – or Royal Peculier in the older English spelling – which simply means it is under the jurisdiction of the monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, rather than any Church of England bishop.
The abbey is managed by a large team of clergy and staff, some with very British antiquated titles. They include the Dean, four Canons, the Receiver General, a Chapter Clerk, a Priest Vicar, the organist, the Master of the Choristers, the registrar, auditor, legal secretary, Surveyor of the Fabric, Head Master of the Choir School, Keeper of the Muniments and the Clerk of Works. There are also twelve Lay Vicars, ten choristers, a High Steward and a Bailiff.
The present Queen married Prince Philip at the abbey on November the 20th 1947. Before her, Prince William’s great-grandmother, the Queen Mother, married the Duke of York in the abbey on April the 26th 1923. Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, now divorced, married there in 1986.
In 1997, Westminster Abbey was also the venue for the funeral of Princess Diana, killed in a Paris car crash with her then boyfriend, Dodi Fayed. Screened around the world, Diana’s funeral was watched by millions of viewers. Her brother, Charles Spencer, famously delivered a speech from a pulpit in the abbey in which he warned the Windsors, the Royal family, not to deny Prince William and Prince Harry the loving, well-rounded upbringing their mother wanted for them.
When Prince William walks down the aisle of the abbey with Catherine Middleton in 2011 he will inevitably think of the last time he appeared in public in this impressive building. Then he was a boy, forlornly following the coffin of his young mother. When he returns, he will be a young man on the threshold of married life, overlaying that earlier sad memory with a happy and confident one.
Although the exact date in which Westminster Abbey was founded is uncertain, it had been founded by the 960s. Saint Dunstan established a community of Benedictine monks on the site. Edward the Confessor later built a stone abbey, around 1050, as part of his royal palace. A plan of the abbey alongside the Palace of Westminster features in the stunning medieval Bayeux Tapestry.
Since the coronations in 1066 of King Harold and then William the Conqueror, English and then British monarchs have been crowned in the Abbey.
The abbey’s religious community became a powerful force in British society in the centuries after the Norman Conquest. In the High and Late Middle Ages, the Benedictines moved in circles populated by the capital’s landed gentry. The abbey was economically important to London both as an employer and a customer.
The English king Henry III rebuilt the abbey in the Gothic style as a shrine to Edward the Confessor. Edward’s relics still lie in a burial vault underneath the striking 13th-century mosaic pavement in front of the abbey’s High Altar. Henry III is interred nearby as are many of England’s Plantagenet kings. Although most English kings and queens are buried in the abbey, Henry VIII and Charles I were buried in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Queen Victoria was buried in Frogmore Mausoleum, near Windsor Castle.
The abbey could have been destroyed in the 16th century. Fortunately, Henry VIII decided to spare the abbey from destruction during the dissolution of the monasteries, taking conrol of it in 1539.
It was in 1579 that Elizabeth I made Westminster Abbey a Royal Peculier – bringing the church directly under the control of the monarch rather than a bishop.
In 1658, Oliver Cromwell was interred in the abbey but was disinterred in 1661 and, bizarrely, hanged from a gibbet nearby.
The renowned medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales, is buried in the cloister. Other famous writers are buried or commemorated around Chaucer’s tomb in the area called Poets’ Corner. If you visit the abbey, Poet’s Corner is one of its most fascinating featrues. Look out for the names – on worn flagstones and tombs – of William Blake, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Lord Byron, Robert Burns, Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Dryden, George Eliot, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Gray, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Samuel Johnson, John Keats, Rudyard Kipling, John Milton, Alexander Pope, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Dylan Thomas. Poet’s Corner is hugely significant in British literary history.
The brilliant scientist Isaac Newton and wonderful naturalist Charles Darwin are also buried in the abbey.
Lastly, don’t miss the Westminster Abbey Museum. It’s hidden away in an 11th century vault under what was once the monks’ dormitory. The vault dates back to the foundation of the abbey by Edward the Confessor, in 1065. Any vacation or trip to London will be enhanced by a visit to the abbey. It is packed with milestones in British religious, political and literary history and radiates atmosphere. Visit and see for yourself!
** Near Westminster Abbey in London: the House of Lords, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the Jewel Tower, Churchill’s War Rooms, Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall, Westminster Bridge and the Thames, the Cenotaph, Clarence House, Buckingham Palace, Tate Britain **