First light in London. At the top of Westminster Abbey’s northwest tower, Lee Robinson welcomes a new morning in a 1,000-year-old history by performing one of the building’s quieter rituals.
“We do this at 7 in the morning, even in winter,” he says. “When the sun’s starting to rise you get a spectacular view.”
He runs the flag up the pole—the abbey’s coat of arms, a golden cross against bright blue. Flying above the great city, it seems to be in conversation with its fellows on the Houses of Parliament, the Supreme Court and Buckingham Palace, each of which Robinson points out from atop the tower. The flags of London speak a symbolic language. They announce whether the monarch is at home, which head of state is visiting the capital, whether the nation is mourning some death or disaster. Today, all is well, or at least it seems so from 225 feet and 4 inches up. The old stone tower gleams white in the sun as the sirens rise from the street.
Robinson, an amiable man in his mid-50s, is a Westminster Abbey beadle. It is an archaic word—most people, hearing his job title, might expect a frock coat and cocked hat—but it simply means that he is part of the security team. Within the abbey are buried thousands of illustrious dead: royals, nobles, writers, musicians, scientists, politicians—the great Britons of Great Britain. But it is the living, the abbey’s 275 staff, who look after the building for present and future generations.
How you see Westminster Abbey will depend upon who you are. To the beadles, this is a workplace; to the tourist, an Instagrammable spectacle; to the pilgrim, a place of prayer. It is a site of royal power and a major tourist attraction, a historic monument and a living church, in which all are welcome to worship. On May 6, it will fulfill its vocation—the coronation of a king. Charles III will be the 40th monarch to be crowned there, the first being William the Conqueror on Christmas Day, 1066.
Thinking too deeply about such things can bring on a sort of vertigo, a feeling of centuries dropping away. Those who work here say that once they walk into the building their temporal perspective shifts. There is human time and there is abbey time. “You leave the here and now behind and go into another dimension,” is how one staff member puts it.
Westminster Abbey was already ancient when New York was New Amsterdam; indeed, it is older than Amsterdam itself. It is much older than Germany, much older than Italy, a little older than France, and not much younger than England. It was founded around 960 as a Benedictine monastery on what was then a marshy delta, Thorney Island, formed where two streams of the Tyburn met the river Thames. There is now no sign that you are standing on an island, the Tyburn having long since been culverted and the land developed.
Edward the Confessor, the Anglo-Saxon king who was later made a saint, had a Romanesque church constructed on the site, beside his palace. It was consecrated on December 28, 1065, but the king was too ill to attend, died a few days later and was buried in the abbey. His successor, Harold Godwinson, ruled for nine months until his defeat and death at the Battle of Hastings. The Norman victor, William the Conqueror, made sure to have his coronation in the abbey, seeking the legitimacy of association with Edward. Ever since, the abbey’s fame and meaning have derived from these twin roles as royal burial place and crowning place, a church of bones and thrones.
Few traces of Edward the Confessor's abbey remain, but one can be found in a dim passageway between the east cloister and the chapter house. There are always a few tourists gathered round, taking pictures, chuckling as they translate the information panel into their own tongues.
“A porta mais antiga do Reino Unido!”
“La plus vieille porte du Royaume-Uni!”
“La puerta más antigua de Gran Bretaña!”
Britain’s oldest door, the sign says. It looks as rough and solid as you would want. Five oak planks, iron-bound, it was made in the 1050s for a church that is no longer there and repurposed for the present building. The wood from which it was built began to grow in Essex when England was not yet England, when it was still a patchwork of kingdoms. There is something comic about it, a touch of Monty Python—hence the affectionate laughter of visitors—but it is also a ghost and a portal into the past.
The abbey we see now is largely the creation of Henry III, who in the 13th century had Edward’s church demolished and a new one built in the Gothic style. This spans 530 feet from the Great West Door to the far end of the Lady Chapel. Its interior covers 32,000 square feet. The grounds include ancient cloisters, homes of clergy and senior staff, and three gardens. The towers were completed in the mid-18th century; a beadle rising in the morning to raise the flag must first climb 315 steps.
