Flying High

This is very exciting, we’re going on the London Eye!

London Eye
London Eye

It’s so big, it doesn’t fit in the photo any more!

London Eye
London Eye

Look, that’s Whitehall! Let’s go to see the Banqueting House. It hosted some of the most exuberant and decadent masques ever performed, as well as some of the most splendid state receptions.

Whitehall
Whitehall

And there’s Big Ben with the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey… We’re going there too!

Big Ben, Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey
Big Ben, Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey

This is a great hall for a party!

Banqueting House
Banqueting House

The idea of a ‘banquet’ comes from the medieval mind. Not the sumptuous feast we know today, but rather a peculiar little meal of exotic deserts and snacks. This was eaten, on special occasions, when diners had finished the meat course and were waiting for the entertainment to begin. People enjoyed their banquets so much that as time went on they began to built special little rooms, then special really big rooms!, or ‘houses’ to hold them in. These ‘banqueting houses’ were often highly decorated little buildings situated a pleasant (and digestion-aiding) walk away from the main dinner hall.

The Banqueting House in Whitehall was the biggest and grandest of the whole genre. While it was used formally as an impressive reception hall for ambassadors, it was intended for the kind of fanciful and playful activities that took place after dinner, such as masques and parties.

The grand palace that Henry VIII acquired from the Archdiocese of York in 1530, after Wolsey had fallen so spectacularly from grace, had one significant flaw for the amorous king. York Palace had been designed for a (nominally) celibate churchman. Whitehall Palace, as it was to be known from then onwards, required separate accommodation suitable for a queen. It also needed to suit a royal household to which sport and hunting were as natural as high politics and low cunning. Together, at Christmas 1529, Henry and Anne Boleyn set themselves the task of designing a new palace besides the Thames. James Nedeham, Master Carpenter to the King, realised the designs.

Henry VIII’s palace at Whitehall was remarkable for many things, not least the fact that it was split in two by a main road, the busy King Street (which survives to this day as Whitehall). It was crossed by a grand bridge within a striking gatehouse. On the river side, where Wolsey’s palace had been, was the residential and working palace, with private apartments for the King and for a queen, centred on an exquisite long gallery. On the other side of the road, close to the parkland, was the palace of pleasure, the royal recreation centre with provision for tennis, cockfighting, bowls and all manner of fun. A suburb of Westminster was swept away to accommodate a grand design, and part of the Thames foreshore was reclaimed to extend the built area.

Banqueting Hall
Banqueting Hall

Inside the new palace, little expense was spared in fitting out the new rooms, whether they were public or private. Wolsey’s rooms became those destined for the Queen, as Anne Boleyn was to be, once the inconvenient fact that Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, had been overcome. Speed became imperative when Anne was found to be pregnant.

Whitehall Palace was not completed in Henry’s lifetime and was always a building site. Anne, who was executed in 1536, never saw the rooms intended for her. That privilege was accorded to Jane Seymour, who gave Henry the son he craved (although she died in the process). The Prince was given his own palace, the new St James’ Palace, in the park to the west. And Jane was commemorated in two great paintings, one by Hans Holbein, the other by an unknown hand, that provide a sense of quite how magnificent the interiors of Whitehall Palace were. The Family of Henry VIII, by an unknown artist, portrays Henry, a chubby Prince Edward and the dead Jane.

The Family of Henry VIII, by an unknown artist, c 1545, detail
The Family of Henry VIII, by an unknown artist, c 1545, detail

By the time Anne Boleyn died, Whitehall Palace was sufficiently complete and sufficiently grand to be declared the official seat of the monarchy. In the years before his death in 1547, Henry VIII began building again, constructing a huge new set of royal lodgings on the waterfront, formal gardens, and another bridge over King Street. This was a magnificent palace, in an eclectic part-medieval, part-Renaissance style, filled with treasures and it was a setting appropriate to the power of the King. It fell to Elizabeth I to complete the building her father had left, and it would become the largest royal palace in Europe.

A somewhat flimsy, constructed of wood and canvas, Banqueting House was built by Elizabeth I, then two by James I, who scornfully described the earlier building on the site as a rotten shed. His displeasure at the design of the first house was short-lived – workers clearing up after a masque in January 1619 accidentally set fire to the oil painted scenery and burnt the Banqueting House to the ground. Despite the shortage of ready cash in the royal coffers, a new Banqueting House was immediately commissioned from the man of the moment, Inigo Jones. Jones, mindful of the King’s past displeasure, made use of his extensive notes on the buildings of Palladio that he had seen and studied in his visits to Italy, in designing the new house.

The Banqueting House, when almost completed in 1621, was stunning. Both in design and size it stood head and shoulders above the other ragbag assortment of buildings of Whitehall Palace. As John Chamberlain reported when the King entertained his first guests there on 25 April of that year: ‘This day the King kept St George’s feast in the new built banketting roome, which is too faire and nothing sutable to the rest of the house’.

