Westminster Abbey in London is one of the most visited churches in the world as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Historically, the kings of England are crowned and buried here, right in the heart of London. Thus the solemn coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place here – but also the moving funeral service of Lady Diana. A visit to the majestic church is an absolute must during a trip to London. Look no further for all the most important and exciting information about Westminster Abbey!
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The history of Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey’s age? Well, the history of Westminster Abbey goes back close to a thousand years, to 1045 to be exact, when the then-current King of England – known as Edward the Confessor – had Westminster Abbey built in the Romanesque style. As location, he chose the site of a Benedictine Abbey, which was founded in the same spot during the 8th century. 20 years later, on the 28. December 1065, Westminster Abbey was finished.
Though in a turn of events, the festive consecration of the spectacular church had to take place without the king who had ordered its construction, due to serious illness. Before his death, Edward the Confessor was canonised and became the first monarch to be buried at Westminster Abbey. Years later, under the reign of King Henry III, the originally Romanesque church was converted into a church in the style of early Gothic. Needless to say, King Edward would have disapproved.
Westminster Abbey interior
It’s these constant changes that make Westminster Abbey so very special. It’s a building characterised by its many different architectural influences. Kings wanted to leave their mark on Westminster Abbey – and not only through their ornate tombs. Inside Westminster Abbey, you will go on an exciting journey through the history of English architecture.
The west façade on the main corridor, for example, dates from the 15th century. Displays of the Christian virtues of truth, justice, mercy, and peace frame the entrance, together with ten martyrs. If you look closely, you can recognize Martin Luther King among them! The two main towers of the church weren’t even built until the 18th century. Inside Westminster Abbey Gothic era architecture is the predominant one.
Like St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey has the shape of a cross to commemorate the death of Jesus Christ and the resurrection.
The Coronation Chair and the Stone of Scone
A highlight of the church is the coronation chair. It may just be made of wood, but from a historical standpoint, it’s invaluable! Being over 700 years old, it’s one of the oldest thrones used in the world today. Countless English and British monarchs were crowned on this, admittedly elaborate but rather unsuspecting looking wooden chair, including of course the reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II.
But what are the origins of the Coronation Chair? In 1297, the carpenter Master Walter made the chair by order of King Edward I, who was in office at the time. Its characteristic features include the four lions, which form the legs of the throne made of oak wood.
A year before, in 1296, Edward I stole the so-called Stone of Scone from the Scottish: a sacred artifact, as it was custom to crown the Scottish kings on this very stone. The stone of the kings was brought to London as spoils of war and became part of the Coronation Chair. With this, Edward I wanted to demonstrate to the Scots that he ruled over their country. Several attempts by Scotland to reclaim the stone followed.
Attempts to return the Stone of Scone
For example in 1950: Scottish students stole the stone from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day and smuggled it to Scotland. It was quickly recovered by the police and returned to Westminster. It was not until 1996, after 700 years in exile, that the stone returned to Scotland in a solemn ceremony.
Today the wooden chair stands on a high pedestal inside Westminster Abbey – without the Stone of Scone.
Entry to Westminster Abbey + (optional) Houses of Parliament
Guided morning tour through Westminster Abbey
A tour including Westminster Abbey and Changing of the Guard
Inside Westminster Abbey, royal weddings have been and still are held time and again. Queen Elizabeth II and Philip Mountbatten tied the knot here in 1947. Their grandson William Mountbatten-Windsor (or short, Prince William) and Catherine, “Kate” Middleton followed suit in 2011. The wedding was performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. 1,900 guests watched the church ceremony. Hundreds of thousands of people pilgrimaged to Buckingham Palace to witness the first kiss between Kate and William. In addition, about 2 billion people worldwide watched the ceremony.
The graves at Westminster Abbey
Westminster is home to over 400 graves of kings, national heroes, politicians, artists, and scientists. Among others, the physicist Isaac Newton, the writer Charles Dickens and the composer Georg Friedrich Händel have their resting places in this very church.
