By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
On Monday, Westminster Abbey hosted Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. The world-famous cathedral held personal significance to Her Majesty. It’s also a historically important church for Great Britain.
The funeral service for the late Queen Elizabeth II was held Monday in the well-known Westminster Abbey, before she was laid to rest in a private ceremony at Windsor Castle. There, she rejoined her husband of 70 years, Prince Philip, who passed away in April 2021 at the age of 99.
The gothic cathedral holds much significance for Elizabeth’s life personally: It played host to her wedding to Prince Philip in 1947, her coronation in 1953, her grandson Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton in 2011, and a memorial service for Philip in March 2022. It’s also been the site of every British coronation for nearly 1,000 years. In his video series The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales, Dr. Patrick N. Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, details the cathedral’s history.
Truly Fit for Royalty …
“Westminster Abbey, right across the road from the Houses of Parliament in London, is probably the most celebrated of all the gothic cathedrals,” Dr. Allitt said. “Every monarch has been crowned there since 1066—17 of them are buried there, too, and it has been the site of 16 royal weddings. In its present form, it was begun in the middle 1200s, on the site of an older monastery, and was consecrated in 1269.”
At the far eastern end of the cathedral, behind its high altar, stands the Henry VII chapel. Students of architecture will notice its ceiling’s fan vaulting, which is one of the final great achievements of Gothic architecture. The chapel was consecrated in 1516, shortly before the Reformation.
Henry’s tomb, which is the chapel’s centerpiece, was carved by Pietro Torrigiano, an Italian sculptor. Torrigiano’s other largest claim to fame was hitting Michelangelo in the face so hard that Torrigiano broke his nose, scarring him for life. It’s widely believed that the attack was one of jealousy; it earned Torrigiano banishment from Florence.
“Benvenuto Cellini, the era’s greatest silversmith, recalls in his wonderful autobiography that he was invited to accompany Torrigiano on a trip to England, but was so horrified by this attack that he declined to go,” Dr. Allitt said. “Whatever his shortcomings as a gentleman, however, Torrigiano was a brilliant sculptor, and his statue on Henry’s tomb stands among his masterpieces.”
… and Other Notable Figures
According to Dr. Allitt, another trademark of Westminster Abbey is Poets’ Corner, an area in which many of Britain’s most famous writers have been buried or commemorated. The names of honorees at Poets’ corner include Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, John Dryden, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy, and Rudyard Kipling.
However, much like the royal family itself, those honored at the Corner are not without controversy.
“Controversy often attends the placing of a new plaque, depending on the writer’s status or conduct,” he said. “Lord Byron was such a scandalous fellow in life, despite his great poetry, that he wasn’t given a plaque until 1969, 145 years after his death. If, as many feminists believe, the 20th-century poet Ted Hughes drove his poor wife Sylvia Plath to suicide, was it right that he should be honored at Poets’ Corner, right next to T. S. Eliot?
“Even Shakespeare, who is buried in Stratford-on-Avon, didn’t get his plaque until 1741, 125 years after the fact.”
The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales is now available to stream on Wondrium.