How much do you know about Westminster Abbey? Take a two minute saunter with me . . .
Did you know that the Westminster Abbey that we tell you has been there for 900 years has not really been there, as you see it, for that long at all? The original Abbey, as created by Edward the Confessor, was completely different and was built in the Norman style.
And did you know that this great man was for a long time England’s patron saint? And did you know that Westminster Abbey, as you see it today, took almost 500 years to build? In fact, the famous West Towers designed by Christopher Wren’s pupil, Hawksmoor, in 1745, are actually among the last major structures to be added around the nave and central cross.
So today’s Abbey started life with the idea that Henry III had: in order to properly revere his hero, Edward the Confessor, it was necessary to modify his Abbey and have himself buried next to the saint. This idea rolled on through the centuries, with various kings leaving their mark by making special additions.
For example, during the reigns of Henry V and Richard II, the nave was completed – and Henry VII helped to establish his authenticity by making the Lady Chapel his Henry VII chapel, with a huge mausoleum bronze effigy of himself and his dear lady wife Elizabeth of York.
So finally we have today’s image of our great coronation church which has almost totally destroyed that of Saint Edward! Some way to revere a saint!
Well at least the Gothic style did lighten things up – literally. Those flying buttresses that you see on the outside, and which are often thought to be ungainly, are what allowed the architects of 500 years ago to have thinner, higher walls, with today’s huge windows that we now take for granted.
But did you also know that today’s cathedrals are not at all like those of 400 and 500 years ago, in entirely another respect? Today, we think of the inside of these places as sombre and dull, and that that must be a reflection of how religion has always been.
This could not be farther from the truth, from the reality. Yesterday’s churches were wonderful bright places blazing with colour with pictographic stories plastered all over the walls and windows. But this is all before the Protestants who took over in Edward VI’s reign (oh, what a great time they must have had running riot during the short time of this sickly boy king’s time in power – and even more so in Oliver Cromwell’s Republican regime – not a misprint, yes Republican – which had even more puritanical leanings). (Did you know that Britain became a republic for quite a few years in the middle of the 17th century – and happily chose to go back and embrace the monarchy with profound joy?)
Did you know that this original Westminster Abbey used to sit on land that was known as Thorney Island? For that is what it virtually was, an island, surrounded by streams and rivers and marshy land.
In fact did you know that the whole of that solid and respectable area that we now call Belgravia was marshy, inhospitable and crisscrossed by villains who used to be called footpads but are now known as muggers?
So why are things so different now? Well because, although people liked to make profits just as much as we do today, they were willing to invest their heart and soul, as well as tremendous vision, energy and drive.
So a man called Cubitt, who was developing St. Katharine’s Dock near the Tower, had the bright idea of moving the sludge up to today’s Belgravia and draining the area so it is now very solid indeed.
And why is this land called Belgravia? At the time and up until today, the Duke of Westminster owned – and still owns – all the streets around Belgrave Square, including London’s longest and most prestigious square Eaton Square. Aristocrats had the amusing habit of naming parts of their city empire after villages and towns on their country estates. So if you think of Chester, Belgrave and Eaton squares as quant little parts of London, you wouldn’t be thinking quite the same way as the dear old Duke himself – as no doubt he believes they are rather quaint little parts of his country estate.
Now reader, if you knew all these things, you really do not need a proper registered London Blue Badge Guide. However if you did not know some of it, and want to hear lots more, then get in touch with one of us and tune in to one of the world’s most fascinating stories.