The last monarch to have a funeral at Westminster Abbey was George II in 1760. It was the first time chairs were set out for an audience. Horace Walpole, present by virtue of being an earl, recorded that the duke of Newcastle arrived weeping noisily and pretended to faint. When the archbishop of Canterbury offered him smelling salts, the duke leaped up and ran around the church with a spyglass to see who ‘was or was not there’. Finally, to keep his feet off the chilly marble, he stood on the train of Butcher Cumberland, who couldn’t work out what had pinned him to the ground. After that, British kings and queens were quietly buried at Windsor, usually at St George’s Chapel. But the monarchy now lives and dies by public events, so the queen came back for her funeral before heading off to Windsor, and the extraordinary angles of the TV cameras, wheeling above the congregation, ensured we all got the best seats in the house.
Not that the abbey has ever been particularly democratic or, at least until the 19th century, respectable and dignified. It’s been part functioning church (four services a day, six on Sundays), part tourist attraction, since the 1590s – when John Donne, not yet dean of St Paul’s, recorded that one of the vergers was charging visitors to see the royal tombs. The crucial events were the Reformation, when it lost its monks and lands and found its finances insecure, and Elizabeth I’s subsequent decision to make it a Royal Peculiar. This put it outside the jurisdiction of the Church of England, answerable only to the monarch, and left its dean and chapter in charge of its affairs. Since then, royals have turned up for coronations and funerals and otherwise left the abbey to get on with it. Things that the Church would never have tolerated elsewhere have been allowed at the abbey. Samuel Pepys went to see the corpse of Catherine of Valois – wife of Henry V, disinterred during Henry VII’s rebuilding of the Lady Chapel. ‘I did kiss her mouth,’ he wrote in 1669. In 1806, having failed to ‘get’ Nelson after his death (he was buried in St Paul’s), the vergers had a wax effigy of him made and put it on show for sixpence a pop. Later, in 1843, Parliament had to pass a law forcing the abbey to keep its entry fee to 6d – it was charging an extra 3d for Poets’ Corner and the nave, and an extra shilling for the royal tombs and north transept. These days it’ll cost you £25, plus another £4.50 for the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Galleries (worth it, in my opinion, for the effigy of Nelson and another from 1686 of Charles II in one of his own outfits). This makes it, by my reckoning, the world’s most expensive church, rivalled only by Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, which charges €26 – though there the money goes to actually finishing the cathedral. St Paul’s is a snip at £18.
The abbey’s association with royalty and power is woven into its fabric. Edward the Confessor built the first abbey, next to his palace at Westminster, in 1042, and William the Conqueror became the first king to be crowned in it, on Christmas Day 1066. Henry II, fancying a saint in the family, bought Edward’s canonisation from the schismatic Pope Alexander III in 1161 in return for some very welcome support. Henry III rebuilt the abbey in 1245 as a shrine to St Edward – and a royal mausoleum to himself, almost bankrupting the Crown in the process. The abbey’s own website calls him ‘recklessly extravagant’. He commissioned the soaring gothic nave, slightly too tall for its truncated length, captured so impressively by the cameras at the funeral. Between Henry III and George II, most British monarchs were buried here. There’s something appropriately feudal about the fact that the hoi polloi, shuffling round the ambulatory to view the medieval royal tombs near the altar, can see only their marble and porphyry sides, as the tops with their gilt effigies are set too high.
You do, however, get other pleasing royal oddities for your money. Under the ravishing, cobweb-fine, Perpendicular Gothic fan and pendant vaulting of the Lady Chapel, Elizabeth I is buried on top of her sister, Bloody Mary, who put her in the Tower of London. Mary, Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth had executed, lies (head, of course, separated from body) in her own tomb, almost exactly opposite Elizabeth’s; Mary’s is a bit taller too, as arranged by her son and Elizabeth’s successor, James VI and I. Other bona fide royal treasures which the busy visitor mostly passes by include Henry III’s gorgeous 13th-century mosaic Cosmati pavement in front of the high altar, and the portrait of Richard II, the abbey’s other profligate royal patron. It hangs almost unnoticed off a pier just by the West Door, the first contemporaneous likeness of an English king, and a rare instance of 14th-century northern European portraiture. The abbey, as much a museum as a church, doesn’t do explanatory signage.