But figures and dates cannot convey what it is like to wander within, amid the almost psychedelic geometry of vault and arch, where each footstep seems to bring you to another chapel and tomb. The abbey is dramatic in two senses. First, aesthetic: The “architectural equivalent to Shakespeare at his most swaggering,” wrote the critic Ian Nairn. Then there is the drama contained inside: the strut and fret of history’s great men and women who have passed across this stage.
If you have seen or thought about Westminster Abbey lately, it will most likely have been in connection with the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, held there on September 19, 2022, before her coffin was borne by hearse to Windsor Castle. The ceremony, broadcast to a global audience, including 29.2 million viewers in the United Kingdom and 11.4 million viewers in the United States, showed the abbey in all its somber magnificence. The great vault of the nave. The gold of the high altar. The black and white marble of the quire floor, seen from a camera so high above that it gave the impression of a God’s-eye view. Abbey staff had been planning the funeral for more than ten years.
“We all knew that we would one day have to take this service,” the Very Reverend David Hoyle told me. “But we were all really startled when the moment came.”
Hoyle is in his mid-60s, with short white hair and dark-framed spectacles. He is the dean of Westminster, the abbey’s most senior priest. I had seen him on television in rich, colorful vestments, but here, in the book-lined study of the Deanery, his home within the abbey grounds, he was wearing a black shirt and white collar, and seemed more academic than priest.
The dean had led the queen’s funeral service. His expression, for those of us watching, was hard to read, and I wondered what had been going through his mind.
As he sat near the altar, he recalled, he was highly conscious that here in front of him was the body of Her Majesty, and there behind him were the tombs and remains of many of her royal predecessors going all the way back to Edward the Confessor nearly 1,000 years earlier. This is the proper place, he thought, to carry out the ritual that would stitch Elizabeth II into the tapestry of history.
“But the one moment that really took me by surprise,” he continued, “was at the very end of the service, when I had to step down and walk past the coffin. That was a bit of a hammer-blow. I thought, ‘I will never see you again.’ I didn’t know her well, but I did see the queen more than a lot of people do, and I felt a great affection for her. That was a very personal moment.”
It is this confluence of scales, human and historic, that gives the abbey its particular atmosphere. How is a building like this kept alive? By people. By the dutiful care of those who work there. The clergy who hold services from morning till evening, and the cleaners who dust the tombs of monarchs who are now dust. The gardeners who tend this peaceful oasis in central London. The curators, conservators, choristers. The worshipers and visitors who bring money, but also—perhaps as importantly—loving attention. “I have to be seen to be believed,” the queen famously remarked. This is also true of Westminster Abbey, a building that is powerful and meaningful to the extent that it impresses the public gaze. It’s all very well being awesome, but you do need people to awe.
One morning, the sun shining bright through stained glass, I walked up the nave, through the quire and past the high altar, then climbed a few wooden stairs into St. Edward the Confessor’s Chapel, where I met the woman who cleans the tombs. Hannah Mills is in her mid-30s. She was wearing a headlamp to help her see dust and cobwebs on the gilt-bronze effigy of Richard II that, since the end of the 14th century, has lain upon his grave. These she removed with a goat-hair brush and a small vacuum cleaner slung around one shoulder. Dust is not just an aesthetic issue. It attracts moisture, which can lead to corrosion. However, the act of dusting can itself be damaging, and therefore the small team of “conservation housekeepers” go easy with their brushes, use no cleaning products and keep gentleness as their watchword. Mills pointed out the curls of the king’s hair, and the stags and sunbeams that decorate his robe—“the finest examples of craft in the abbey,” she said. “You can lose yourself in the patterns and designs.”
Edward the Confessor’s Chapel has his shrine at its center. Around this are the tombs of several kings and queens. Mills dusts in here once a week. She begins with Richard II before moving on to Edward III (“He’s got a lovely beard”), Philippa of Hainault, Eleanor of Castile and Henry III. If she has time, she will attend to Henry V. He is made of wood, heavily varnished, so can be gone over with a cloth. About once a year she will go up a ladder for Anne of Bohemia, the first wife of Richard II, who died of plague in 1394 and is rather hard to reach.
