My first time to London, I had the fairy tale desire to see where William and Kate had married, to imagine Kate walking on the red carpet through nave and quire during what must have been the longest walk to the altar since the last royal wedding. I imagined Westminster Abbey as London’s acme of sophisticated grace and unparalleled devotion—the embodiment of London’s aura of rich ruby reds and lush velvet plums, of 530.2-carat diamonds the size of peonies and modestly opaque, slate-blue sapphires (which, as it turns out, one can find in the Tower of London). Both intimately beautiful and demonstrative of architectural and human history, Westminster Abbey didn’t disappoint.
A Royal Peculiar, meaning it falls under the jurisdiction of the monarch rather than a diocese, it’s also a gem of Early English Gothic architecture. It borrows the concept of an apse with radiating chapels from French cathedrals, while the distinctively long nave and wide transepts are characteristically English. Pointed arches mimic the fancifully tall towers of its façade; I love the clocks on the left tower, one on the front and one on the side, both black with gold numerals and hands and tea-pink daisy petals on the face. Flying buttresses, a meeting of sable and mocha, are easily visible along the length of the Abbey, while inside, ribbed vaulting and rose windows illumine it with beauty.
The nave is scintillant pinkness like stardust. Along the tops of the corridors is the most beautiful pink stained glass in the windows, each set of panes crowned with a semicircle of glass encompassing a unique shape in the center. The windows transmit so much light that they seem themselves to emit their own light—clear, bright, effulgent. In both halls are buried the dead, their graves decorated with miniature lions and princely coats of arms, and at each intersection of the vaulted ceiling are small circles, inside of each a bunch of leaves, a swirl of flowers, or something resembling the helm of a ship. At the end nearest the western doors lays the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, similar in concept to the Grave of the Unknown Soldier and encircled by handcrafted red poppies; at the opposite end, through two pastel and gold memorials—one to Isaac Newton, a globe soft yellow and covered in sketches of angels like characters on papyrus—a colorful passageway leads to the quire, blue and gold and filled with dark Victorian benches for a choir (made mundane by the staff member who vacuumed them). Kate would have stopped at the High Altar, the ceiling of which is admired for its intricately tiled square design. Every coronation ceremony since 1066 (including that of Queen Elizabeth II) has taken place here, as have sixteen royal weddings.
In the North Ambulatory Chapels, along the left side of the Abbey, one can see the sepulchre of Elizabeth Nightingale, her husband shown trying to save her from the skeleton of Death; sculptures of ships, set into the walls; and feathery angel’s wings atop another sepulchre. Between the Chapel of St. John the Baptist, the Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, and the tomb of Henry VIII, names commemorating the dead and engraved in the stone floors are worn so as to have become invisible, trodden upon by years’ worth of inquiring visitors.
Henry VII’s Lady Chapel and its adjoining rooms—one of which holds the tomb of Elizabeth I and Mary I, the other that of Mary, Queen of Scots—are impressive examples of Gothic finery. Carved pendants and Tudor emblems, including roses and portcullis, comprise the vaulted ceiling of the Lady Chapel—painted cream, embossed with gold, and filled in equal parts with diamonds and half-flowers (three small circles arranged on one side). Straight to the back is a window in rose-colored and transparent glass, while the windows in all of the remaining chapels exhibit diamonds in the same hues of hushed blue and spring green. On the imposing metallic centerpiece halfway through the room—the tomb of Henry VII, who had the Lady Chapel built with the intention that it would serve as the final resting place for himself and for his family—are small fighting dogs, one of which has wings like a dragon’s!
In the narrow passageway to the right of the Lady Chapel when exiting, Mary I, who ruled for only five years and is known as “Bloody Mary” for burning 300 English Protestants at the stake, is tidily tucked under Elizabeth I, who ruled England for nearly fifty years during what is largely considered its “Golden Age,” a time of political stability and artistic ingenuity. Scholars speculate that Elizabeth was William Shakespeare’s inspiration for the Fairy Queen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though her wrath was not something with which to be reckoned: Elizabeth I considered her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, a threat, so she had her imprisoned for 19 years before finally ordering her to be beheaded. To the left when exiting the Lady Chapel is Mary, Queen of Scots’ tomb, which, as fate would have it, is just as extravagant as that of Elizabeth: Elizabeth had no sons, so Mary’s son, James VI, became king (ending the Tudor line and beginning the Stuart one) and made sure of it. I’m almost positive that at the top of the tomb dance two little unicorns.
Along the other side of the Abbey lie the tombs of Edward III, Richard II, and next to that, Anne Neville, Richard III’s beloved wife, who got a feminine silver plaque, too. Beyond those, the bodies of celebrated writers and artists, among them Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Thomas Hardy, are interred within “Poet’s Corner.” One can also find niche memorials to Shakespeare, John Milton, and the baroque composer George Frideric Handel, and, on the floor, in varying shades and sizes of rectangles, memorials to Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Lewis Carroll, whose read, in a circle, “Is all our life, then, but a dream?”