Westminster Abbey, London. A site of Christian worship for almost a thousand years, and the location for many of the most important religious ceremonies in English history, from weddings to funerals… and, of course, coronations. Since 1066, when William I was crowned King of England, it has been tradition for monarchs to be crowned at the Abbey, and this weekend people across the world will tune in to watch the coronation of King Charles III and his queen consort, Camilla, at this historic place.
The Abbey is one of my favourite places to visit in London. The architecture is stunning; everywhere you look there is beauty. The atmosphere is so peaceful and reverent, and as I walk around, looking at the memorials, I feel profoundly moved. I always pause to say a prayer at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, in which an unidentified soldier from the First World War is interred to commemorate all who fell: ‘They buried him among kings because he had done good toward God and toward His house’.
Tomb of the Unknown Warrior
There are many graves and memorials at the Abbey, more than 3,000 in fact! Here are interred monarchs like Henry III (who built the Abbey as it stands today), Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Here lie influential thinkers like Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking.
Here, too, lie the writers Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Johnson, Rudyard Kipling and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in a part of the south transept known as Poets’ Corner.
View of Poets’ Corner
View of Poets’ Corner
Geoffrey Chaucer was the first writer to be interred in Poets’ Corner, in a tomb built for him in 1556. Some 40 years later, the poet Edmund Spenser was interred there too, and so began the tradition of commemorating in this part of the Abbey those who had contributed greatly to literature.
Besides those buried in the Corner, many writers are memorialised here, including Robert Burns, Samuel Butler, Lord Byron, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, TS Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, DH Lawrence, Edward Lear, CS Lewis, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde, William Wordsworth, WH Auden and William Blake.
Statue of William Wordsworth
There are fewer women, reflecting the historic bias towards male writers, but among the men you’ll find memorials for Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot.
Brontë sisters’ plaque
Most of those remembered in Poets’ Corner were, indeed, poets and or/writers, but there are some notable memorials to people who contributed to other arts, like the composer George Frideric Handel and the four founders of the Royal Ballet.
Memorial to Handel
It is the Deans of Westminster who decide who is memorialised in Poets’ Corner, and sometimes memorials are installed a good while after the death of the poet, when it is agreed that the memorial is merited. Lord Byron, William Shakespeare, CS Lewis and the Brontë sisters are just some of the writers whose memorials were installed a long while after their deaths.
Space in the corner is now at a premium, and so a new stained-glass window was created in the 1990s and names are now added to this.
The Hubbard memorial window
Standing in Poets’ Corner, taking in all the great names and thinking of how much their work has shaped our culture, I wonder: how would these writers feel to be remembered in this way? Proud, I am sure, but perhaps the humble among them would be quite overwhelmed by the company they are keeping.
In his will, the writer Charles Dickens stated that he wanted to be buried ‘in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner’. It is likely he would have wanted to be laid to rest near his home in Rochester, but he was so popular a writer that upon his death in 1870 there were calls for him to be buried in Poets’ Corner. And so he was, but with no fanfare – his funeral, held early in the morning, was kept a secret. In his will, Dickens had written:
I direct that my name be inscribed in plain English letters on my tomb without the addition of ‘Mr’ or ‘Esquire.’ I conjure my friends on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial, or testimonial whatever.
So it was that his gravestone was simple.
Grave of Charles Dickens
This grave, I think, says much about Poets’ Corner. It is a place to remember the writers who have inspired us, but ultimately it is the words that they wrote on paper, rather than the words carved into stone in the Abbey, that stand as their legacy.
Picture credits: 1, 8, 10, 11) JRennocks/Wikipedia; 2) Alissa Bankowski/Unsplash; 3) Ian Branch/Unsplash; 4) Wangkun Jia/Shutterstock; 5, 6, 7, 9) 14GTR/Wikipedia; 12) Jack1956/Wikipedia.