The interior was one of magnificence and made exactly the impression that James I intended. The Venetian ambassador wrote: “His Majesty received us in a great hall newly built for public spectacles, royally adorned with marvellous tapestries and gold’.

Charles I’s marriage to a French princess, Henrietta Maria, was ratified in the Banqueting House on 21 June 1625, just three months after the death of James I. A period of war and an outbreak of plague marked the early years of Charles I’s reign and the Banqueting House was deserted until 1631, when the masque Love’s Triumph through Callipolis was performed.

The installation of Ruben’s masterly paintings in the Banqueting House ceiling in 1636 marked the end of the building as a venue for masques, with their requirement for brilliant, and highly damaging, illumination.

Ruben’s potent ceiling imagery of James I became a shrine to the Stuart dynasty, manifesting in the Banqueting House on a permanent basis, the pre-eminent theme of the Stuart masque: that peace, harmony and plenty will reign in the land ruled by the wide and just king.

Banqueting House Ceiling
Banqueting House Ceiling

No formal contract or record of meetings to discuss the subject of the Banqueting House ceiling survive, but at his final audience, we know Rubens was knighted by Charles I, who also presented him with a diamond, an ornamented hat cord and a ring from his own finger. Were these honours only for his part in the Spanish reconciliation, or perhaps also for the sketch that he almost certainly made during his visit to London, possibly from the floor of the Banqueting House itself? This monochrome oil sketch, now on view at Tate Britain, shows the overall composition of Rubens’ preliminary design for the nine panels for the Banqueting House ceiling. At its centre is a developed study of the apotheosis of King James I. Having brought union, peace and plenty to Britain, James I is seen ascending to heaven. ‘I confess that I am, by natural instinct, better fitted to execute very large works than small curiosities.’ Rubens in a 1621 letter to James I’s agent was not deterred by the large-scale of the commission.

Banqueting House, Ceiling, Rubens The Apotheosis of James I
Banqueting House, Ceiling, Rubens The Apotheosis of James I

From left to right:
Genii playing with animals
The Apotheosis of James I
Genii bearing a garland

The nine canvasses were painted in Rubens’s Antwerp studio and completed by summer 1634 and were finally installed in the ceiling of the Banqueting House in around mid-March 1636. When the canvases were first unrolled on the floor, Inigo Jones and Rubens’ assistants realised with mounting horror that they wouldn’t fit in the ceiling. The problem had occurred because although both Belgium and England measured in feet and inches, each country used a different length for a foot. Drastic moderations had to be made on site to make them fit. Some of the canvases had to be extended slightly and others trimmed to fit in their settings. Charles I, nevertheless, was delighted with his new ceiling. So much so, that he immediately gave orders that no further masques were to be held in the building.

Banqueting House, Ceiling, Rubens The Peaceful Reign of King James I
Banqueting House, Ceiling, Rubens The Peaceful Reign of King James I

From left to right:
Wise Government holding a bridle above Intemperate Discord
The Peaceful Reign of James I
Abundance suppressing Avarice

Another project for the Banqueting House commissioned by Charles I – a set of tapestries from the Mortlake factory, depicting the Knights of the Gartner in procession to be made from an oil sketch by Van Dyck – was not completed. The royal coffers were almost empty and the nation in a state of increasing unrest. On 10 January 1642, Charles I left Whitehall for York. He would not set house on the Banqueting House for another seven years, when he was to walk across its hall on the final day of his life and the most fateful day in the whole of English history.

On Tuesday 30 January 1649, a little before two o’clock in the afternoon, Charles I left his Banqueting House for the last time. Stepping out as nonchalantly on to the scaffold, as if entering the Banqueting House on a masque night, Charles I walked on stage to lay the final scene as God’s representative on earth. It was a finale more bleak than anything imagined, a macabre masque of blackness and the ‘saddest sight that England ever saw’.

At the end of the English Civil War, Charles I had been escorted back to London to face a charge of high treason brought by a hastily convened revolutionary court, which the King refused to recognise as lawful. This court came to its predetermined sentence, that Charles Stuart should be ‘put to death by severing of his head from his body’. The execution of King Charles I is remembered every year on 30 January with a service in the Banqueting House.

Following the execution of Charles I, England entered the period known as the English Interregnum or the English Commonwealth, and the country was a de facto republic, led by Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell defeated Charles II at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651, and Charles fled to mainland Europe. Cromwell became virtual dictator of England, Scotland and Ireland, and Charles spent the next nine years in exile in France, the United Provinces and the Spanish Netherlands.