What most assails you, however, as you enter Westminster Abbey – its most pressing, insistent visuals – are not royal mementos, but the six hundred or so memorials of the rich, powerful, connected and occasionally deserving dead that stuff it to bursting. They date from the 16th to the 19th century and stick out from walls, jut from window ledges and jostle for space in the aisles. They occlude the vistas and upstage the interiors, badgering the passer-by for attention. They contribute a great deal to the oddness of the abbey. Many have complained about them. Pugin loathed them. William Morris denounced them as ‘the most hideous specimens of false art that can be found in the whole world’ and regretted that they ‘had been allowed to block up and disfigure the abbey church’. But for the abbey’s most energetic, successful and respectable proselytiser, Dean Stanley, they made it – horrible phrase – ‘the nation’s Valhalla’ and confirmed its position as ‘the nation’s church’.
Today, in wilful collective hallucination, the abbey and its visitors mostly ignore them. As Robert Musil said, writing before BLM, ‘there is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument.’ The abbey’s audio guide – the English version is mellifluously narrated by Jeremy Irons – mentions them only in brief asides about Poets’ Corner and a couple of Tudor tombs. And what is more superannuated, more artistically mute and inexpressive, more absurdly camp, than a white marble statue of an old dead dude, surrounded by endless allegorical ladies? How many people have any idea that the first statues you encounter on your entry to the abbey – great stiff white marble men in half-classical drapery, fifteen feet high on their pedestals – are George Canning, Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister; and, clinging to his coat-tails, his son, the last governor-general and first post-Rebellion viceroy of India; and his cousin, Stratford, known primarily for being a bad-tempered pedant and the longest-serving ambassador at the Ottoman court (no one, certainly not his cousin, wanted to give him the cabinet job he craved)? Though the abbey was regarded as full, it could always squish in another politician. (The link with Parliament dates from 1352, when the Commons met for the first time in the Chapter House.)
It seems wrong that these monuments are so little regarded. They make the abbey the most vivid and uncompromising encounter with Britain’s old power elites in the full glory of their Ozymandias-like hubris (Shelley, incidentally, only got a measly Poets’ Corner stone tablet, alongside Keats, in 1954). Much of the wealth that paid for them was accumulated through imperial wars and colonies – the abbey is still ‘the Commonwealth church’ – and unlike the furniture in a National Trust property, none of it can be rearranged. Aside from a good showing of lively Tudor and Stuart lady aristocrats, they virtually all commemorate white men. The only non-white figures I’ve been able to find are a Black slave on the monument to Charles James Fox, and two embarrassingly Chinese-looking Indian captives on monuments to the 18th-century East India company grandees Sir Eyre Coote, commander-in-chief of the East India Company armies, and Vice-Admiral Charles Watson, who ‘avenged’ the Black Hole of Calcutta and made a fortune there. The abbey is chockful of forgotten 18th-century soldiers and sailors waving flags and sabres, not a few of whom died in their beds.
The first fancy non-royal memorials began to turn up in numbers in the reign of Elizabeth I, when her new court noblesse de robe, keen to bolster their proximity to power, took plots in the empty Catholic chapels fanning off from the ambulatory. They put up boisterously assertive monuments to themselves, riots of alabaster and gilt, the life-size figures reclining on their tombs, dressed in big stone ruffs and painted fur-lined scarlet robes. Bona fide toffs turned up too, including the Percy family, dukes of Northumberland, who are still buried in their vault here. These brassy mausolea were not popular with everyone, as demonstrated by a 1560 proclamation prohibiting the destruction of church monuments as undermining the social order, carefully distinguishing between memorials – a reminder of ‘sundry and virtuous persons’ – and idolatry: anything Catholic. There had been earlier, simpler, civilian tombs, of course, for those who lived in the abbey’s vicinity or worked for it. Geoffrey Chaucer, the first poet with a grave in the abbey, was buried here in his capacity as a civil servant – he was the abbey’s clerk of works. The embryo of Poets’ Corner lies in Edmund Spenser’s request to be buried near him in 1599.
