London’s Royal Church: Visiting Westminster Abbey

Visiting Westminster Abbey is an amazing way to discover London’s royal history. Dating back to medieval times, the Abbey tells the story of London and the United Kingdom through its sacred spaces, artwork, and even royal tombs. It’s truly a gem in the heart of London’s royal district. Get the details on London’s royal church — you won’t want to miss it!

London's Westminster Abbey has hosted many royal weddings.

London’s Westminster Abbey. Photo: Shutterstock

Visiting Westminster Abbey

London’s royal church, home to coronations since William the Conqueror, sits in Parliament Square, just across from Westminster Palace. Although it looks like a Gothic cathedral, the church has been built, torn down, and built again in patches since the first Westminster Abbey rose in 960. The current church is built around King Henry III’s design, first raised in 1245, but plenty of other monarchs left their mark on the Abbey.

The Lady Chapel

One of the most lasting contributions was commissioned by King Henry VII. The magnificent Lady Chapel, completed in 1516, contains a fan-vaulting ceiling that’s amongst the finest examples of late medieval architecture. It’s also home to the tombs of famous sovereigns like Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. The Lady Chapel is hung with the banners of members of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, giving the grand space a distinctly medieval feel.

A Working Church

Westminster Abbey’s royal status and impressive size makes it perfect for throwing a royal wedding, and seventeen of them have taken place at Westminster Abbey, including the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. In addition to coronations, weddings and funerals, regular church services take place at Westminster Abbey every day. They’re free to attend, and some services, like Evensong, feature the Choir of Westminster Abbey. (Learn more about London’s royal wedding venues here.)

Westminster Abbey also offers musical events throughout the year, like an annual Christmas concert, and organ recitals on Sunday afternoons, playing the grand organ which was installed for the coronation of King George VI in 1937.

What to See at Westminster Abbey

The most recent addition to the Westminster Abbey visitor’s experience is made up of some of its oldest treasures. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, located in medieval chambers high above the church floor, include artifacts like England’s oldest altarpiece, dating back to Henry III’s version of the Abbey, built in 1245.

Another medieval gem of the Abbey is the Chapter House, where monks gathered with the abbot to pray and conduct abbey business. Dating to the 1250s, the Chapter House is one of the largest of its kind, with a stunning vaulted ceiling, murals on the walls, and a door reputed to be Britain’s oldest door, perhaps dating back to 1050.

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The Chapter House Wall Paintings, circa 1400. Westminster Abbey. . . Don’t forget to visit the cloister, you’ll find a hidden gem. Enlarge the image to see the expressions in their eyes. Look at the unusally modern composition for an image painted just before the start of the renaissance. Incredible when you think about it. Some art historians suggest there was little emotion in early paintings…. some suggest there was little sophistication in the composition…….mmmmm. . . . . #arthistory #arthistorian #westminster #westminsterabbey#chapterhousewallpaintings #internationalgothic #earlyrenaissance #emotioninart #art #15thcentury #14thcentury #dailyart #artthoughts #painting #fresco #wallpaintings #medievalart

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Plan to visit Westminster Abbey early in the day, and leave plenty of time to take in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, the Lady Chapel and royal tombs, the medieval Pyx Chamber, and the Chapter House, which dates to the 1250s. If you’d like to attend a service at Westminster Abbey, check their calendar beforehand or the board in front of the church on the day you’re going.

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