A political crisis that followed the death of Cromwell in 1658 resulted in the restoration of the monarchy, and Charles was invited to return to Britain. On 29 May 1660, his 30th birthday, he was received in London to public acclaim. After 1660, all legal documents were dated as if he had succeeded his father as king in 1649. Charles II was popularly known as the Merry Monarch, in reference to both the liveliness and hedonism of his court and the general relief at the return to normality after over a decade of rule by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. Charles’s wife, Catherine of Braganza, bore no live children, but Charles acknowledged at least twelve illegitimate children by various mistresses. He was succeeded by his brother James.

James was King of England and Ireland as James II and King of Scotland as James VII, from 6 February 1685 until he was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He was the last Roman Catholic monarch to reign over the Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. Members of Britain’s political and religious elite increasingly suspected him of being pro-French and pro-Catholic and of having designs on becoming an absolute monarch. When he produced a Catholic heir, the tension exploded, and leading nobles called on his Protestant son-in-law and nephew, William of Orange, to land an invasion army from the Netherlands, which he did. James fled England (and thus was held to have abdicated) in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He was replaced by his Protestant elder daughter, Mary II, and her husband, William III.

Forty years almost to the day after Charles I had been executed at the Banqueting House, his grandchildren William of Orange and Mary, the elder daughter of the deposed James II, were offered the throne as joint monarchs. It was a unprecendented occasion. The offer depended upon them accepting the ancient legal rights of the people that James was said to have abused. It proved to be a constitutional turning point. The Convention were spelling out to William and Mary that the people of England possessed certain rights and liberties that James II had violated and there were certain things that English monarchs could not legally do, notwithstanding anything that James II had done to the contrary. William and Mary took the throne on the same terms that James II and all previous monarchs were presumed to have taken it – they were supposed to rule according to law.

In March 1689, Parliament turned its attention to devising a new coronation oath to oblige the new sovereign to rule according to law. In the traditional oath, which James II had taken in 1685, the monarch promised “to grant and keep and… confirm to the people of England the laws and customs granted to them by the kings of England”. The 1689 oath removed the notion that the people enjoyed their laws and customs as a grant from the king. Thus at their coronation, William and Mary solemnly swore and promised “to govern the people of this kingdom of England and the dominions thereto belonging according to the statues in Parliament agreed upon and the laws and customs of the same”.

Fire was the ever-present hazard for all royal buildings and Whitehall Palace was no exception. The oldest and most densely occupied, southern part of the palace burnt down in 1691 after a blaze was started by some candles lit in the Duke of Gloucester’s lodgings. The later 17th century parts were left unscathed, but just a few years later, on 4 January 1698, the remainder of the palace was engulfed in flames after a maidservant disobeyed standing orders by drying clothes on a charcoal brazier. The resulting fire swept through the palace, with its timber structure and open roof voids, and the firefighters were hampered by the extensive salvage operations to rescue the royal works of art and the many residents’ private possessions. On William III’s express orders, huge efforts were made to save the Banqueting House.

The Whitehall palace burnt down but the Banqueting House survived. The hall was fitted up after the fire as the principal Chapel Royal. The altar was at the north end, and a royal pew was placed opposite at the south end, where the replica throne is today.

Banqueting House
Banqueting House

Even when the Chapel Royal moved to St James’s Palace the place was used for preaching and public ceremonies. In 1808 the room became a military chapel. Rich velvet swags hung between the pillars and pew boxes ran down the long sides of the hall. Up to 2000 soldiers took part in a service.

In 1895, the Banqueting House began a new phase in its history as a tourist attraction. Queen Victoria granted the building to the Royal United Services Institution to use as a museum. Showcases full of military curiosities were crammed into the hall while banners hung from the ceiling. The museum lasted until 1962, and the house was reopened in 1964 as a historic building and events venue.

Banqueting House Event
Banqueting House Event

In 1689, the new joint monarchs, William and Mary, set about finding a new, private country home, where they could retreat from the old and rambling official palace of Whitehall (in 1689 there was still a palace at Whitehall). They purchased Nottingham House from Daniel Finch and within weeks the architect Sir Christopher Wren was set out to work transforming the house into a suitable royal residence. The court moved to the palace in Christmas 1689 following the efforts of Queen Mary who, impatient to move in, frequently visited to hurry the workmen along. Soon after one of her visits, several people were killed when some newly erected construction work fell down because it has been put up too quickly.

The new palace was furnished with a chapel, accommodation for courtiers, kitchens, stables, barracks, but above all, a series of grand rooms or State Apartments where the King and Queen could hold audience and ceremonies of state. Queen Mary was extensively involved in the design and furnishings of the palace. Echoes of her taste remain, most visible in the few pieces of her vast collection of oriental porcelain that survive. By 1692, the building was nearing completion, with a new gallery and staircase for the Queen, as well as rooms for her maids of honour. At the end of 1694, Queen Mary died of smallpox in her bedchamber at the palace.

