09 February 2008

Westminster Abbey

I think the one thing that I was most looking forward to in London was Westminster Abbey, and it did not disappoint. Poet's Corner has long been a draw for me; I have wanted to visit since I was studying literature in college. As a church that is nearly a thousand years old, religion is prominently featured. And as the site of every coronation since 1066, the Abbey is also a very important site for royal history.

Westminster Abbey as seen today was a long time in the making. The first structure went up in 1055, with additions in 1350, 1500, and finally the towers in 1745. The difference in the stonework is visible in the picture below. Differences in the treatments of arches, columns and stone facings are also noticeable inside. Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed in the Abbey.

As an American, it is unusual to see one site that has both religious and political significance. However, we would probably not have Westminster Abbey today if it were not for its political importance. When Henry VIII created the Anglican church, he purged the country of its Catholic heritage, often destroying the churches. But because Westminster was the site of coronations, and in fact the burial site of many ancient royals, he allowed it to remain, although he did destroy many Catholic sculptures and paintings.

A list of royals buried at Westminster Abbey includes Edward the Confessor, Richard II, Charles II and William and Mary. Perhaps the most notable burials are those of Elizabeth I and Mary I. These half sisters, both daughters of Henry VIII, were on opposing sides of the religious conflict at the time. Mary returned Catholicism to the country, which was later reversed by Elizabeth when she took the throne. Despite their differences in life, the half sisters were buried together in death at the Abbey.

Poet's Corner is the burial site of many of England's great writers, starting with Geoffrey Chaucer, and including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Many others are honored with a memorial, including John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, Jane Austin and the great William Shakespeare. Everywhere you look, from the walls to the stained glass to the floor is like flipping through the table of contents of a Brit lit anthology text.

But the Abbey has one more surprise as you exit: the 2oth century Christian martyrs, found looking over the western doors. This addition was unveiled in 1998. From left to right you will find: St. Maximilian Kolbe, Manche Masemola, Janani Luwum, St Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Jr., Óscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Esther John, Lucian Tapiedi and Wang Zhiming. The Abbey's documentation of history continues to today.

No comments: