Royal Westminster Abbey

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:12 am

Westminster Abbey Nave

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.

Westminster Abbey Quire

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.

Tomb of Elizabeth I
King/QueenLivedDate Buried
Edward the Confessor and Edith1042-1066 6 January 1066
Matilda of Scotland (Maud) wife of Henry I 1080-10181118
Henry III1207-127220 November 1272
Edward I and Eleanor of Castile1239-130727 October 1307
Edward III and Philippa of Hainault1312-1377 5 July 1377
Richard II and Anne of Bohemia1367-1400 1413
Henry V and Catherine de Valois     1387-1422 7 November 1422
Anne Neville, wife of Richard III1456-14851485
Henry VII and Elizabeth of York1457-150911 May 1509
Edward V & Richard Duke of York1470-14831678
Anne of Cleves, 4th wife of Henry VIII1515-15571557
Mary I 1516-1558 14 December 1558
Elizabeth I 1533-160328 April 1603
Edward VI1537-1553 8 August 1553
Mary Queen of Scots  1542-15871612
James I and Anne of Denmark 1566-162517 May 1625
Charles II   1630-1685 14 February 1685
William III  1650-1702  12 April 1702
Mary II1662-1694   5 March 1695
Queen Anne1665-171424 August 1714
George II and Caroline1683-176011 November 1760

Click or tap here for a bit about Britain’s Kings and Queens.

Westminster Abbey Henry VII's Lady Chapel

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.

Westminster Abbey Poets Corner

Coronations at Westminster Abbey

The Coronation Chair

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.

Stone of Destiny

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

Westminster Abbey, tomb of 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.

Click or tap for more about Westminster Abbey.

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.

Westminster Abbey

50 thoughts on “Royal Westminster Abbey”

  1. I distinctly remember watching Lady Margaret Thatcher’s funeral at the abbey, and that it was also billed as a state funeral — was that wrong?

  2. My latest experiences when visiting Westminster Abbey was that I was surrounded by hordes of tourists. I enjoyed it much more when I visited it the first time in 1961.

  3. Hi Mike – brilliant post … wonderful to read about – thank you so much for posting … I must have visited in the 1960s … but cannot remember anything – I really should pay my monies and go again, sometime! Excellent to read and to see the images – thanks – Hilary

  4. Two boys believed to be Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury his brother.
    There has never been a proper identification of the bones in the Urn.
    The 1933 study was flawed and therefore the records cannot be held correct without proper identification.

  5. An incredible site to visit filled with so much history and symbolism. I’ve been a couple of times and can’t wait to go again as I find that every time I have visited I find new things to be in awe of. Such a gorgeous building inside and out!

    1. It was verboten last time I visited too – hence the use of images from the Abbey itself. I think the policy has been relaxed now, within reason – obviously they wouldn’t want people clicking away during services, posing for inappropriate selfies etc!

  6. I have to admit if I was down in London again it would be the green spaces and city parks I would be more keen to see rather than building interiors although London does have an incredible history.

    1. London is very lucky with its green spaces – not only the Royal Parks, but huge common areas as well, some very neat affluent leafy-green squares (often packed with interesting monuments) and an astonishing and varied array of municipal parks and playgrounds. The lungs of London.

  7. artandarchitecturemainly

    I am delighted that there are memorials to the great writers, composers and national heroes – the people who made important contributions to society. Being royal may or may not have meant making a great contribution to the rest of the nation, or Empire.

  8. That was a super tour….took me back years, first to school trips and then to the days when you could wander about at will. I remember visiting the Chapterhouse and being supplied with felt slippers to preserve the floor which was either about to be covered with a wooden platform or had just been released from it…I forget which. Was your guide a superannuated Butlins redcoat?

  9. What an interesting mix of buried bods. And yet LizII herself is off to Windsor to be with hubby Phil, mum, dad and sis Marge or “the four of us” as Bertie called them. So a mix of famous and prominent persons with a few royals thrown in for good measure and an unknown warrior. I suppose many big old cities have cemeteries that served similar functions, gathering up the physical bits of departed worthies. The Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris comes to mind. Sorry, didn’t mean to get all “Tale of Two Cities” on you. Mind you I am sure there is grist here for an imaginative pen or two.
    Beware the spellchecker my son!
    The keys that catch
    The phrases that don’t quite sound right.
    Tally ho!
    And btw – nice one and compliments to thy pen, again Mike. If I ever did go to Westminster Abbey it was as a wee one and before I was of sufficient awareness to appreciate. Now I’m sure I’d be hard-pressed to cough up the admission – especially if there was no cuppa and sticky bun in sight.

    1. Thanks, Andy – have I mis-slepped something? Btw, I believe the reason the Royals transferred themselves to Windsor was lack of space at Westminster. When you think of all those burials, it makes you wonder what’s holding the walls up.

  10. Very timely post, having watched the funeral earlier today. It’s a magnificent setting for such events but I confess I haven’t visited for very many years, put off in part by the high cost and in part by the thought of the crowds. However after this morning I’m reminded that it could be worth it for one more visit!

    1. It certainly has been in the news lately. The history is amazing because of all the memorials, of course, albeit we pick out those to the ‘great and the good’ – the poor old peasant doesn’t get much of a mention.

  11. We visited Westminster Abbey in the Summer of 2018, the day before the burial of Professor Stephen Hawking. He was to be in good company next to Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. I was excited to see Prof. Hawkings gravestone made of Caithness slate stone at the ready. Also of note is the grave of William Wilberforce for his work in abolishing slavery. We have enjoyed watching the 2006 film, Amazing Grace about him and William Pitt, also buried at the Abbey.

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