Kensington Palace, Queen's Gallery, William of Orange Portrait
Kensington Palace, Queen’s Gallery, William of Orange Portrait

William lost interest in the building after Mary’s death, but he did complete the contract and very beautiful range that overlooks the south, housing his picture gallery with private apartments on the lower floors. In 1698, the King entertained the Russian Tsar Peter the Great here during this visit to England.

Kensington Palace, Queen's Gallery, Peter the Great Portrait
Kensington Palace, Queen’s Gallery, Peter the Great Portrait

After William and Mary, the palace continued to be at the centre of the life and government of the kingdom and played host to the courts of Queen Anne (Mary’s sister who ascended to the throne in 1702 when King William died childless), George I and George II. However, when George III came to the throne in October 1760, he made Buckingham Palace his principal London home and Kensington ceased to serve as the seat of a reigning monarch.

One of the most well-known residents of Kensington Palace was Princess Victoria. On 24 May 1819 Princess Victoria was born at Kensington Palace and she was christened the following month in a private ceremony in the Cupola Room.

Kensington Palace, King's State Apartments, Cupola Room
Kensington Palace, King’s State Apartments, Cupola Room

Eighteen years later, Princess Victoria was awakened at Kensington Palace early in the morning of 20 June 1837 with news of her accession to the throne.

Henry Tanworth Wells - Queen Victoria Receiving News of Her Accession to the Throne
Henry Tanworth Wells – Queen Victoria Receiving News of Her Accession to the Throne

Her first Privy Council was held in the Red Salon on this day, before the young Queen moved permanently to Buckingham Palace with her mother.

Kensington Palace, Victoria Exhibition, Red Saloon
Kensington Palace, Victoria Exhibition, Red Saloon

The private apartments at Kensington Palace continued to be used by members of the Royal Family throughout the 19th century, however, the State Apartments were sadly neglected and were used as stores for various paintings and furnishings from other palaces. It was only Queen Victoria’s love for the palace in which she had grown up that saved it. In April 1897, Parliament was persuaded to pay for the restoration of the State Apartments on condition they should be opened to the public. The State Apartments were opened to the public on Queen Victoria’s birthday, 24 May 1899.

Today, the State Apartments comprise the King’s and Queen’s Apartments (interpreted to represent the time of King William III and Queen Mary II) and the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. The private side of Kensington Palace has been home in recent years to Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II, Diana, Princess of Wales and now to William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Kensington Palace reopened to the public after a £12 million makeover in 2012, timed to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Queen Victoria’s wedding dress went on display for the first time in more than a decade.

Kensington Palace, Queen Victoria Wedding Dress
Kensington Palace, Queen Victoria Wedding Dress

The gown, which she wore when she married her cousin Prince Albert at St James’s Palace in 1840, is one of the star items in a new exhibition, Victoria Revealed, at Kensington Palace. Experts have been carrying out conservation work on the dress’ fragile silk satin and lace trimming. By wearing a fashionable white, silk satin court dress instead of her ‘robes’ at the wedding, the Queen diverged from protocol. The simpler style set a pattern for royal wedding dress which survives to this day.

Kensington Palace, Queen Victoria Wedding Dress, detail
Kensington Palace, Queen Victoria Wedding Dress, detail

Outside, in the grounds of the palace alongside Hyde Park, a statue of Queen Victoria has been given a facelift – with her shrapnel-damaged nose replaced for the second time. The statue was sculpted by her daughter, Princess Louise, to celebrate 50 years of her mother’s reign.

Kensington Palace, Queen Victoria Statue
Kensington Palace, Queen Victoria Statue

The Queen’s Apartments are deliberately plainer and lower key than the King’s both inside and out. The oak-panelled Queen’s Staircase is a sharp contrast to the grand marble King’s Staircase. Mary would have glided down its steps to reach her beloved gardens, created in the Dutch style, through the door at its foot.

Kensington Palace, Queen's Staircase
Kensington Palace, Queen’s Staircase

At the top of the staircase is the Queen’s Gallery. Built in 1693, it was once filled with sumptuous artefacts including Turkish carpets, embroidered silk hangings and oriental porcelain. Queen Mary used the gallery for recreation and it was often filled with her ladies-in-waiting working at their embroidery, while one of them read out loud. Among the guests who visited the gallery was Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia who had been invited to court by William III in 1698. William persuaded his guest to sit for a portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller, which still hangs in this room. Looking at this majestic portrait, few would guess how badly behaved the Tsar was during his stay. While in England, Peter lodged with the diarist John Evelyn, who later complained that nearly every window in his house had been smashed, his paintings had bullet holes in them and all of his chairs, and most of his staircase, had been chopped up for firewood.

Kensington Palace, Queen's Gallery
Kensington Palace, Queen’s Gallery

The Queen’s Closet was a room to withdraw into from the social world of the gallery. It was in this room that Queen Anne, Mary’s younger sister, and her childhood friend and confidante, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, had a terrible argument in 1711. Sarah and her husband were stripped of their high-rank positions and dismissed from court, which caused a shift of power between parliamentary factions.

A cherry painting! Clearly the Queen had good taste!

Kensington Palace, Queen's Closet
Kensington Palace, Queen’s Closet

The next room along is the Queen’s Dining Room which has beautiful panelling from the 17th century. It was a space where Mary and William could dine together, out of the public eye. They enjoyed dining modestly, on fish and beer. Mary also doubtless used this room to take tea, the newly fashionable hot drink, with the ladies of her household.

Kensington Palace, Queen's Dining Room
Kensington Palace, Queen’s Dining Room

Queen Mary was passionate about porcelain and filled the next room, her Drawing Room, with pieces from China and Japan.

The last room in the Queen’s State Apartments is the Queen’s Bedroom. As Mary extended her apartments and created a new bedroom, this room became a cosy sociable space in which she entertained friends.

The bed that is displayed in this room also tells its own fascinating story. It is thought to be the bed in which James Edward Stuart, son of King James II was born, at St James’ Palace, in 1688. As Mary and Anne’s Catholic half-brother, his birth was such a threat to the Protestant establishment that rumours were spread that the baby was an impostor, smuggled into the bed in a ‘warming pan’ to replace a stillborn infant.

Kensington Palace, Queen's Bedroom
Kensington Palace, Queen’s Bedroom

The King’s Staircase makes its way up to the King’s State Apartments. All of the great and good of Georgian London would have climbed up the stairs to visit the King. Visitors to court could only enter if their clothes and jewels were acceptable to the guards.

Kensington Palace, King's Staircase
Kensington Palace, King’s Staircase

The staircase paintings were completed around 1726 by William Kent, in place of the plainer wooden panelling installed by Wren. The young Kent included a portrait of himself on the ceiling, in a brown artist’s cap and holding a palette. The imaginary architecture of the staircase was inspired by work that Kent had seen in the palaces of Rome where he trained.

The Presence Chamber was furnished sparsely. The gilded armchair once belonged to George II’s son, Frederick.

Kensington Palace, The Presence Chamber
Kensington Palace, The Presence Chamber

Here, William Kent’s grotesque-style ceiling was inspired by the decorations found in Roman houses that had recently been excavated on the Palatine Hill in Rome. (People thought that these houses were caves, or grottoes, so this style’s name is based on a misunderstanding.) But the room’s decorative highlight is the limewood carvings by Grinling Gibbons surrounding the fireplace. These cherubs with closed eyes and beautiful roses were originally painted lead white.

The Privy Chamber was one of Queen Caroline’s favourite entertaining spaces. Its magnificent ceiling, painted by William Kent in 1723, shows Mars, the Roman god of war, and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, surrounded by emblems representing the arts and sciences. For Mars, read King George who was the last king to lead troops into battle; for Minerva, read Queen Caroline who invited many artists and scientists to court.

Kensington Palace, The Privy Chamber
Kensington Palace, The Privy Chamber
Kensington Palace, The Privy Chamber, Ceiling
Kensington Palace, The Privy Chamber, Ceiling

The Cupola Room is the most splendidly decorated room in the palace. It was the first royal commission of William Kent, the artist and designer who would go on first to decorate the rest of the State Apartments, and then to create a distinctive visual look for the Georgian age. Here he re-created in paint a baroque Roman palace but with the Star of the Order of the Garter as the ceiling’s centrepiece.

Kensington Palace, King's State Apartments, Cupola Room
Kensington Palace, King’s State Apartments, Cupola Room
Kensington Palace, King's State Apartments, Cupola Room, Ceiling
Kensington Palace, King’s State Apartments, Cupola Room, Ceiling

The King’s Drawing Room is the climax of the whole suite of rooms where courtiers would have come in search of power and patronage, but you have to imagine this empty room packed absolutely full with courtiers. It was here that the courtiers would cram themselves to gossip, indulge in flirtations, covertly size up their friends and enemies, get drunk on brandy, wine and port and, most importantly, play cards, often losing vast fortunes, family seats, eligible daughters and prized diamond jewellery in the process.

Kensington Palace, King's Drawing Room
Kensington Palace, King’s Drawing Room

Tables have been set up so that modern visitors, and little bears, can also play a hand of Hazard – although hopefully their losses won’t be so great as those that beleaguered and dissipated the fortunes of several leading aristocratic eighteenth century families.

Kensington Palace, King's Drawing Room
Kensington Palace, King’s Drawing Room

The King’s Gallery was built for William III as an addition to Wren’s original design in the new South Front and was finished in about 1700. Originally it was hung with green velvet, and William would meet his spies and plan his military campaigns here. The dial positioned over the fireplace is still connected to a wind-vane on the roof so that the King could see which way the wind was blowing, where his navy was likely to be heading, and when the posts were likely to arrive. Created for King William III, it is still (amazingly) in working order. It was here that William played soldiers with his little nephew and intended heir, the Duke of Gloucester, and after a riding accident at Hampton Court, it was here that the King caught the chill that led to his death in 1702.

The gallery was transformed in 1725 by William Kent for George I. Red damask replaced the green velvet, the fine oak joinery was painted white and gilded and a new marble chimneypiece, carved overmantel and new door cases were inserted. Kent and his assistants painted the seven large ceiling canvases that show scenes from the life of Ulysses.

The rooms are surprisingly empty – this is because unlike domestic rooms, the State Apartments were used for audiences and meetings. Courtiers and visitors stood in the presence of Royalty so there was no need for the sorts of furniture you normally find in a home.

Very grand but we like our rooms at home full of our friends and all our things!

Kensington Palace, King's Staircase
Kensington Palace, King’s Staircase

Big Ben is the nickname for the Great Bell of the clock at the north end of the Palace of Westminster and often extended to refer to the clock and the clock tower. The tower is officially known as the Elizabeth Tower, renamed as such to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II (prior to being renamed in 2012 it was known as simply “Clock Tower”). The large west tower now known as Victoria Tower was renamed in tribute to Queen Victoria on her Diamond Jubilee. The tower holds the largest four-faced chiming clock in the world and is the third-tallest free-standing clock tower.

Completed in 1858 presumably as a vertical tower, it is now tilting as a result of the excavations for the Jubilee Line Extension and the construction of Westminster tube station in the late 1990s. The tower’s tilt has increased an additional 0.9 mm each year since 2003, and the tilt can now be seen by the naked eye.

Big Ben
Big Ben

Westminster Abbey has been the setting for every Coronation since 1066 and for numerous other royal occasions, including sixteen royal weddings. Let’s go visit!

Westminster Abbey, Royal Entrance
Westminster Abbey, Royal Entrance

The Coronation Chair was made for King Edward I to enclose the famous Stone of Scone, which he brought from Scotland to the Abbey in 1296, where he placed it in the care of the Abbot of Westminster. The King had a magnificent oaken chair made to contain the Stone in 1300-l, painted by Master Walter and decorated with patterns of birds, foliage and animals on a gilt ground. The figure of a king, either Edward the Confessor or Edward I, his feet resting on a lion, was painted on the back. The four gilt lions below were made in 1727 to replace the originals, which were themselves not added to the Chair until the early 16th century. The Stone was originally totally enclosed under the seat but over the centuries the wooden decoration has been torn away from the front. At coronations the Chair with the Stone stands facing the High Altar. Every monarch has been crowned in this chair since Edward II in 1308, except Edward V and Edward VIII, who were not crowned. At the joint coronation of William III and Mary II in 1689 a special chair was made for Mary, which is now in the Abbey Museum. The Chair was taken out of the Abbey when Oliver Cromwell was installed upon it as Lord Protector in Westminster Hall. It was used by Queen Victoria at the 1887 Golden Jubilee Services in the Abbey. During the Second World War the Chair was evacuated to Gloucester Cathedral and the Stone was secretly buried in the Abbey. Most of the graffiti on the back part of the Chair is the result of Westminster schoolboys and visitors carving their names in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Chair was kept in the Chapel of St Edward the Confessor for many centuries until that chapel was closed to general visitors in 1997. In February 1998 the Chair was moved out to the ambulatory and raised on a modern pedestal near the tomb of Henry V. In April 2010 it was moved to a specially built enclosure within St Georges Chapel at the west end of the Nave for essential conservation work and can currently be viewed there.

Marie-Louise Sauerberg of the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the University of Cambridge doing conservation work on the coronation chair at Westminster Abbey
Marie-Louise Sauerberg of the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the University of Cambridge doing conservation work on the coronation chair at Westminster Abbey

An architectural masterpiece of the 13th to 16th centuries, Westminster Abbey also presents a unique pageant of British history – the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, the tombs of kings and queens, and countless memorials to the famous and the great.

From the Middle Ages, aristocrats were buried inside chapels, while monks and other people associated with the abbey were buried in the cloisters and other areas. One of these was Geoffrey Chaucer, who was buried here as he had apartments in the abbey where he was employed as master of the King’s Works. Other poets, writers and musicians were buried or memorialized around Chaucer in what became known as Poets’ Corner. Abbey musicians such as Henry Purcell were also buried in their place of work.

Subsequently, it became one of Britain’s most significant honours to be buried or commemorated in the abbey. The practice of burying national figures in the Abbey began under Oliver Cromwell with the burial of Admiral Robert Blake in 1657. The practice spread to include generals, admirals, politicians, doctors and scientists such as Isaac Newton, buried on 4 April 1727, and Charles Darwin, buried 26 April 1882. Another was William Wilberforce, the man who abolished slavery in the United Kingdom and the Plantations, who was buried on 3 August 1833. Wilberforce was buried in the north transept, close to his friend, the former Prime Minister, William Pitt.

George Frederic Handel is buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey, near the Poets’ Corner.

The works that associate Handel most closely with Westminster Abbey are the four anthems written for the coronation of George II in 1727. The best known, ‘Zadok the Priest’, has been used at every coronation since then, but all four continue to be regularly performed and recorded. Handel also wrote an anthem, ‘The ways of Zion do mourn’, for the funeral of Queen Caroline (George II’s consort) who was buried in the Abbey in December 1737.

A less well-known link between Handel and the Abbey involves Esther, the composer’s first oratorio, performed privately at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand in 1732 under the direction of Bernard Gates. Gates was Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, but he was also a long-standing member of the Abbey’s choir and had assembled a number of his Westminster colleagues to sing in the chorus.

Three days before his death in 1759 Handel signed a codicil to his will saying he hoped he might be buried in the Abbey and desired that his executor erect a monument for him. The funeral was attended by about 3,000 people including King George II, and the choirs of the Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Chapel Royal sang the service.

On the wall above his grave is a fine monument by the sculptor Louis Francois Roubiliac. The life-size statue, unveiled in 1762, is said to be an exact likeness as the face was modelled from a death mask. Behind the figure, among clouds, is an organ with an angel playing a harp. On the left of the statue is a group of musical instruments and an open score of his most well-known oratorio Messiah, composed in 1741.

Westminster Abbey, Monument to George Frederic Handel in the south transept
Westminster Abbey, Monument to George Frederic Handel in the south transept
Westminster Abbey, Monument to George Frederic Handel in the south transept, detail
Westminster Abbey, Monument to George Frederic Handel in the south transept, detail

Handel’s statue has now a new index finger on his left hand. It got fitted the day we were there.

William Shakespeare was buried in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon in Warwickshire and it was not until 1741 that a memorial statue to him was erected in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Shortly after Shakespeare’s death there was some talk about removing his remains from Stratford to the Abbey but the idea was soon abandoned.

Westminster Abbey, Shakespeare monument
Westminster Abbey, Shakespeare monument

The life-size white marble statue, shown in the dress of his period and wearing a cloak, was erected by the 3rd Earl of Burlington (Richard Boyle), Dr Richard Mead, Alexander Pope and Tom Martin. The monument was designed by William Kent and executed by Peter Scheemakers, and both signed it, with the date 1740. The Dean and Chapter of Westminster charged no fee for its erection.
The carved heads of Queen Elizabeth I, Henry V and Richard III appear on the base of a pedestal. The figure of the poet, about 5 feet 6 inches in height, stands with his right leg crossed in front of his left, leaning his elbow on a pile of three books (they have no titles). A chaplet (wreath of bays, signifying immortality) with a dagger (symbol of tragedy) and a dramatic mask are also shown above the head of Richard III. The group is in front of a pedimented architectural frame. William’s left hand index finger points to a scroll hanging from the pedestal on which are painted a variant of Prospero’s lines from The Tempest:

The Cloud capt Tow’rs,
The Gorgeous Palaces,
The Solemn Temples,
The Great Globe itself,
Yea all which it Inherit,
Shall Dissolve;
And like the baseless Fabrick of a Vision
Leave not a wreck behind.

Westminster Abbey, Memorials in Poets' Corner
Westminster Abbey, Memorials in Poets’ Corner

A small stone with a simple inscription marks the grave of Charles Dickens, famous English novelist, in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey:
CHARLES DICKENS
BORN 7th FEBRUARY 1812
DIED 9th JUNE 1870

This was at his own wish. He wrote in his will “that my name be inscribed in plain English letters on my tomb… I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works…”. Dickens died at his house, Gad’s Hill Place, near Rochester in Kent and it was presumed that he would be buried at Rochester Cathedral. But public opinion, led by The Times newspaper, demanded that Westminster Abbey was the only place for the burial of someone of his distinction. Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Dean of Westminster, after being approached by John Forster and the poet’s son, readily agreed and the funeral was strictly private, following Dickens’ own instructions.

Only twelve mourners attended, made up of family and close friends, together with the Abbey clergy. So Dickens was buried in the almost empty and silent Abbey, the funeral service from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer being read by the Dean. On the top of the plain coffin was laid a wreath of ferns and roses, with single red and white roses down each side and a circle of white roses at the foot. The coffin-plate inscription was the same as that inscribed on the stone. Each year on the anniversary of Dickens’ birth a wreath is laid on the grave.

