10 Amazing Facts about Westminster Abbey

Alice Roberts

5 mins

14 Oct 2019

Westminster Abbey attracts over 1 million visitors every year, eager to explore 1,000 years of history.

Here are 10 amazing reasons to visit:

1. The abbey was built on an island

When the abbey was founded by monks in 960 AD, it existed on a small island on the Thames called Thorney Island. Its elevations and firm foundations provided the perfect location to build an abbey and the Palace of Westminster.

The island no longer exists, although it has provided the name for Thorney Street in Westminster, now home to MI5.

The original abbey built by Edward the Confessor is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. It was the first Romanesque church in England.

2. It is home to Britain’s oldest door

Westminster Abbey holds the only surviving Anglo Saxon door in this country, dating from around 1050. Recent dendrochronological (tree-ring dating) analysis has revealed the boards were cut from a single tree from Hainault, which was growing between 924 to 1030.

This tree would have been a sapling some 500 / 600 years before, during the swansong of Roman Britain.

In the 19th century, it was noticed that there were fragments of hide covering the door. Theories pointed to a robbery of 1303, proposing that the skin of convicted felons was nailed to the door as a deterrent. It seems more likely that these hides were taken from cows and added to provide a smooth decorative surface.

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3. It’s not actually an abbey

Westminster Abbey hasn’t actually been an abbey since 1539, when the Benedictine monastic church was dissolved under Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Between 1540-1556 it was a cathedral, and around 1560, Elizabeth I awarded it the status of ‘Royal Peculiar’, making it a church directly responsible to the sovereign rather than to a Church of England bishop.

Its official name is the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster – that is, a non-cathedral church with an attached chapter of canons, headed by a dean. The name of ‘west minster’ distinguishes from the ‘east minster’ of St Paul’s.

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4. The Stone of Scone was stolen by students

On Christmas Eve 1950, four Glasgow students broke into the abbey to steal the Stone of Scone – or the Stone of Destiny, as it is known in Scotland. It had been removed from Scotland in 1296 by Edward I, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’. The stone was kept under the Coronation Chair, where sovereigns have been crowned for 700 years.

Dragging the stone through the abbey using a coat, they hauled it into a Ford Anglia and were briefly stopped by an unsuspecting policeman, who offered them cigarettes.

When the authorities got wind of the crime, they closed the border between England and Scotland for the first time in 400 years. Meanwhile, the stone lay buried in a field in Kent.

The Stone of Scone in the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey.

Although the stone was soon restored, it was officially returned to Scotland in 1996.

Westminster Abbey marked 50 years since the theft on Christmas Eve 2000. Attended by one of the original accomplices, Gavin Vernon, the event opened with the words, ‘Welcome back, Mr Vernon’.

5. The sanctuary floor predicts the future

A Cosmati pavement decorates the sanctuary of the abbey. Made from thousands of cut pieces of mosaic and porphyry, its brass lettering tells us the date it was created (1268), the king who ruled (Henry III), and that it came from Rome. It also calculates the world will end in 19,683 years.

A conservation team work on the Cosmati pavement. Image source: Christine Smith / CC BY-SA 4.0.

6. Oliver Cromwell was buried here…..once

Although Cromwell was buried in the abbey in 1658, he was dug up in January 1661 under the orders of the recently restored Charles II. After his body was hanged from a gibbet at Tyburn, his head was stuck on a pike outside Westminster Hall.

7. Some of the abbey treasures were stored in tube stations

During World War Two, measures were made to protect the treasures. The Coronation Chair was sent to Gloucester Cathedral, and the Coronation Stone was buried secretly in the abbey. The collection of wax funeral effigies was stored in Piccadilly tube station.

Rooms in the abbey were used as a dressing station, dispensary, Air Raid Precaution headquarters, and a base for fire watchers.

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8. It’s a Gothic architectural wonder

The current building dates from the time of Henry III, who wished to honour St Edward the Confessor in the new Gothic style. The 13th century was a great age for cathedrals, most famously at Amiens, Evreux and Chartres in France, and Canterbury, Winchester and Salisbury in England.

The abbey is home to the highest Gothic vault in England, reaching 102 feet. Characteristic Gothic features include pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, rose windows and flying buttresses.

The design follows continental geometric proportions, but encompasses English features such as single rather than double aisles, and wide projecting transepts projecting from the long nave.

The Nave of Westminster Abbey. Image source: Jessica Neal / CC BY 2.0.

9. Ben Jonson was buried standing up

There are over 3,500 people buried in the abbey, with over 450 tombs and monuments. For several hundred years, anyone could be buried there for a fee.

Ben Jonson, the celebrated 17th century poet, was so impoverished at the time of his death in 1637 that he could only afford two square feet of space. He is buried in the north aisle of the Nave – standing up.

10. The Henry VII Chapel is home to a bearded lady

A painting of the Henry VII Chapel by Canaletto.

The Lady Chapel was built by Henry VII between 1503 and 1519. Its perpendicular architecture is in total contrast to the rest of the abbey, and it displays many Tudor emblems such as the rose and portcullis.

The Henry VII Chapel also houses a statue of a female saint – with a beard. In order to avoid an arranged marriage to a pagan prince, Saint Wilgefortis prayed to God to disfigure her body and put her suitor off the marriage.