Westminster Abbey is one of the most historic and important places of worship in London, because for centuries this has been the site of the coronation of the country’s monarchs.
The dramatic abbey has long held pride of place in Westminster, and every English King or Queen has been crowned inside its walls since William the Conqueror. Westminster Abbey has gone through many changes throughout its long and at times turbulent life, and the history surrounding the church is as long as its spires are tall.
Few other sights in the city have such a prestigious heritage. The abbey has survived for hundreds of years, through Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and even through the ravages of the Blitz.
It’s a grandiose London attraction to visit, and you can walk where Kings and Queens have stood, explore ancient crypts, marvel at glorious artwork and pay your respects to some of the country’s most historical figures in the cemetery.
It’s a must-visit London attraction. To help you to plan your trip, here’s everything you need to know about Westminster Abbey.
- 1 How to Travel to Westminster Abbey
- 2 The Best Time to Visit Westminster Abbey
- 3 A Brief History of Westminster Abbey
- 4 Coronations, Weddings and Burials at Westminster
- 5 Things to See and Do at Westminster Abbey
How to Travel to Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is found in central London, in the City of Westminster for which it’s named. This prominent location gave rise to the church’s importance to the British monarchy and public through history, as just over the road is Westminster Palace, which for centuries was a royal residence until it eventually became home to the Houses of Parliament.
The abbey can be reached easily using public transport – it’s inadvisable to drive into this part of London, due to lack of parking and congestion charges, to name just a few of the obstacles – with nearby bus and tube stops that are within easy walking distance.
The closest tube stations are St James’s Park or Westminster. St James’s Park is located on both the District and Circle lines, while Westminster is found on the District, Circle and Jubilee lines.
If you are exploring more of London, you can also consider purchasing a ticket for the hop-on hop-off buses that stop close to Westminster Abbey, as you’ll be able to travel easily between London’s best attractions, while learning more about the city while on board.
The Best Time to Visit Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is one of the most popular tourist attractions in London and, unfortunately, it’s always going to be busy. The queues at the entrance can be long, so always ensure you plan your day accordingly, leaving enough time to allow you to explore the inside fully and to avoid any disappointment. You can purchase priority tickets beforehand to allow you to skip the worst of the lines.
It’s best to arrive here early to be first in line, rather than later in the day when there may be the chance that you are turned away at closing time. There’s not a particularly best time of the year to visit Westminster Abbey, as you can explore no matter the season, however, be aware that summer is peak season in London and all the attractions across the city are always busiest between June and September.
Westminster Abbey is open to tourists from 9.30 am until 3.30 pm Monday to Saturday. On Wednesdays, there are also late afternoon openings when the abbey stays open until 6 pm. Services are held Sundays, when the church is only open to worshippers.
Tickets can be bought in advance online for £21 per adult, or on the door for £23, although prices are subject to change. There are discounts available for children and senior citizens. There are also separate tickets available for special events, which are often held on select evenings during the week.
A Brief History of Westminster Abbey
The location where Westminster Abbey is found has long been the site of important places of worship through London’s history. Archaeological excavations and research have revealed that there has been a Christian church here since at least 960 AD when the Saxon King Edgar ordered the construction of the first abbey.
The abbey was originally built for Benedictine monks, before Edward the Confessor built St Peter’s Abbey on the same site, which was to serve as his burial chapel in 1066. That same year, the Normans would invade England and take over the country after defeating Edward’s successor, Harold, at the infamous Battle of Hastings.
William the Conqueror was the first monarch to be crowned in the abbey when he held his coronation here in 1066. Little of these first religious sites remain however, as in the 13th century a new abbey was built in the Gothic style that you see today. The church continued to be the location of coronations, however, and every monarch since William the Conqueror has been crowned inside, while many have also been buried here.
Over the following centuries, additions were made and the abbey grew, even surviving the dissolution of the monasteries enforced by Henry VIII, when the king gave it official status as a ‘cathedral’ rather than an abbey.
World War II proved to be the biggest threat to Westminster Abbey, when German bombs ravaged the capital and the Blitz caused extensive damage to the historic church. Again though, it survived, and today it continues to be both a popular tourist attraction and an important place of worship.
Coronations, Weddings and Burials at Westminster
Since William the Conqueror, the abbey has held coronations for kings and queens through British history, making this the most important church for the royal family in the country. The last coronation to be held here was that of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, which to date is the only coronation that has ever been televised.
While coronations have been rare in recent years, the abbey has also proven to be a popular location for royal weddings. Countless marriage ceremonies have been performed here for the Royal Family, with many in recent years attracting huge crowds in the city and also being shown live on TV. The last royal wedding was between Prince William and Kate Middleton, held in 2011.
