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WE ALL GOT TO SEE extensive TV coverage of the magnificent Westminster Abbey during the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. In London Review of Books, October 2, 2022, Miranda Carter offers “Dudes in Drapes,” an LRB tour of the abbey, including several of its less than laudatory backstories. Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits gleaned from this entertaining article.
The Abbey’s History. Carter writes, “The abbey’s association with royalty and power is woven into its fabric. Edward the Confessor built the first abbey, next to his palace at Westminster, in 1042, and William the Conqueror became the first king to be crowned in it, on Christmas Day 1066. Henry II, fancying a saint in the family, bought Edward’s canonisation from the schismatic Pope Alexander III in 1161 in return for some very welcome support. Henry III rebuilt the abbey in 1245 as a shrine to St Edward—and a royal mausoleum to himself, almost bankrupting the Crown in the process.”
“Between Henry III and George II,” Carter notes, “most British monarchs were buried here…” What’s more, until now, George II was the last monarch to have a funeral at Westminster Abbey; this was in 1760.
George II’s Funeral. Antics then might explain the hiatus: Carter observes, “It was the first time chairs were set out for an audience. Horace Walpole, present by virtue of being an earl, recorded that the duke of Newcastle arrived weeping noisily and pretended to faint. When the archbishop of Canterbury offered him smelling salts, the duke leaped up and ran around the church with a spyglass to see who ‘was or was not there’. Finally, to keep his feet off the chilly marble, he stood on the train of Butcher Cumberland, who couldn’t work out what had pinned him to the ground.”
This apparently was quite enough to have “British kings and queens quietly buried at Windsor, usually at St George’s Chapel.”
Other Raucous Get Togethers. Queen Elizabeth I made the abbey a Royal Peculiar, thus, Carter says, putting it “outside the jurisdiction of the Church of England, answerable only to the monarch, and left its dean and chapter in charge of its affairs.”
“Since then,” Carter continues, “royals have turned up for coronations and funerals and otherwise left the abbey to get on with it. Things that the Church would never have tolerated elsewhere have been allowed at the abbey.”
As examples Carter notes, “Samuel Pepys went to see the corpse of Catherine of Valois – wife of Henry V, disinterred during Henry VII’s rebuilding of the Lady Chapel. ‘I did kiss her mouth,’ he wrote in 1669. In 1806, having failed to ‘get’ Nelson after his death (he was buried in St Paul’s), the vergers had a wax effigy of him made and put it on show for sixpence a pop.”
Buried elsewhere, Lord Nelson gets by at Westminster Abbey with a wax model. Image from westminster-abbey.org.
Good Box Office. “Later, in 1843,” Carter writes, “Parliament had to pass a law forcing the abbey to keep its entry fee to 6d—it was charging an extra 3d for Poets’ Corner and the nave, and an extra shilling for the royal tombs and north transept.”
“These days,” she writes, “it’ll cost you £25, plus another £4.50 for the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Galleries (worth it, in my opinion, for the effigy of Nelson and another from 1686 of Charles II in one of his own outfits). This makes it, by my reckoning, the world’s most expensive church, rivalled only by Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, which charges €26—though there the money goes to actually finishing the cathedral. St Paul’s is a snip at £18.”
Tomorrow in Part 2, Miranda Carter shares other abbey oddities, some royal, others common folk, some talented, others…. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022
This is *much* better history than I was taught in public school .
Ha. They usually leave out the goofy parts.