One needn’t be a monarchist or a Christian to sense what the dean calls a “spiritual electricity” inside the Confessor’s chapel and elsewhere in the abbey. This is felt most readily at moments of quiet. Best of all is morning worship, as I found when I attended Holy Communion at 8 a.m. in St. Faith’s, a narrow chapel off the south transept. There were only a dozen of us in the congregation. One was a tall young man wearing a crown who, I had heard, believed himself to be King Richard I. In that very English way, everyone pretended not to notice. The priest got on with the service. Candles flickered on the altar, wafers and wine were taken into the body, and it was pleasant to think that in the heart of the 21st-century city this ancient ritual remained part of the pulse.
It was midafternoon. The abbey had closed to the public. A distinguished visitor was expected. Police and sniffer dogs had made their search, and now senior clergy lined up in scarlet cassocks, a welcoming party, while the dean, also in red, stood outside the western entrance to greet his guest. A shriek of whistles announced that the motorcade was on its way. Then the sleek black car pulled up and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, dressed in a black coat, stepped out. He was in London as part of the first state visit hosted by King Charles. Such visits routinely include a tour of Westminster Abbey. U.S. President Donald Trump observed the tradition, as did Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon before him.
The abbey can thus be seen as part of the soft power of the British state. Yet despite this, it is entirely independent and receives no funding from the Crown, the government or the Church of England. Closed for stretches of 2020 and 2021 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and deprived of overseas tourist income, at one point the abbey was losing a million pounds a month; staff numbers were reduced by more than a fifth. Even with the easing of lockdown restrictions, visits remained significantly down. Things only improved in spring of 2022, and, following the queen’s funeral, numbers are back up to around pre-pandemic levels. “It’s not a solution I would ever have wished for,” Hoyle told me. Still, his relief was palpable. “I can begin to look forward to a day when the abbey is no longer in crisis.”
Having shaken hands with a line of priests, Ramaphosa stood at the foot of a black slab set into the floor: the grave of the Unknown Warrior. The anonymous body interred here was brought in November 1920 from a battlefield in France. Now a military attaché handed Ramaphosa a floral wreath, which he laid on the dark marble. The Unknown Warrior is intended to stand for those who fell “For God, for king and country,” as the inscription has it, but has come to represent all the fallen, of whatever side, and the human tragedy of war.
Here, in the abbey, the dead far outnumber the living. There is capacity for 2,000 visitors, but there are approximately 3,300 known burials and many more from early times that were unrecorded. “It is, indeed, the empire of death,” wrote Washington Irving, “his great shadowy palace where he sits in state mocking at the relics of human glory and spreading dust and forgetfulness on the monuments of princes.”
And not only princes. To walk in the abbey is to walk upon the graves of public figures from across the centuries. Slabs are everywhere set into the floor, often in clusters of disciplines. Scientists are grouped at the far end of the nave, by the north side of the choir screen. Isaac Newton died in 1727 and was buried there. His Latin epitaph reads, “Hic depositum est quod mortale fuit”—Here lies what was mortal of—“Isaaci Newtoni.” The ashes of the physicist Stephen Hawking were, in 2018, interred just a few steps away, beneath a slab carved with the English translation of Newton’s inscription, the two men having been Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge 300 years apart. How remarkable that those whose minds probed the farthest corners of the universe should rest in the same few feet of earth. What goes up must come down, as Newton surely knew.
Poets’ Corner, in the south transept, is famous as the burial place of writers. Geoffrey Chaucer, who died in 1400, established the trend, though the best-known grave is that of Charles Dickens. He did not want to be there. His preference had been to be buried without fuss in a country churchyard near his home in Kent, but a rousing editorial in the London Times—“very few are more worthy than Charles Dickens of such a home”—led his family to seek a place in Westminster Abbey. He was buried on June 14, 1870. The grave, left open for three days, filled with flowers as the public paid their respects. “I never knew an author’s death to cause such general mourning,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It is no exaggeration to say that this whole country is stricken with grief.”
