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Matthew Pearson

Did You Know? 10 Facts About Westminster Abbey


  • Who’s buried here
  • When it was built
  • And what it’s really called

Westminster Abbey is a large, storied abbey church, and possibly the most famous religious building in the country. A visit to Westminster Abbey transports you through the history of the country, with monarchs, writers, scientists and politicians all involved in its 1000 year existence. It’s a highlight of many a London itinerary. As one of the leading and most popular attractions included with the London Pass, we thought it might be instructive to give you some facts about the famous old church. So, 10 facts about Westminster Abbey, coming up...

1. It’s Peculiar

A Royal Peculiar, to be exact. Put simply, this means that Westminster Abbey doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of a bishop and isn’t part of a diocese. Instead, it belongs to the monarch of the country. The whole concept was dreamt up back during Anglo-Saxon times, so that churches could show their allegiance to the monarch, rather than a local bishop. Nowadays, Royal Peculiars remain because of tradition and organisational reasons, rather than the need of individual churches to ally themselves with a sympathetic monarch, and distance themselves from a troublesome bishop.

2. It’s A Crowning Achievement

Westminster Abbey has provided the setting for all royal coronations since 1066. Every English and British monarch (except those who were never formally crowned, Edwards V and VIII) since William the Conqueror has been crowned in the abbey. The coronation ceremony has kept a similar form for the last 1000 years. The Archbishop of Canterbury performs the ceremony, which sees the monarch swearing an oath to uphold the law and the church, anointed with holy oil and formally crowned.

3. It’s the Perfect Place For Royals to Celebrate Their Big Day

Yes, Westminster Abbey has hosted a large number of Royal Weddings over the years, including the 2011 event that saw Prince William and Kate Middleton tie the knot. They were far from the first to see it as the perfect place for their Big Day though. King Henry I married Matilda of Scotland here in 1100, and William’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II married Prince Philip here in 1947. If you want to get married here, it’s definitely handy having a high-up royal relative, or marrying royalty.

4. It’s Britain’s Valhalla

Westminster Abbey is often referred to as a ‘Britain’s Valhalla’. From Norse mythology, Valhalla, or the ‘Hall of the Slain’, is the final resting place of selected dead warriors. You don’t have to be a warrior to be buried at Westminster Abbey, but it might help your case. 17 monarchs are buried or have memorials at Westminster Abbey, with around 3,300 people buried or memorialised here in total. Prime Ministers buried here included Clement Attlee, William Pitt (both Elder and Younger) and Neville Chamberlain. Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton are among the other famous British names to find their final resting place within the grounds of Britain’s Valhalla.

5. This Site Has Been Used for Religious Purposes for Over 1000 Years

The Westminster Abbey site has been used for religious purposes since the 10th century, when Benedictine monks worshiped here. The 11th century saw the site first used as a royal church, with Edward the Confessor ordering that a royal burial church be constructed on this spot, just north of the Thames. The present building was started in 1245 and took more than 100 years to complete. Additions have been made by many Kings and Queens since, including the stunning Henry VII Chapel or “Lady Chapel”, with its magnificent fan vault ceiling.

6. There Are a Lot of Poets at Westminster Abbey

So many, in fact, that a section of it is called Poets’ Corner. The first poet interred here was Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote The Canterbury Tales. Others who have been buried or memorialised close to Chaucer include W.H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, John Milton, Rudyard Kipling and William Blake.

7. The Coronation Chair is Located at Westminster Abbey

The chair used in all royal coronations since 1308 sits pride of place within Westminster Abbey. Close inspection of the ceremonial chair - also referred to as King Edward’s Chair - reveals that it is covered in graffiti. The markings are the work of visitors during the 1700s and 1800s. It is now guarded with a level of protection befitting such an important and historic item. So it’s unlikely you’ll be able to scrawl ‘Dave woz ere’ on it during your visit.

8. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The church’s importance to British history and society has been formally noted, with the building given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1987. It is also a Grade I listed building. As a tourist attraction and museum, Westminster Abbey today attracts over a million visitors each year. You could join them, with admission to the abbey included in the price of your London Pass.

9. Its Inclusion in The Da Vinci Code Led to a Lot of Disinformation

Westminster Abbey featured in Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code. As a result, the abbey saw numbers of visitors rise, with fans of the novel keen to see one of the book’s key setting up close. However, the story included many factual inaccuracies (it was a work of fiction after all). So, as was reported at the time, abbey officials began publishing information sheets for tour guides and visitors which corrected many of the historical and factual errors/fictitious elements relating to the abbey contained within the book.

10. It Isn’t Really Called Westminster Abbey

We’ve saved the big one until last: Westminster Abbey isn’t actually called Westminster Abbey. It’s real name is the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster. It isn’t as catchy, is it? So it’s good that it’s referred to as Westminster Abbey, whatever its real name is. You wouldn’t have read an article called “Did You Know, 10 Facts About the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster”, would you?

Where to learn about next? Another London landmark perhaps?

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