Friday, May 18, 2012

London on $98 a Day - Westminster Abbey

The British know how to hold a grudge. They took Oliver Cromwell, the man most responsible for King Charles I's death, the only British monarch ever beheaded, and had him hanged, drawn and quartered. This uniquely torturous death involves the man* being hanged until barely alive, removed from the gallows while still breathing to be emasculated and eviscerated, and then having his head chopped off while his body is divided into four pieces.

The only problem with subjecting Cromwell to this hideous process was that he was already dead!

He'd died three years before in 1658. But, no matter. His body was exhumed, he posthumously went through being hanged, drawn and quartered, and his head decorated a spike for a number of years before the head was either stolen or blown off the spike by a storm. (The head was finally found in 1960 and buried in Cambridge.) So, don't mess with the British. They don't forget.

This is just one of the stories you will hear when taking a verger tour (Vergers are church officials who prepare the Abbey for services, keep order when there is doubt about procedure, and, at least in the case of Westminster, teach small groups of tourists about the Abbey's history.) through this most amazing thousand-year-old repository of pomp and history.

Westminster Abbey is a former monastery, functioning church--we stopped for three brief prayers during our visit there--the place where all kings and queens have had their coronations (William the Conqueror--there he is again!--was the first on Christmas Day in 1066.); the burial spot for monarchs and their consorts, poets, scientists and writers (Darwin, somewhat ironically, is buried here along with Chaucer and Robert Browning); and the site for nuptials, most recently the wedding of Will and Kate in 2011.
Photo taken of St. Margaret's Chapel before I saw the sign saying, "no photography."
Our verger, Ben, delighted us for almost two hours with history lessons, let us sit in the quire, had us stand in the place where coronations occur (This is a huge space because, in the day before video, all the officials had to crowd around to make sure the right person was being crowned.), and took us behind the scenes to the spot where Will and Kate signed their marriage license. He led us along the passageways of this Gothic cathedral, never forgetting to point out the reasons for the architectural oddities (The sanctuary seems to be partitioned in two so that the public could worship on one side while the monks could retain their privacy on the other.), the inherent beauty of the intricately carved white stone ceiling of the Lady Chapel where the Order of the Bath worshiped, and the novelty of some of the burials (Queen Elizabeth I is buried with her half-sister even though Mary had Elizabeth imprisoned in the Tower of London. Elizabeth came to the throne only after Mary died.). In short, our almost-two-hour tour ended much too quickly.

The British may hold a grudge, but they also cherish their history and love to share it with visitors. There's no better place to do that than in Westminster Abbey.

Practicalities -

Although you can do a self-guided audio tour, David and I highly recommend the verger tour.  You will be given permission to see and sit in areas that are off-limits to other tourists.  Once you've paid the admission fee, go to the information desk and pay 3€.  The tour is worth twenty times that fee. 

Anyone is welcome to worship at the Abbey. St. Faith's Chapel is available for private prayer.  Use the West Gate to attend services held throughout the day; evensong is sung every weekday at 5:00 or 3:00 on weekends. There is no charge.

*It was considered unseemly to hang, draw and quarter women, so they were burned at the stake instead.

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