No one knows exactly when the first church was built on this site, but it was well over a thousand years ago. At that time, this area was a swampy and inhospitable place on the outskirts of London. The church stood on an island called Thorney Island, surrounded by tributaries from the Thames. There are various myths and legends to explain its origin. One story says that King Sebert (died 616 CE), king of the East Saxons, founded the church in 604. The monks in the 14th century were so impressed with this idea that they exhumed what they thought were Sebert’s bones from the cloisters and reburied them in a place of honour by the high altar. However, in 2003 archaeologists found what they now believe is the king’s grave miles away in Essex! A lot of these stories claiming ancient origin were embellished by the monks partly to establish that their abbey – the west minster, or church – was older than St Paul’s Cathedral – the east minster.

Legends apart, in 960 Dunstan, the bishop of London, brought twelve Benedictine monks from Glastonbury to found a monastery at Westminster. One hundred years later King Edward, who was known as ‘the Confessor’ because he led a particularly holy life, founded his church on the site.

In the 1040s King Edward (later St Edward the Confessor) established his royal palace by the banks of the river on Thorney Island. Edward chose to re-endow and greatly enlarge the Benedictine monastery, building a large stone church in honour of St Peter the Apostle. Unfortunately, when the new church was consecrated on 28 December 1065 the King was too ill to attend and died a few days later. His mortal remains were entombed in front of the High Altar.

The only traces of Edward’s monastery to be seen today are in the round arches and massive supporting columns of the undercroft and the Pyx Chamber in the cloisters. The undercroft now houses the Abbey Museum but was originally part of the domestic quarters of the monks. Among the most significant ceremonies that occurred in the Abbey at this period was the coronation of William the Conqueror on Christmas day 1066, and the “translation” or moving of King Edward’s body to a new tomb a few years after his canonisation in 1161.

Edward’s Abbey survived for two centuries until the middle of the 13th century when King Henry III decided to rebuild it in the new Gothic style of architecture. It was a great age for cathedrals: in France it saw the construction of Amiens, Evreux and Chartres and in England Canterbury, Winchester and Salisbury, to mention a few. Under the decree of the King of England, Westminster Abbey was designed to be not only a great monastery and place of worship, but also a place for the coronation and burial of monarchs. This church was consecrated on 13 October 1269. Unfortunately the king died before the nave could be completed so the older structure stood attached to the Gothic building for many years.

Every monarch since William the Conqueror has been crowned in the Abbey, with the exception of Edward V and Edward VIII who were never crowned. It was natural that Henry III should wish to translate the body of the saintly Edward the Confessor into a more magnificent tomb behind the High Altar.

Westminster Abbey, High Altar
Westminster Abbey, High Altar
Westminster Abbey, High Altar Floor, Detail
Westminster Abbey, High Altar Floor, Detail

This shrine survives and around it are buried a cluster of medieval kings and their consorts including Henry III, Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, Richard II and Anne of Bohemia and Henry V. The Abbey contains over 600 monuments and wall tablets – the most important collection of monumental sculpture anywhere in the country – and over three thousand people are buried here. Notable among these is the Unknown Warrior, whose grave, close to the west door, has become a place of pilgrimage. Heads of State who are visiting the country invariably come to lay a wreath at this grave.

A remarkable new addition to the Abbey was the glorious Lady chapel built by King Henry VII, first of the Tudor monarchs, which now bears his name.

Westminster Abbey, Lady Chapel
Westminster Abbey, Lady Chapel

The Lady Chapel was begun in 1503 and constructed at the expense of Henry VII. It is the last great masterpiece of English medieval architecture. In 1545 John Leland called it “the wonder of the entire world”. Unfortunately the names of the master masons who designed it are not known but they were possibly Robert Janyns and William Vertue. The chapel is approached by a flight of stairs and at the entrance are finely wrought bronze gates displaying royal Tudor emblems.

The outstanding feature of the chapel is the spectacular fan-vaulted roof with its carved pendants.

Westminster Abbey, Detail of the eastern part of the vaulted roof of the Lady Chapel
Westminster Abbey, Detail of the eastern part of the vaulted roof of the Lady Chapel

Around the walls are 95 statues of saints. Behind the altar is the tomb of Henry VII and his queen Elizabeth of York. The bronze screen around it is by Thomas Ducheman and the gilt bronze effigies and Renaissance tomb were designed by Italian Pietro Torrigiano. James I is also buried in the vault beneath the monument.

In 1725 the chapel was first used for installations of Knights of the Order of the Bath and the heraldic banners of living knights hang above the oak stalls. Beneath the hinged seats of the stalls are beautifully carved misericords.

The painting of the Virgin and Child, ‘Madonna of the Cherries’, on the altar is by Bartolomeo Vivarini (Venetian School, about 1480). It was presented to the Abbey by Lord Lee of Fareham in 1935 to adorn the new altar of the Lady Chapel.

Westminster Abbey,  Painting Over the Altar Henry VII Chapel, Vivarini Madonna of the Cherries 1480
Westminster Abbey,
Painting Over the Altar Henry VII Chapel,
Vivarini Madonna of the Cherries 1480

For something different, let’s take on something our own size next!

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey

2 thoughts on “Flying High”

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