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YESTERDAY WE BEGAN A TOUR of Westminster Abbey, courtesy of Miranda Carter and her “Dudes in Drapes,” London Review of Books, October 6, 2022. Today in Part 2 she offers abbey oddities, royal and otherwise.
Other Royal Oddities. On payment of admittance to the abbey Miranda Carter points out, “You do, however, get other pleasing royal oddities for your money. Under the ravishing, cobweb-fine, Perpendicular Gothic fan and pendant vaulting of the Lady Chapel, Elizabeth I is buried on top of her sister, Bloody Mary, who put her in the Tower of London.”
Bloody Mary attempted to undo her father Henry VIII’s Church of England; Elizabeth I put a stop to that. Mary, Queen of Scots, attempted to claim Elizabeth’s throne. Fat lot of good it did that Mary.
“Mary, Queen of Scots,” Carter continues, “whom Elizabeth had executed, lies (head, of course, separated from body) in her own tomb, almost exactly opposite Elizabeth’s; Mary’s is a bit taller too, as arranged by her son and Elizabeth’s successor, James VI and I.”
Take that, Elizabeth I.
Commoners Get Their Place Too. Notes Carter, “What most assails you, however, as you enter Westminster Abbey—its most pressing, insistent visuals—are not royal mementos, but the six hundred or so memorials of the rich, powerful, connected and occasionally deserving dead that stuff it to bursting. They date from the 16th to the 19th century and stick out from walls, jut from window ledges and jostle for space in the aisles. They occlude the vistas and upstage the interiors, badgering the passer-by for attention. They contribute a great deal to the oddness of the abbey.”
Carter says, “The bald lesson of the abbey’s memorials is that money, power and connections repeatedly trump virtue and talent.”
And “Poets.” For instance, “Long after its identity was established, right up until 1805, anyone could buy a space in Poets’ Corner so long as they were willing to pay the ‘fine’, which went straight into the pockets of the dean and chapter.
“ ‘In the poetical quarter,’ Addison had written in 1711, ‘I found there were poets who had no monuments, and monuments which had no poets.’ ” Carter also cites Addison as saying some of the epitaphs were so over the top that the dead should blush.
She also notes, “Shakespeare – buried at Stratford—got his monument in 1741, 125 years after he died. It’s the first full-length statue in Poets’ Corner, and mostly paid for by Lord Burlington because public subscription didn’t bring in enough dosh.”
“In 1824,” Carter notes, “an earlier dean had turned down Byron’s body, brought to the abbey from Greece, with thousands turning out for his unofficial funeral procession. Two years before, by night for fear of riots, the abbey had buried Castlereagh—suicide, suspender of habeas corpus and sponsor of the shamefully repressive Six Acts. The inquest decided he’d slit his own throat while ‘labouring under a delusion’ so it wasn’t really suicide. ‘Here lie the bones of Castlereagh,’ Byron had famously written. ‘Stop, traveller, and piss.’ Byron got his plaque in 1969.”
Move Over, George Canning? Near the entrance, one of the first “Dudes in Drapes” is a fifteen-foot-tall George Canning, “Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister.” This, Carter notes at the time of her writing.
Canning died in office after being British Prime Minister for a mere 119 days. Given Liz Truss’s resignation on October 20, 2022, her 44 days breaks Canning’s record handily. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022