Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:12 am
Westminster Abbey is part of a World Heritage Site. It has been at the centre of English, and British, state occasions – coronations, weddings, funerals, services of commemoration – since William the Conqueror was crowned there on Christmas Day 1066. In fact, its roots are pre-Conquest. The powerful bishop, archbishop and later saint, Dunstan, established a Benedictine monastery on the site in c 960AD. In the 1040s, King Edward the Confessor, his palace nearby, wanted to establish his ‘west minster’ there and built a large stone church dedicated to St Peter. Little remains of this; the present building is largely 13th-14th century, with the addition of 18th century towers. The interior is quite literally breathtaking and contains the tombs of many of England’s great monarchs, including those of Edward I and Elizabeth I, as well as memorials honouring national heroes, writers, composers, poets and politicians – and the sacred tomb of the Unknown Warrior. It is such a complex place, with such a history and so much to see, it is easy to forget that it is also, of course, a working church. In this article, I want to concentrate on the things that people most often associate with Westminster Abbey: royalty.
All interior photographs are © Dean and Chapter of Westminster.
Which kings and queens are buried in Westminster Abbey?
More than 3,300 people are said to be buried in Westminster Abbey. That includes twenty-nine kings and queens of England and Britain, of which one was a queen of Scotland and two were monarchs of the United Kingdom. Other royalty is buried in the Abbey, too. The earliest monarch to be buried there was Edward the Confessor, whose ‘west minster’ was completed the week before he died, and the last was George II. Subsequent monarchs have been buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, except for Queen Victoria, who is buried the Royal Mausoleum, Frogmore, close to Windsor and Edward VIII, who is buried in the adjacent Royal Burial Ground. The following list of monarchs buried in Westminster Abbey includes the alleged remains of the Princes in the Tower, the uncrowned King Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, believed to have been murdered in the Tower of London sometime in 1483.
|Edward the Confessor and Edith||1042-1066||6 January 1066|
|Matilda of Scotland (Maud) wife of Henry I||1080-1018||1118|
|Henry III||1207-1272||20 November 1272|
|Edward I and Eleanor of Castile||1239-1307||27 October 1307|
|Edward III and Philippa of Hainault||1312-1377||5 July 1377|
|Richard II and Anne of Bohemia||1367-1400||1413|
|Henry V and Catherine de Valois||1387-1422||7 November 1422|
|Anne Neville, wife of Richard III||1456-1485||1485|
|Henry VII and Elizabeth of York||1457-1509||11 May 1509|
|Edward V & Richard Duke of York||1470-1483||1678|
|Anne of Cleves, 4th wife of Henry VIII||1515-1557||1557|
|Mary I||1516-1558||14 December 1558|
|Elizabeth I||1533-1603||28 April 1603|
|Edward VI||1537-1553||8 August 1553|
|Mary Queen of Scots||1542-1587||1612|
|James I and Anne of Denmark||1566-1625||17 May 1625|
|Charles II||1630-1685||14 February 1685|
|William III||1650-1702||12 April 1702|
|Mary II||1662-1694||5 March 1695|
|Queen Anne||1665-1714||24 August 1714|
|George II and Caroline||1683-1760||11 November 1760|
Which royal weddings have taken place in Westminster Abbey?
There have been sixteen royal weddings in the Abbey. The first is believed to have been that of King Henry I and Matilda of Scotland, who married there in 1100 – more than 900 years ago. A little more recently:
The present Prince and Princess of Wales, previously better known as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate (Catherine Middleton), married in the Abbey on 29 April 2011. William’s brother, Prince Harry, was best man. As well as royalty, politicians and diplomats, the more than 2,000 guests included celebrities such as Elton John and David and Victoria Beckham. Almost a billion people worldwide either watched the event live or saw highlights afterwards.
Prince Andrew, Duke of York, married Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey on 23 July 1986. His younger brother Prince Edward was best man, the future King Charles III read a lesson and the bridesmaids and pageboys included Princess Anne’s children Peter and Zara Phillips and the future Prince of Wales, William. Andrew and Sarah divorced in 1996.
HRH Anne, the Princess Royal, married Lieutenant Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey on 14 November 1973. The ceremony was televised and watched by about 500 million people. The couple divorced in 1992. The Princess married Timothy Laurence on 12 December that year, in a private ceremony at Crathie Kirk near Balmoral Castle in Scotland.
HRH the Princess Alexandra of Kent, a cousin of the late Queen Elizabeth II, married the Hon Angus James Bruce Ogilvy at Westminster Abbey on 24 April 1963.
Elizabeth II’s sister HRH the Princess Margaret married Antony Armstrong-Jones in Westminster Abbey on 6 May 1960. It was the first royal wedding to be televised. The couple divorced in 1978.
Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten RN married in Westminster Abbey on 20 November 1947. The wedding was broadcast live on BBC Radio, with highlights subsequently shown on television. It was a touch of glamour amidst a period of austerity following the Second World War.