What is more, Westminister Abbey is also home to a very unique war memorial: the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. It is intended to commemorate all unidentified fallen soldiers of the British armed forces. The bridal bouquet of Duchess Kate was placed on top of the tomb, following the royal custom. This tradition began in 1923 when Queen Elizabeth II’s mother placed her bridal bouquet on the tomb – in memory of her brother Fergus, who had fallen in World War One.
The grounds of Westminster Abbey
Four beautiful gardens you’ll find within the church grounds. The Abbey Garden (The Garth), the Little Cloister, College Garden and St Catherine’s Garden. While the Cloister Garden is a square green grassy area and its initial purpose was to be a place of tranquillity, the garden called Little Cloister is surrounded by many beautiful, fragrant plants. There is a fountain in the middle of the garden, which was created to serve as a place for convalescence. Within the College Garden, many herbs grow that historically were used for medicinal purposes. Then there is St. Catherine’s Garden, which is part of the area from where the ruins of the old monastery can still be admired.
The traditions of Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey isn’t just a tourist attraction, but a very active church where a Christian prayer of about one minute is held once every hour. Everyone is invited to take part and take advantage of the moment of silence to hold in for a moment. Several times a day there is also a church service. The Priests and clergymen of the Abbey are known to be very friendly and approachable.
Westminster Abbey Tickets
To avoid long waiting times, it is worth booking the ticket online in advance. If you have a ticket, you can go directly to the entrance of the church and pick up an audio guide for your choosing. Now you can explore the church on your own and listen to audio commentaries telling you all about its rich history.
Tip: If you want to visit several sightseeing spots, like London Eye and Buckingham Palace, and take tours, like a boat trip on the Thames, I can recommend the London Pass! You can book a pass for one or more days/persons and save a lot of entrance fees. Exceptionally practical is the so-called “fast lane” access to many attractions, which saves you long queues!
Westminster Abbey prices
Westminster Abbey tickets are available for adults from 21£ and children from 9£. Once you enter Westminster, you will receive your audio guide. If you have chosen the online ticket, be sure to take a printout of the ticket with you. You will receive the confirmation at the same time as you book your ticket.
Keep in mind: Photography and filming are not allowed in Westminster Abbey.
Westminster Abbey – a private guided tour
If you want to immerse yourself in the rich history of London, I can recommend a great tour called Westminster Abbey Tour with Optional Houses of Parliament.
A personal guide will tell you about the lore and legends of Westminster Abbey and later Westminster Palace, which serves as House of Parliament. You will be taken inside Westminster Abbey and also learn about the Houses of Parliament and its famous Big Ben bell on a 4-hour guided tour. Learn about the workings of government, and discover how and why these iconic symbols of London were built.
The ticket for the tour is available for adults from 57£. All entrance fees are of course already included in the price. The tour starts in the morning and takes 2 – 4 hours, depending on how much you’d like to see.
How to get to Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is within walking distance of James’s Park tube station (District and Circle lines) or Westminster (Jubilee, District and Circle lines). The church is located on the south side of Parliament Square. The House of Parliament and Big Ben are very close by and you can combine visit all these landmarks in a day.
Tip: If you are travelling a lot during your stay in London and want to discover several tours and sights, I recommend to book the Oyster Card as an option to the London Pass: This way you can use all public transport and save entrance fees!
Westminster Abbey hours
The opening hours of the church depend on the services and other events in the church. Westminster Abbey is generally open to visitors from Monday to Saturday from 9.30 am to 3.30 pm. In the low season, it is open on Saturdays from 09:30 am to 1:30 pm.
The church is also open on Sundays, but only for worship, not for sightseeing. Please read up on the current opening times in advance, as special events are held at Westminster Abbey regularly which can affect opening hours.
Outstanding museums, cozy pubs, (proper) football stadiums: London doesn't just have everything that I love - it has the best of everything, too. After all this time the city still surprises me, may it with a beautiful park, gallery or even a whole neighbourhood I had never been to. For years I could call London's North my home - Kentish Town, Camden and later Islington - but my fascination with the city extends far beyond those areas.