As well as celebrating coronations and weddings, Westminster Abbey has hosted many more sombre occasions, as royalty and important national figures are buried here. Within the grounds, you can find the tombs and the graves of many of the country’s most iconic historical characters.
Things to See and Do at Westminster Abbey
The central hallway of Westminster Abbey is known, as in most cathedrals, as the nave. As you enter from the western entrance, you’ll have the sight of this long, elegant hallway laid out before you, and you’ll be treading in the footsteps of the kings and queens who walked along the Nave to be crowned.
Tall pillars stretch high to the ceiling, and you are free to stroll through the nave and to admire the ambitious architecture of Westminster Abbey as you do so.
The Coronation Chair
In the nave you’ll encounter one of the most iconic sights within Westminster Abbey and one of the most important artefacts in royal history. The coronation chair is where monarchs sit as they are crowned, and it’s an incredibly historic piece of furniture.
The chair is wooden and was carved from English Oak in the late 13th century on the orders of King Edward I. As well as being one of the oldest items in Westminster Abbey, the chair is one of the oldest pieces of wooden furniture in the entire country that’s been in continual use since its creation. It appears a rather simple chair when you first lay eyes upon it, but the wooden structure hides a wealth of history in its cracks. Most notably, the chair was designed to hold the Stone of Scone, the famous stone upon which Scottish kings were crowned. In recent years, it was returned though to Scotland, after being held here for hundreds of years.
Found right in the middle of Westminster Abbey, is the archaically spelt quire. This is the area reserved for the choir and for certain members of clergy during services and ceremonies, and it’s an important part of the church’s layout.
You’ll find the quire after the nave and before the high altar at the far end of the church. Westminster Abbey has its own resident chorus of choirboys who study and train at the Westminster Abbey Choir School, located within the grounds.
To accompany the dulcet tones of the choirboys, Westminster Abbey is also home to an extravagant organ piece that is played during recitals. The pipes stretch high towards the grand ceiling of the abbey, and if you are here during a church service you’ll hear them in action.
The organ is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, as it was specially designed and built for the coronation of King George VI in 1937.
The Royal Tombs
One of the original intentions of Westminster Abbey was that it would serve as the burial grounds for English kings, with Edward the Confessor being the first to be entombed here in 1066.
Edward the Confessor’s tomb is still found behind the high altar, on display for all who visit Westminster Abbey to see, and his burial chamber became somewhat of a shrine when the English king was canonised. His effigy is found adorning the outside of the tomb and, as he was the first monarch to be interned here, he has pride of place in the abbey.
Many more royals were buried here in later years too. Behind the high altar surrounding Edward the Confessor’s Shrine, you can find several tombs holding the remains of famous English kings, including Henry V, who won the Battle of Agincourt.
The Lady Chapel
The Lady Chapel is an integral addition to the central area of Westminster Abbey, as it was built by Henry VII at the eastern end of the church to serve as his final resting place. The Tudor king built what was at the time one of the most lavish chapels in Europe and today you’ll be mesmerised by the glorious 16th-century architecture that’s been preserved here through the centuries since its construction.
There are over 30 royals and nobles buried under the chapel, with Henry VII having the most visible tomb and effigy. After he was interred here, many monarchs that followed his reign were also buried here, including Elizabeth I, James I and William III to name just a few. Oliver Cromwell was buried here for a time until his body was taken out after the monarchy was reinstated after the English Civil War.
Westminster Abbey is not just the resting place of monarchs, because as early as the 1400s, poets and writers began to be given lasting memorials in the church, and many were buried here in recognition of their work.
Found just off the nave, Poets’ Corner is a microcosm of British literature, as you’ll see some of the country’s most iconic wordsmiths commemorated here. Chaucer was the first English writer to be buried at Westminster Abbey, but the tradition still continues today.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
To remember all those who fell fighting for Britain in wars across the world, you can pay your respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. During World War I, many soldiers fell in battle and were never identified, and many more were lost forever with no known graves or final resting places.
In 1920 an unknown soldier who was killed in France was buried in Westminster Abbey, on equal footing with the country’s kings and queens, to represent the huge sacrifice made by people from all classes and walks of life. It’s a moving tribute to loss and conflict.
The grave and plaque, found in the nave of Westminster Abbey, have since been the scene of many a commemoration, as memorial services led by royalty are held to mark important anniversaries, particularly those related to the First World War.
To find out more about visiting Westminster Abbey or to book one of our fantastic London tours, contact Premium Tours today.