Queen Elizabeth II’s parents, His Majesty King George VI and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the Queen Mother) were married in Westminster Abbey on 26 April 1923. The tradition of using Welsh gold for royal wedding rings began with their wedding. Gold from the same nugget has been used for the rings at royal weddings ever since.
Coronations at Westminster Abbey
With two exceptions, every King or Queen of England since 1066 has been crowned in Westminster Abbey, as well as every British monarch since the 17th century and every monarch of the United Kingdom since its formation in 1801. King James I of England and Wales had previously been crowned King James VI of Scotland in the Church of the Holy Rude, Stirling. King Edward V was never crowned and is presumed to have been murdered aged 12 in the Tower of London. King Edward VIII abdicated 11 months after succeeding his father, George V in 1936, and was never crowned.
The coronation of a new sovereign takes place some time after s/he has acceded to the throne, following a period of mourning. It is a solemn ceremony during which the monarch takes a formal oath to rule in accordance with the Law, maintain the Church of England, and is then anointed, blessed and consecrated by the Church. The whole thing is witnessed by the great and good of the land – traditionally the most powerful barons.
The last coronation was that of Queen Elizabeth II, which took place in the Abbey on 2 June 1953. The ceremony was televised, at Her Majesty’s request, and watched by an estimated 27 million people in Britain. Very few people in Britain had televisions at the time; many bought their first sets especially to see the coronation, while others crowded into neighbours’ houses to watch it. It was a landmark event in many people’s lives – something few of that generation ever forgot. About 11 million more are said to have listened on the radio. The population of the United Kingdom in the early 1950s was around 50 million.
At the centre of a coronation is the Coronation Chair, made in 1300-1301 on the order of King Edward I to encase the Stone of Scone, which he had stolen from the Scots in 1296. The Stone of Scone, or Stone of Destiny, is believed to have been used at the coronation of Scottish kings since time out of mind and was kept at Scone Abbey, near Perth, until abducted by the English. It was returned in 1997 and is now at Edinburgh Castle, but is due to be temporarily returned to Westminster Abbey for future coronations. A replica is at Scone Palace (pictured). It is not known exactly which coronations have actually taken place in the Coronation Chair (also known as King Edward’s Chair), but it has been used by every Sovereign since 1626.
State and ceremonial funerals at Westminster Abbey
It follows that more than a few funeral services have been conducted at Westminster Abbey over the centuries. In the United Kingdom, monarchs are given state funerals; occasionally, a state funeral is granted to other significant individuals. A state funeral is an enormously choreographed heavily military ceremony, is publicly funded and therefore has to be approved by Parliament. They are the responsibility of the Earl Marshall – currently (as of September 2022) Edward Fitzalan-Howard, the 18th Duke of Norfolk, who inherited the position in June 2002.
Following her death on 8 September 2022, Buckingham Palace announced that the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II would be held at Westminster Abbey at 11am on Monday 19 September.
Before Queen Elizabeth, the last state funeral in the United Kingdom was that of wartime leader Winston Churchill (1874-1965) on 30 January 1965 at St Paul’s Cathedral. One step down from a state funeral is a ceremonial funeral, which is still a huge spectacle but which does not require Parliamentary approval. Another difference is the gun carriage carrying the coffin: in a state funeral, the gun carriage is pulled by sailors, whereas in a ceremonial funeral the muscle-power is provided by horses. The decision-making and funding with regard to ceremonial funerals is somewhat unclear to me. Other non-Royal state funerals have included those of Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.
Recent ceremonial funerals that have taken place at Westminster Abbey include those of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002) on 9 April 2002; Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-97) on 6 September 1997 and that of Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma (1900-79) on 5 September 1979. None of the above is buried in Westminster Abbey: The Queen Mother is buried next to her husband in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle; Diana is buried on a small island in an ornamental lake, the Round Oval, in the Althorp Estate in Northamptonshire; Mountbatten is buried in Romsey Abbey, Hampshire.
The Unknown Warrior
We can’t leave Westminster Abbey without mentioning one of the most famous funerals and tombs of all, that of the Unknown Warrior. The grave of the Unknown Warrior, whose body was brought from France to be buried on 11 November 1920, is at the west end of the Nave. The grave contains soil from France, is covered by a slab of black Belgian marble and is the only grave in the Abbey never to be walked on.
Westminster Abbey is a relatively expensive place to visit now as a tourist. I visited several times before charges were introduced in the 1990s; how did the peasantry of England pay for it all up to that point, I wonder? My last visit in 2014 was a mixed experience. It was crowded. There was an extremely irritating, jobsworthy, red-robed guard who badly needed to brush-up on his people skills. There were also several highly knowledgeable green-robed guides who could not have been kinder. It is magnificent and I would go back in a heart-beat.