The abbey’s most jaw-dropping piece of self-aggrandisement – it’s a pretty high bar – is the tomb of George Villiers. Villiers was the favourite of both James I, who said he was ‘as beautiful as a hunting leopard’ and made him duke of Buckingham, and Charles I, who had him buried next to the Stuart vault in the Lady Chapel. The black marble tomb was so big that its installation broke several statues and wall ornaments. No one much cared, since Gothic architecture was deeply unfashionable at the time. ‘He was unrivalled for his singular humanity and the agreeable nature of his manners,’ the tomb’s long inscription insists. ‘Spain marvels at his prudence, France at his courage, Belgium at his diligence and the whole of Europe at his magnanimity.’ You wouldn’t know from this that Buckingham, who was stabbed by an ex-soldier in 1628 after a series of incompetent and expensive military adventures in Europe, including war with France, was so hated at his death that his funeral had to take place at night.
After the Restoration, the dean and chapter began to sell burial plots, and by the mid-18th century the abbey was notorious for giving space to anyone who could pay. Describing a tour of the abbey in his 1762 satire The Citizen of the World, Oliver Goldsmith wrote:
The gentleman that lies here is remarkable, very remarkable – for a tomb in Westminster-abbey … the gentleman was rich, and his friends, as is usual in such a case, told him he was great. He readily believed them; the guardians of the temple, as they got by the self-delusion, were ready to believe him too; so he paid his money for a fine monument; and the workman, as you see, has made him one the most beautiful. Think not, however, that this gentleman is singular in his desire of being buried among the great, there are several others in the temple, who, hated and shunned by the great while alive, have come here, fully resolved to keep them company now they are dead.
For every Dickens, Darwin and Newton buried here, there’s a Butcher Cumberland or a William Hargrave, the ur-example of the rich man with a monument more interesting than him. His deliriously rococo monument is by the French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac, star of the 18th-century abbey. Hargrave is shown struggling out of a collapsing pyramid tomb at the Last Judgment, as Time breaks Death’s spear. Having clients who hadn’t done anything interesting brought out the best in Roubiliac. With no achievements to celebrate he came up with sensational dramatic tableaux. His other abbey masterpiece is the Nightingale monument, in which the forgotten MP Joseph Nightingale tries to save his wife, who died in childbirth, from the skeleton of Death and its fatal dart. Photographs don’t do justice to Roubiliac’s work – the best are smaller and more intense than you expect, and vibrate with movement and melodrama. It’s a shame that Hargrave is currently tucked away in a corner behind the equally forgotten Captain James Montagu (his main claim to fame being that he was the son of an admiral). Montagu stands in a Sajid Javid-style power pose flanked by lions, Victory and two mourning sailors, and he in turn languishes behind the black marble fake sarcophagus of Lord Salisbury – who is actually buried in the family chapel at Hatfield.
There’s no doubt that if the Anglican hierarchy had been allowed a say, many of these monuments would never have made it into the abbey. Apart from all the boasting (Addison said some of the epitaphs were so over the top that the dead should blush), their size and their pagan allegories – acceptable in Italy but frowned on in Protestant England – were unquestionably too much. But as it was, they drew in a crowd and acted as a shop window for the country’s most successful sculptors.
