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13 awesome things you probably didn’t know about Westminster Abbey

Written by
Luke Abrahams

The peeps at Westminster Abbey recently stumbled upon the Royal Peculiar's forgotten attic. Located 70 feet above the church floor, the gallery contains what Sir John Betjeman dubbed 'the finest view in Europe' – basically a perfect view of the Nave and the shrine of St Edward the Confessor. What's in there? you ask. Lots of pretty stained glass, altarpieces, royal armour and, rather randomly, the oldest existing stuffed parrot on the planet.

The good news is, this 700-year-old attic, which has been given the very fancy name of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries, will be opening in 2018. So we can all have a look at that ancient parrot for ourselves. Until then, check out these awesome things you may not have known about Westminster Abbey: the place is much cooler than you think. 

1. More than 3,500 bodies are buried within the Abbey’s walls – including Henry V and Elizabeth I, Edward the Confessor, Charles Dickens and Sir Issac Newton. 

Tomb of Queen Elizabeth I © Westminster Abbey

2. The Abbey's network of groovy cloisters houses the oldest door in the realm. Made of solid oak from Hainault (yes, really), the Abbey Oak door (once thought to be covered in human skin) is said to date all the way back to 1050. Not only is the thing old, it’s the only surviving Anglo-Saxon door in England. 

The oldest door in the land © Westminster Abbey

3. Since being built, the Abbey has hosted 17 royal weddings, the most recent being Will and Kate’s.   


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4. The coronation seat (King Edward’s Chair) has a load of graffiti on it. Back in the day, when Her Maj’s crowning chair wasn't so heavily guarded, students, choirboys and tourists who visited the place used to carve their names into the 700-year-old seat. Do that today and you’ll be tried for treason. Literally. 

© Westminster Abbey

5. During WWII, almost 60,000 sandbags were used to protect all the immovable royal and medieval tombs housed in the Henry VII Lady Chapel. 


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6. If you couldn’t read way back when, many of the tombs in the Abbey were adorned with a rebus – a fancy word for a puzzle in which words are represented by a combo of pictures and individual letters. You’ll see the best example of a rebus on the tomb of John Islip, a former abbot of the abbey. His rebus is a pun on his name: a picture of an eye and a slip of a branch. I-slip. Clever, no? 

The Quire & the Nave © Westminster Abbey

7. The Abbey is home to many architectural firsts including the Ogee, a gothic S-shaped arch you’ll find in a load of churches up and down the country. See the first one by the Shrine of Edward the Confessor. 

The Shrine of Edward the Confessor © Westminster Abbey

8. Only one tomb in the entire place stands upright. Waltz over to Poets’ Corner and you’ll stumble upon Ben Jonson’s final resting place. The celebrated poet was so poor at the time of his death in 1637 that he could only fork out enough cash for two square feet of space for his grave. The result? He was buried standing up in the Nave’s north aisle. Poor bugger.  

Poets Corner © Westminster Abbey


9. The original Westminster Abbey was built on an island. Believe it or not, before most of the Thames was embanked, both the Abbey and nearby Palace of Westminster used to be separated from the rest of London, sitting on what was known as Thorney Island 1,000 years ago. At the time, the Abbey was simply known as ‘West Minster’. Today, Parliament still occupies the island’s plateau; the Abbey sits on what was the island’s highest point. #mindblown.  


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10. The Abbey’s sanctuary predicts the end of the world. A medieval marble called the Cosmati Pavement covers the floor in front of the high altar. Decorated with all sorts of mosaics, shapes and colours, it includes a riddle composed of brass letters that spell out the date, 1268, King Henry III, the provenance of the marble (Rome) and a reference to the world ending. In case you’re wondering, we’ll all be dead in 18,415 years…

The Cosmati Pavement © Westminster Abbey

11. The Abbey is home to the oldest garden in England. The College Garden is more than 900 years old and was once used by monks as an orchard to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs. Lovely. 


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12. Of all the 3,000-plus graves, it’s the tomb of the Unknown Warrior that everyone is forbidden to walk on. Even the Duchess of Cambridge had to walk around it during her trip down the long aisle to marry her now hubby, Prince William. 

Grave of the Unknown Soldier ©Westminster Abbey

13. It isn’t an abbey at all. The correct way to refer to the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster (that’s its posh official name), is as a Royal Peculiar. This means the church is only answerable to the reigning sovereign and not the Church of England. It’s only now referred to as an abbey because the site was originally established by Benedictine monks – an ‘abbey’ is a building in which monks worship. The traditional function of ‘the abbey’ was dissolved during the rule of Henry VIII, but the name survives.

The Lantern Ceiling © Westminster Abbey

Check out 18 things you probably didn't know about the Palace of Westminster.

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