10 Famous Figures Buried in Westminster Abbey

Alice Roberts

5 mins

10 Oct 2019

Westminster Abbey is the final resting place of over 3,000 people, including 17 monarchs and 8 Prime Ministers.

Here are 10 of the most famous figures to be buried there:

1. George Frederic Handel

George Frederic Handel was one of Britain’s greatest Baroque composers. Born in Germany, he moved to London in 1710 where he was soon granted a generous Royal pension of £200 per annum.

Whilst dominating the London musical scene with oratorios and operas, Handel’s anthem for the coronation of George II is perhaps his most famous work: Zadok the Priest has formed a part of every British coronation since it was written.

George Frideric Handel, painted by Balthasar Denner.

In the days leading up to his death, Handel put aside £600 for his burial and memorial in Westminster Abbey, with a monument to be completed by Roubiliac.

His funeral was attended by about 3,000 people, with singing from the choirs of Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Chapel Royal.

2. Sir Isaac Newton

Newton’s monument in Westminster, designed by William Kent.

Newton was a leading figure in the scientific revolution. His work in science, astronomy and mathematics formulated, amongst other things, laws of motion and theories of colour.

Newton died in his sleep at Kensington in 1727. His funerary monument of white and grey marble depicts objects from his mathematical and optical work.

After his death, an examination of his body found mercury in his hair – perhaps explaining eccentricities in later life.

3. Geoffrey Chaucer

As the author of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer has been named ‘The Father of English Poetry’. Although born a lowly son of a London vintner, Chaucer’s literary work for John of Gaunt, his patron and friend, elevated him to such a position that his granddaughter became the Duchess of Suffolk.

In 1556, his grey Purbeck marble monument was erected. Edmund Spenser, the Elizabethan poet, was buried nearby in 1599, thus beginning the idea of a ‘Poets’ Corner’.

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4. Stephen Hawking

An eminent physicist, mathematician and author, Professor Stephen Hawking was buried in Westminster Abbey in 2018, near the graves of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

At just 32, Hawking was elected to the Royal Society, and became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, a post also held by Newton.

Reflecting his pioneering work on the universe and black holes, Hawking’s gravestone, made of Caithness slate stone, depicts a series of rings swirling around a darker central ellipse. Etched in white, his ten-character equation reflects his ideas about Hawking radiation.

Hawking holding a public lecture at the Stockholm Waterfront congress centre in 2015. Image Credit: Alexandar Vujadinovic / CC BY-SA 4.0.

5. Elizabeth I

The daughter of the short lived and dramatic marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s life began tumultuously. Yet her long reign is remembered as one of the most brilliant in English history. Marked by the defeat of the Spanish Armada, voyages of exploration and discovery and the writings of Shakespeare.

Elizabeth’s tomb is shared with her half-sister, Mary I.

Unsurprisingly, her death at Richmond Palace in 1603 prompted widespread mourning. Her body was brought by barge to Whitehall Palace to lie in state, where there was

‘such a general sighing, groaning and weeping as the like hath not been seen or known in the memory of man’.

Although he did not attend the funeral, Elizabeth’s successor, James I, spent £1485 on a full-length tomb effigy, which remains in place to this day.

6. Robert Adam

Adam was a Scottish neoclassical architect, interior and furniture designer. An early visit to Italy inspired his classical plans for country houses, town houses and monuments, and earnt him the nickname ‘Bob the Roman’. He became one of the most sought-after architects of his day, enjoying patronage of aristocracy and royalty.

Buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey, he is placed beside James Macpherson, the Scottish poet, and Sir William Chambers, the architect.

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7. Laurence Olivier

One of the greatest actors and directors of his generation, Olivier’s work dominated the British stage of the 20th century. Perhaps his celebrated performance was in Henry V, an uplifting morale booster for the war weary Britain of 1944.

Olivier in 1972, during the production of Sleuth. Image source: Allan warren / CC BY-SA 3.0.

His ashes, marked by a small gravestone, lie near the graves of actors David Garrick and Sir Henry Irving, and in front of the Shakespeare memorial.

An extract from Act IV of Shakespeare’s Henry V was played during his funeral, the first time a voice recording of the deceased was played in the Abbey at a memorial service.

8. The Unknown Warrior

At the west end of the Nave is the grave of an unknown soldier, representing those who lost their lives in the First World War. The idea appears to have come from a chaplain at the Front, who had seen a rough grave marked by a cross, and the pencilled inscription ‘An Unknown British Soldier’.

After writing to the Dean of Westminster, the body was chosen at random from servicemen exhumed from the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. It laid on 11 November 1920, covered by a slab of black Belgian marble.

It is the only gravestone in the Abbey which cannot be walked on.

The burial of The Unknown Warrior in 1920, with George V in attendance, painted by Frank O Salisbury.

9. William Wilberforce

After becoming a Member of Parliament in 1780, Wilberforce spent twenty years relentlessly fighting for the abolition of slavery. Along with Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson the abolition bill received Royal assent on 25 March 1807.

Although Wilberforce requested to be buried with his sister and daughter at Stoke Newington, both leaders of the Houses of Parliament urged his burial in the Abbey, to which his family agreed. He was buried in 1833 next to a good friend William Pitt the Younger.

As funerary tributes to Wilberforce were made, both Houses of Parliament suspended their business as a mark of respect.

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10. David Livingstone

Most famous for his intrepid exploration of Africa and discovery of the source of the River Nile, Livingstone was a writer, explorer, missionary and physician. His meeting with Henry Morton Stanley immortalised the phrase ‘Doctor Livingstone, I presume?’.

David Livingston in 1864.

Livingstone died at Ilala in the centre of Africa in May 1873. His heart was buried under a mpundu tree, whilst his embalmed body was wrapped in a cylinder of bark and wrapped in a sailcloth. His body was carried to the African coast, and set sail to London, arriving the following year.

His final resting place is the centre of the Nave of Westminster Abbey.

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