Tom Sutcliffe visits a Royal Peculiar


I remember Westminster Abbey when one could go into it without paying or praying (or pretending to pray as the huge entrance fee might tempt one to do—though what about “false” or “pretended” prayers?). There was already a charge to see the perpendicular magnificence of the Henry VII Lady Chapel. In the 1960s, I deputized as an alto here for John Whitworth and Grayston Burgess. I knew my way round—to the choir-practice room, of course. Later when I joined the General Synod in 1990 (for 25 years) I would process in with other lay reps to the opening service before heading to Church House to hear the Queen (and watch the Duke) open the next quinquennial series of meetings.

Today vast crowds visit the Abbey. On a Tuesday midday, it was absolutely packed. There is a prayer on the hour every hour. This is an age when big churches, shrine locations, top the market and seem more what people want (with choral singing and skilled preaching) than local closeness and ordinariness. Cheap travel makes tourism highly popular and profitable: results questionable, content intriguing. The Abbey is one of the most detailed and exhaustive historical sites in our country: a ravishing example of French gothic, cathedral-like in scale, with bits of its former Benedictine self that predate the present Henry III building, some of which (like the Cellarium café near the smart new toilets) are now being put to public use for the first time ever.

There are now two entirely new elements adding to the draw: the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, and the astonishingly characterful and original Queen’s Window designed by David Hockney. The current Dean, John Hall, has made the first substantial addition to the building since Hawksmoor’s west towers. Hitherto novelty has largely been ledger stones in Poet’s Corner. Now the second Elizabeth is celebrated rather more than the first, to whom we owe the visionary 1560 refounding of the Abbey as a Royal Peculiar with a collegiate structure and choral foundation suiting its role in coronations, royal weddings and funerals, as well as its pastoral ministry and full menu of services: our west minster!

The shrine of the only English monarch to have been canonized, Westminster Abbey gets no funding from church or state and has to be entirely self-supporting. There are so many tombs and monuments it’s hard to separate religious function from national role. Could it be more beautiful and usable if it were not such a mausoleum? The clash between museum function, tourism, and religion raises the issue whether the memorials might be better served in a museum alongside the stories into which they fit. But the mixture has surely never been managed with such aplomb as under John Hall.

The freshness of the Hockney window in its colours and shapes, together with the reflection on nature in the countryside that it suggests, is very different from the purpose served by most stained glass. The leads holding it together remind one of Hockney the artist draftsman. The flavour of what’s shown is typically recognizable and personal: the effect lifts one’s heart.

In the new east triforium galleries, 52 feet above the nave floor, there is profound reward and delight. As one mounts the windowed access tower designed by Ptolemy Dean, Surveyor of the Fabric, one meets legion telling views of the Chapter House or Parliament. At the top, there’s an astonishing window made with fabulous fragments of 13th- and 14th-century coloured glass discovered on site under the triforium floor and left for centuries—many with almost comic imagery of monsters or human faces that echo the style of the severely damaged but still marvellous contemporaneous Westminster Retable. Considering the wanton Puritan destruction of so much English art, such close encounter is heart-warming. The stone layers enclosing the liftshaft is also beautifully demonstrative. The tower’s oak steps are answered in the triforium with similar oak flooring. From triforium windows one can at last see in full richness of detailed artistry many animals including greyhounds and dragons squatting on the stone beams topping the aisles either side of the Lady Chapel.

The stuff on show includes funeral effigies available hitherto in the old cloisters museum, which are now much better displayed. The head of Henry VII’s effigy, very likely by Pietro Torrigiano, has lifelike immediacy. The effigy head of the Valois princess Catherine, who married the short-lived Henry V in the peace drawn up after Agincourt, is equally interesting. The point of such effigies was to evoke the dead as living at their own funerals, though with the beheaded Charles I the idea turned indelicate—and at the Restoration practices began to change.

The detailed and lovely Liber Regalis from 1382 became the model for coronations right up to the present Queen’s. Other treasures include Henry VII’s mother Lady Margaret Beaufort’s beautifully illustrated private prayer book, the ravishing Litlyngton Missal (1383), and the 15th-century Bicci de Lorenzo altarpiece—wonderful to examine so close-up.

There is so much sculpture to relish. Marvellous monuments to John Gay and Nicholas Rowe originally on the ground floor were exiled and hidden here, now visible again. There is the coronation chair specially made for James II’s protestant daughter Mary in her unique dual crowning with Dutch William. Also a wealth of plate as well as ancient and modern communion cups and flagons. Two 1100 column capitals from the cloister built by Edward the Confessor are top quality. Many carved corbels not all grotesque support the roofing beams above the triforium. These Diamond Jubilee galleries cost just £5 extra if you are already ticketed for downstairs. The view from the chancel’s Cosmati pavement along the nave is breath-taking and probably better than the whisperimg gallery at St Paul’s.