Centuries of history come to life on a tour of Westminster Abbey

I AM a cathedrals nut. In France, in England – and anywhere else I can follow a tall spire to a historic cathedral. Often, I design a cathedral’s itinerary.

And when I’m in London, I never pass up Westminster Abbey, one of the greatest.

But you don’t have to be a cathedrals nut – or even an Anglophile – to treasure time travel in the abbey’s aisles. Two million people a year visit this most important royal church, site of every coronation since 1066 and where 17 monarchs are buried. As its guidebook says, “No other church in the land has a history so inextricably bound up with that of the people of the British Isles.”

That royal status largely spared the abbey from the fractures that laid waste to many altars, stained glass windows, sculptures and relics in churches across England during the Reformation under Henry VIII in the 1540s and, in the 1640s, during the English Civil War.

The abbey is a pantheon, chockablock with thousands of memorials, many huge and very dramatic, to Britain’s most celebrated scientists, writers, explorers, politicians and warriors. The path visitors usually follow, especially using a free audio guide, around the nave and then back to the east end, is a history walk.

Tourists line up to enter Westminster Abbey in London

If you have time for the 90-minute small-group tours led by the abbey’s vergers (lay staff who attend to the cathedral’s important visitors and assist the clergy), sign up at the information desk on arrival. The verger tours are always a bit different and a lively history lesson. My most recent verger guide sprinkled the walk with anecdotes about topics such as his role positioning Princes William and Harry on the day of William’s 2011 wedding to Kate Middleton.

As we passed through the side aisles lined with dramatic monuments, among the many highlights was the small circular floor marker over the grave of the 17th century playwright Ben Jonson, who died impoverished and begged Charles I for just 18 square inches of abbey space, saying he could only afford to be buried standing up.

At the far west end, by the entrance used for major ceremonies, is the black marble tablet with a surround of red poppies that memorialises Britain’s Unknown Warrior, so important that processions for weddings and funerals pass around it, not over it. Nearby, a floor tablet honours Winston Churchill. My guide said Churchill declined to be buried at the abbey, saying he didn’t wish to be walked upon in death as he had been in life.

At the screen separating the nave from the choir, there is an enormous monument to Isaac Newton, with a carving depicting his many discoveries. Nearby, in that same area full of scientists, lie Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking. The physicist’s ashes were buried last year; an abbey spokesman said that burials of people, such as Hawking, who are not connected to the abbey are highly unusual. There already have been about 3,300 burials at the abbey, but space is tight and since about 1900, even the exceptional burial has been limited to cremated ashes. Memorial tablets are added a few times a year, usually in response to appeals by a group. For instance, this year a memorial to humourist PG Wodehouse will be placed in the Poets’ Corner, by permission of the dean of the abbey, in response to a petition from the Wodehouse Society.

In Poet’s Corner, in the south transept, there’s the marble tomb of 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer, whose burial began the custom of Britain’s greatest artists being buried or memorialised at the abbey. My guide explained that the ancient Chaucer tomb is tiny because he stood just over four feet tall. Many of the memorials – to the likes of William Shakespeare – are just that, but there are graves of others, such as Rudyard Kipling, Robert Browning, Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens, who died in 1870 and whose grave was kept open for a few days while crowds of mourners paid respects. Among the enormous marble monuments is one of composer George Frederick Handel, whose likeness was taken from a death mask.

Every coronation since 1066 has taken place at the high altar, which is surrounded by a 1268 mosaic pavement of 30,000 pieces of marble, onyx and glass made by the famous Italian Cosmati family of artisans. When I went to the daily evensong service recently, I was lucky that my line filed into seats set up right next to that fascinatingly complex Cosmati floor and the tomb of Anne of Cleves, the only one of Henry VIII’s wives buried at the abbey. The evensong service at any Anglican church allows you to take in the history and architecture in a quiet way usually impossible during visiting hours.

An advantage of the verger tour is that it’s the only way to get into the tiny and ancient Edward the Confessor shrine, a raised area behind the high altar. The pious Anglo-Saxon King Edward, who founded the abbey, was made a saint, making the abbey a pilgrimage destination. His tomb is the only medieval English saint’s tomb with the full body buried within it. – Photo and text by The Washington Post.