In the 19th century, the abbey became respectable. It had a series of scholar deans, including the palaeontologist William Buckland, culminating in Arthur Stanley, who restored its finances, wrote its history and used its independence to make it the centre of liberal ecumenism – decades, if not half a century, before the rest of the English Church caught up. In an effort to prove that it wasn’t just the resting place of the rich but also of the great and talented, Stanley put Poets’ Corner at the heart of the abbey’s story. And by the 19th century it was enormously popular and famous, a place where visitors lingered to commune with dead geniuses. Today, it feels underwhelming. It’s cramped compared to the rest of the abbey and the great writers actually buried here are outnumbered by the belated markers to absent writers, installed long after their reputations were safely established. Shakespeare – buried at Stratford – got his monument in 1741, 125 years after he died. It’s the first full-length statue in Poets’ Corner, and mostly paid for by Lord Burlington because public subscription didn’t bring in enough dosh. Other literary memorials are much more modest. Ruskin, who hated the Baroque, gets a little bronze roundel behind Roubiliac’s oversized extravaganza to the forgotten 2nd duke of Argyll. Thackeray’s small bust is surrounded by a wall of memorials to non-writers. There are lots of these. Long after its identity was established, right up until 1805, anyone could buy a space in Poets’ Corner so long as they were willing to pay the ‘fine’, which went straight into the pockets of the dean and chapter. ‘In the poetical quarter,’ Addison had written in 1711, ‘I found there were poets who had no monuments, and monuments which had no poets.’
The abbey held writers to a higher moral standard than the rich. Stanley cheered that Aphra Behn, writer and all-round hussy, hadn’t managed to get closer to Poets’ Corner than ‘beyond the east Cloister’. (Her stone carries one of the best inscriptions in the abbey: ‘Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be/Defence enough against Mortality.’) But he said not a word about Thomas Thynne of Longleat, who died seven years before her, in 1682. Known as Tom of Ten Thousand because he was so rich, and said to be syphilitic, he arranged a marriage to 14-year-old Elizabeth Percy, one of the richest heiresses in England, having paid his fellow MP Richard Brett, a known conman and a crook, £10,000 for helping to close the deal with Percy’s grandmother. His bride immediately fled abroad and Thynne was shot in Pall Mall on the orders of a failed suit0r, the Swedish count Königsmarck. Königsmarck was acquitted (according to John Evelyn the jury was bribed) but his three hirelings were hanged. The murder, looking like a stagecoach hold-up, is shown in a relief on the base of Thynne’s monument – it’s worth a look and not just because it’s the only portrayal of a murder in the abbey.
Stanley also refused George Eliot’s request to be buried in Poets’ Corner because of her relationship with the married George Henry Lewes. The abbey finally commemorated her in 1980. In 1824, an earlier dean had turned down Byron’s body, brought to the abbey from Greece, with thousands turning out for his unofficial funeral procession. Two years before, by night for fear of riots, the abbey had buried Castlereagh – suicide, suspender of habeas corpus and sponsor of the shamefully repressive Six Acts. The inquest decided he’d slit his own throat while ‘labouring under a delusion’ so it wasn’t really suicide. ‘Here lie the bones of Castlereagh,’ Byron had famously written. ‘Stop, traveller, and piss.’ Byron got his plaque in 1969.
Stanley always admitted that the abbey’s commemoration of ‘celebrated men’ was ‘extremely unequal and uncertain’ but liked to claim that the dubious haphazardness by which it had evolved was what gave the abbey its special quality, mirroring ‘the harmonious diversity in unity which pervades our whole Commonwealth’, and thus proving that establishment figures have been congratulating themselves on the diversity of the Commonwealth for the last 150 years.
The bald lesson of the abbey’s memorials is that money, power and connections repeatedly trump virtue and talent. So what to do with all these imperfect manifestations of wealth and inequality? Weed out the undeserving? Remove them all to the equivalent of a Soviet statue graveyard? There were at least four plans to do just that in the 1800s. But it’s hardly necessary. Their aesthetic language is so severed from current sensibilities, and so many of those memorialised are so deservedly forgotten, that the abbey already is a statue graveyard. Its exhibits are a vivid, unsentimental history of the way Britain was ruled and the way its national and imperial identity evolved. The abbey should lay on explanatory tours. Just think how much it could charge.
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