The burials in the abbey span so great a period of time that strange associations develop. Henry V is an English hero on account of his victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415. His eve-of-battle speech, as imagined by Shakespeare—“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”—was the emotional centerpiece of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of the play. The ashes of Olivier were interred in the abbey in 1991; at the memorial service, a recording of the famous speech was played, filling the church with the actor’s glorious bellicosity and echoing over the tomb of King Henry, whose valor inspired the words that now rattled his bones.
Shakespeare himself was not buried in the abbey. His grave is in his native Stratford-upon-Avon. But his friend and rival Ben Jonson is here. So poor was the dramatist at the time of his death that he was buried upright, as he could not afford the floor space. Different versions of the story state that the cost was met by either King Charles I or the dean of Westminster. The small gray marker, on which Jonson’s name is misspelled, is shuffled over, unnoticed, by crowds lining up for evensong. I was shown the spot by a marshal in a red cloak. He introduced himself as Howard and said, “What I love about this place is that there are pockets of magic everywhere.”
Where to find other pockets? Try the abbey gardens. The largest of these, College Garden, goes back to the abbey’s earliest days. Here the Benedictines grew vegetables, kept orchards for apples and plums, and cultivated plants essential for nutrition and medicine. There have been no monks at Westminster since the mid-16th century. These days, College Garden is a peaceful sanctuary in the busiest part of the capital, enclosed by a 14th-century wall. It is open to abbey visitors but not well known. “My primary objective in life is to try and make people realize how important this garden is,” said Jan Pancheri, the abbey’s head gardener, as we took a walk one cold morning. She showed me the herb garden that she has created in homage to the monastic past: rue and rosemary, marjoram and mint, hyssop and sweet cicely. She has a strong feeling, especially in winter, for the presence of the brethren who once tended this ground; when, in the course of their work, she and the other gardeners uncover what they take to be the bones of monks, they dig them back into the earth.
The garden itself feels like a presence to her, a kind of consciousness. She began working here in 1999, not long after losing both of her parents, and the gardens have been a comfort. “When I come to work in the morning, it’s like a pair of green arms coming to welcome you,” she said.
Far above the gardens, in an upper part of the abbey known as the triforium, is another pocket—the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. Here are objects of powerful strangeness: the funeral effigies of nobles and royals. The early ones were made from wood, and later from wax. They make an impression very different from the durable bronze or stone effigies on the tombs in the church below, and they served a different purpose. Beginning in the 14th century, immediately following the death of a royal, a carved likeness of the late king or queen was dressed in a wig and finery and processed on top of their coffin through the streets of London to the church. Until the early 19th century these figures were sometimes left to lie or stand by the tomb of the person they represented. Twenty have survived: 11 of wax, 8 of wood, 1 of plaster. Vanessa Simeoni, the head conservator, told me that if the abbey suffered a fire like the one that engulfed Notre-Dame in 2019, these effigies are what she would rush to save: “They are so rare and incredible.”
Most of these people are buried downstairs, but up here they enjoy a curious afterlife. The earliest figures, naked and missing limbs, some suffering gouges or pocked with what look like the holes of beetle larvae, bring to mind eerie tales of automata or the leathery agonies of bog bodies. The later effigies, dressed in silk and velvet, have such an unsettling fairy-tale quality that one finds oneself grateful for comic touches. Frances Stuart, the Duchess of Richmond, commissioned her effigy in her will. It is exhibited alongside her beloved parrot, an African grey. Stuart died in 1702, the bird soon afterward, and while the noblewoman is made of wax, her pet is stuffed; X-rays have shown that its skeleton is complete. Virginia Woolf, in 1928, seemed much taken with this parrot and thought it an ironical comment on the narcissism of its owner, who, she wrote, “was beautiful once and had lovers beyond belief.”
“And here it is,” said the dean.
