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An English Rose in Georgia: Westminster Abbey
Lesley Francis new
Lesley Francis.

History abounds inside Westminister Abbey

There has been a lot of turmoil in the land of my birth with the media raging about the problems of making Brexit a reality by the end of March, and recent reports of royal shenanigans.

Apparently, 97-year-old Prince Philip is feeling the after effects of his recent car wreck, and the tabloid newspapers say that Princesses Meghan and Kate are not quite as close as they once were as Meghan plans a home birth for her baby in April.

As a history major who went into public relations and marketing, I have always found comfort in the fact that certain institutions and places remain to remind us of all the generations before who experienced their own struggles and challenges, big and small.

Thinking about the passing of centuries usually puts everything else into perspective. This brings me to Westminster Abbey, which has recently opened a hidden gallery for the first time in 700 years.

Growing up in London, we were taken on school trips to Westminster Abbey. And when relatives visited it was always on the list of “must see” places. Here are a few facts about this magnificent building:

• Benedictine monks founded Westminster Abbey over a thousand years ago in 960 AD. King Edward, who later became known as St. Edward the Confessor, decided to enlarge this monastery and it was named “west minster” to differentiate it from St. Paul’s Cathedral, the minster in the east of London.

The new church was completed just before King Edward died in 1065 and his burial inside the church became the first royal tomb of many in this abbey. To date, more than 3,300 people have been buried or commemorated at Westminster Abbey, including 17 British monarchs, including King Henry V and all the Tudors except for Henry VIII.

Other notable people buried at Westminster Abbey include Isaac Newton and Charles Dickens.

• Westminster Abbey has been the place for royal coronations since William the Conqueror was crowned there on Christmas Day in 1066. Most recently, Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in the Abbey in 1953, with the BBC using the recently opened gallery as a private outpost to film the coronation for TV broadcast. It was widely reported that this single event led to an explosion in the sale of televisions during the early years of TV.

• Sixteen royal weddings have taken place at Westminster Abbey with the most recent in April 2011. This was the royal wedding of Prince William of Wales now Duke of Cambridge, who married Catherine Middleton now Duchess of Cambridge. The first royal wedding goes back over 900 years, to Henry I who married Princess Matilda of Scotland in 1100.

• An architectural masterpiece of the 13th to 16th centuries, Westminster Abbey is now a World Heritage site.

• The abbey offers an extensive collection of religious art and artifacts, including England’s oldest altarpiece, important wall paintings, the remarkable Cosmati Pavement and a new stained-glass window by David Hockney.

• Regular worship still does take place at Westminster Abbey. In fact, each Sunday “five separate sermons are delivered at Westminster Abbey or St. Margaret’s (the smaller church next door to the Abbey). The Abbey’s clergy and guest preachers address current theological issues, religion and world events, and the interpretation of biblical texts,” according to www.westminister-abbey. org.

Special annual services include a thanksgiving for victory in the Battle of Britain in 1940, a service for Judges at the start of the legal year and a service to mark Commonwealth Day.

So why is the recent opening of the new gallery such a big deal? This 13th-century space known as the triforium was basically Westminster’s attic, used as storage space or as an extra viewing gallery for coronations (one ticket, found during the renovation and now part of the display, was from the 1702 coronation of Queen Anne).

This gallery has been renamed as The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, and the space has undergone a 23 million pounds ($30 million) restoration, much of it to house and install a new elevator. For a more authentic experience, however, it is still possible to climb the original narrow stairs like the monks did 700 years ago.

The display in the gallery includes the coronation chair of Queen Mary II, the marriage license of William and Kate, the Liber Regalis (essentially the rulebook of royal coronations) and a full replica set of the crown jewels. It’s a lot of English history all in one place.

I strongly recommend a visit to Westminster Abbey if you are ever in England. And don’t forget to enjoy the view back across the nave, or central section of the church, described by poet John Betjeman as the best in Europe. There is a lot more information at www.westminster-abbey.org.

I will leave you with a quote from English writer, columnist and historian A. N. Wilson: “It is eerie being all but alone in Westminster Abbey. Without the tourists, there are only the dead, many of them kings and queens. They speak powerfully and put my thoughts into vivid perspective.”

I still love to revisit great places in England, but I am thankful to live in beautiful Coastal Georgia. God bless America!

Lesley grew up in London, England, and made Georgia her home in 2009. She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com.

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