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Westminster Abbey

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries

This month I went to London and saw these splendid galleries, up high in the triforium of Westminster Abbey. You cross Poets’ Corner and there is a new tower installed into the tight space of Poets’ Corner Yard. 108 steps up or take the lift. I did the latter but managed to climb down the stairs.

Weston tower

This space tucked away, 16 metres or seven storeys above the nave, was discovered by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor when they were adding the west towers in 1754. Wren decided to put in extra flooring and beams and joists to strengthen it so that people could watch coronations from here. Stencilled black numbers on the stone work show where you had to stand, ‘Mr Pepys, you may use bay 47,’ I imagined someone saying.

The new tower has a stone façade, which shows every layer of stone used in the history of building the abbey. The architect for the Weston Tower, the rather splendidly named Ptolemy Dean, has used 16 different kinds of stone sampled from the abbey’s history, laid in alternating bands. There’s Purbeck marble full of fossils, white Portland stone chiselled with marks just as Hawksmoor used it; hard grey Kentish ragstone; Yorkshire limestone; and even Reigate stone, of the kind used in the original west front from 1243. A geological journey.

Henry III

Henry III built Westminster and gloried in the soaring Gothic nature of the building, the stained glass windows and the installation of the Cosmati pavement. Up here in the triforium you can look down on the pavement and the Lady Chapel, you can look along the perspective of the vaulted roof. A magnificent view.

W. A. Triforium

The galleries are like a museum for the cathedral. Simple plinths of Purbeck stone and seamless glass display cases make viewing easy. Sun beam paths were explored so that no sensitive object would be touched by direct light. This meant that none of the elaborately carved windows that ring the edge of the triforium needed to be blocked up. Shafts of sunlight streaming in through the tracery make this such an atmospheric place.

The abbey and its story

There are 300 objects, which tell the story of the abbey and the monarchs who have been crowned and married here. The space had only been used for storage and was full of the kind of things you put into an attic and forget about. But now all is set up properly and everything is wonderful. Psalters and silver, Caen stone corbels.

Seal bag

And the seal bag that belonged to Edward 1st, still glowing, embroidery bright and fresh, dating from 1282. Next to it an original Magna Carta.

Effigy Catherine de Valois

Rather eerie wooden effigies taken from the tops of tombs, the clothes long gone but these small bodies and death masks giving a glimpse of real people. The tiny figure and thin face of Catherine de Valois. One effigy that of Elizabeth 1st still has the corsets made especially for it. Extraordinary. Others, later ones are clothed, a splendid Nelson, many Stuarts and their flounces and lace.

Retable Westminster

The retable from Henry III’s time is there, damaged but restored in part. Another great link to the past and the founder of this remarkable building. It is the oldest surviving altar piece in England.

Stained glass

And as you enter the gallery little pieces of stained glass that were found scattered and broken, now carefully and beautifully inserted into plain glass, to make a window again, an angel’s head, looking as serene as it always has.

Retable detail

Westminster Retable after conservation. TIF 2004

Henry III was extremely devout, even for an age when worship and God dominated everyday life. He built Westminster Abbey as something that would  be for the glory of God and Edward the Confessor, the king that he revered and eternally praised. His son, Edward 1st was named after this king.

In Isabella of Angoulême, The Tangled Queen, Part Three there is a scene at the end of the book when Henry learns of his mother’s death. He is busy thinking about the abbey and the way it will be built.

Henry heard of his mother’s death after a morning walk back from Westminster Abbey with his three master masons. They had returned from France, from Reims, from Chartres and they were full of the new style; plans had been drawn and the excitement about pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, and rose windows consumed him. ‘We will have a long single aisle and the highest vault we can engineer,’ he exclaimed and justified the expense to himself over and over again.

              ‘I laid the foundation stone for the Lady Chapel twenty-six years ago. It is time to build for Edward the Confessor an Abbey of the most brilliant aspect.’

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