Hoyle and I were standing by the Coronation Chair. This is where monarchs are crowned. It was made in 1300. Once it would have been golden, but now much of the wood is exposed, and it is badly carved with graffiti from the 18th and 19th centuries. This vandalism was carried out by boys from Westminster School and others who had access. The chair was not always regarded as an almost sacred relic. Vergers used to charge visitors a fee to allow them to sit in it. Some, clearly, found it an easeful spot. “P. Abbott slept in this chair 5-6 July 1800” is carved into the seat.
Today the chair is kept secure behind glass near the Great West Door, but for the coronation it will be brought to the heart of the abbey and placed on the Cosmati Pavement—the name by which the area of swirling, kaleidoscopic flooring in front of the high altar is known. The ancient pavement is 24 feet and 10 inches square and made from 90,000 pieces of glass and hand-cut stone, much of it recycled from Roman mosaics. It features Latin inscriptions that calculate the date of the end of the world. Chair and pavement were made within 30 years of each other, but it has been a long time since they touched. Badly damaged, the pavement was covered with carpet in the 19th century. In recent years, though, it has been conserved and restored. The Cosmati has a circle of pink onyx at its center, resembling a planet seen from space, and it is likely that during the forthcoming ceremony the chair will stand on or near this. It will be a bringing together of objects of spiritual and temporal power: the stone, the chair, the king, the crown.
At 73, on the death of his mother, Charles became the oldest person to accede to the British throne. He was a child when he saw her crowned. Now it is his turn. This coronation will take place in a very different nation from 1953. Then: a young woman becoming queen in an atmosphere of postwar renewal and optimism. Now: an old man inheriting a kingdom that feels disunited, weary and worn, its gilding coming off.
It will, no doubt, still be a spectacular occasion. The abbey will look magnificent. The crowds outside will cheer. Viewers at home will watch the coverage with whatever mixture of voyeurism, skepticism and patriotism reflects their attitude. But can it really be a unifying event? Britain, like America, has its culture wars, its partisan divides. Shared national institutions—the church and monarchy among them—no longer feel quite so shared.
“This is the gathering place for the nation and the Commonwealth,” Hoyle had told me as we sat in his Deanery. “But the abbey as a convening space is a much more complicated thing than it used to be. We have a weaponized political discourse at the moment. People define themselves largely by their associations and their dislikes. If you’re the dean of Westminster Abbey and your job is to invite people into this place to find their place in the nation’s long story, that’s getting really difficult.”
Evensong, the day’s final service, is always busy. The choristers stand in their stalls wearing white surplices over red cassocks and white ruffs. None of the boys is older than 13, yet they do not seem like children. They are vessels for sound. There is so much that is solid in the abbey: the tombs, the architecture, the effigies of wax and wood. But the music, heard every day here for centuries, cannot be touched or held. It happens and then it is gone, but somehow it gets into the stones.
The boys are boarders at the choir school. There are, on average, eight choral services a week, plus daily rehearsals. Now the boys sing the Magnificat, the song of Mary, their voices rising to the ribs of the vault. Evensong is an opportunity, whether you are a believer or not, to experience the numinous. A chance to leave behind for a time the quarrels and weary cares of the present.
The sky grows dark behind the windows, and I think of Daisy McDonnell, a marshal who had shown me around earlier. She is only 29. A little girl when Princess Diana had her funeral here, a teenager when Prince William and Kate Middleton got married, not yet 30 when the queen died, but she is already part of abbey time, caught up in that grand sweep. “The abbey holds so much history, and continues to make history,” she had said, shrugging. “It’s just what we do.”
There is an intense feeling here of compressed narrative and time. An oak is axed in an Essex forest. It is made into a door for a church, then another church. Monks and priests pass through; monarchs pass by and pass on. The church is on an island, then it is not. It is part of a great city. It survives a Great Fire. Enemy aircraft fly overhead and drop their bombs. London is in flames again, but it survives, as it did centuries before. Elizabeth II is crowned, mourned, and the crown passes on. Then, as now, the people who work here are custodians. They inherit this place in each generation and will bequeath their duties to whomever comes next. The story of Westminster Abbey began with a felled oak. It has not ended yet.