A Vast Unfinished Universe
“All human things are subject to decay, and, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey.”
What can ye boast of this illustrious sepulchre? A vast unfinished poem of marble, stone and glass? The ultimate majestic scene with all its crowning grandeur? Or an improper indulgence of Elgar and Bach? Recover the calm in this world of tombs, Down consecrated aisles, vaulted, dark and winding, Lest the echoes of our footsteps strike the ear Through shadows lengthening and resounding. Aye, a serious walk of High Seriousness In noiseless and pensive reverence, Measured, as in another world, In corners of fabled severance: Why boast of kings, when giants of science Deign to challenge eternal law? Knaves banished to the nave. This ain’t honour, this is war! Let’s hear it for Baron Mendip Welbore Ellis, Last of the ministers for Over There, Forlorn hope for the funny little mannikin, Tea and rebellion in the air. Need a sincere virtue signal? Tears for fears that make one weak? Amongst the specious and unmeaning, Here the marble seems to speak … Take pity on the stricken husband, Fending off the sting of Death. Reader, if you seek great art, Dem bones will leave you out of breath. Praise be to Esther de la Tour de Gouvernet. Her gravestone will alone enchant: Daughter, widow, and refugee Of the revocation of the edict of Nantes. More bones, and think how many, Epic queens and mighty kings. Hallowed, honoured, leading statesmen, Now just naked moulderings. A big hand for the soul of Hardy. Is his heart in the right place? May we tease him, while we’re at it, That he hoarded Henry’s space? Hats off to old Salopian Parr, His spirit and senses overdue, Buried in the town that finally killed him, Lived to a hundred and fifty-two. Respect to Mary Eleanor Bowes, Botanist, poet, sad countess, Standing up for female fortune, Lying in her bridal dress. A quick shout-out to Cloudesley Shovell, Dandy on a cushion with a seafaring life. Lived on a Sapphire, died for an emerald, Murdered on a rock by a fisherman’s wife. As we leave our fine society, This sacred train of dreamers of dreams, A floating canopy pervades And softly dims the lucid themes: Dust of Armageddon on mysterious mosaics. Dust of Man that dust is, eddies in the troubled air. Dust of heroes, common dust, royal dust to grace the dust, Dust of ages, dust to dust, dust of hymn and prayer. The precious poets of the past pelt you with a peaceful dust, With ghostly pleas of sanctuary from dusty old remains. Reanimated falling dust, and sacred atoms of the dust. Here sleeps more immortal dust than all the world contains. Gothic melancholic gloom in towers, vaults and atmosphere, Vanity is thawing in the silent city founded here, Yet on the western front of the Empire of the Dead There lies a path of glory … where even angels fear to tread.
Westminster Abbey is one of the world’s greatest churches. Here religion meets royalty. As the coronation church, where monarchs have been crowned since 1066, it has many kings and queens buried within its walls. Indeed, it is something of a national necropolis. There are over 3,300 tombs here, including many famous names from British history, and they are often grouped together in themes known as ‘cluster burials.’
Of all the sensor points along the Soul City Wandering trail, Westminster Abbey is easily the most obtrusive. Arthur Machen, an early exponent of the theory of psychogeography, noted reservations about utilising such prominent places in his 1924 book, The London Adventure: ‘I have grave difficulties over Westminster Abbey. Perhaps because the Abbey has been the text for so many discourses because it is one of the great commonplaces of England.’
It is precisely because it is commonplace that I have included the abbey as an example of what may be experienced at such an obvious site. Indeed, as Machen states later in his book, ‘the most amazing things are latent in the commonest’.
Recovering the Calm
The generally respectful atmosphere inside the abbey is largely a result of a 1998 initiative introduced by the dean and chapter entitled ‘Recovering the Calm’. There is a touch of irony here because, in medieval and early modern times, huge city churches such as this would have been anything but calm. The noise levels in the nave area would have been increased by the lively day-to-day interaction of the local social and business communities that would have taken advantage of such a sizeable covered area and treated it much like a marketplace.
The example of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral is well documented. Even in medieval times it was a focus of information sharing. Indeed, the nineteenth-century historian Thomas Carlyle described it as the ‘Times newspaper of the Middle Ages’.
As the centuries progressed, the interior became a thoroughfare as locals used its transepts as a shortcut. It soon developed as a place to trade. Indoor market stalls were set up, some using tombs as handy counters. Horses and mules brought goods through while services continued to take place. The aisles were populated by barbers, blacksmiths and booksellers. The first public lottery was held here. The seventeenth-century diarist Samuel Pepys mentions that bowls were played and teeth pulled. There were checks when situations escalated. Signs went up ordering no wrestling and no urinating. Prostitutes who plied their trade at the Great West Door were moved on, and a bishop threatened to excommunicate anyone who played football.
The nave in St Paul’s was the networking hub, known as ‘Paul’s Walk’ or ‘the Mediterranean’. It became the place to hang around with your friends, to socialise and to gossip, the idling commentators known as ‘Paul’s Walkers’. Alexander Pope’s line ‘For fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ is a direct reference to this apparent folly.
It seems to me that reverence shown by today’s visitors at both the abbey and St Paul’s derives less from their purpose as places of worship and more from their function as VIP Valhallas. Anyhow, ‘A Vast Unfinished Universe’ explores the lesser-known nooks, crannies and oddities within the abbey that pique my curiosity, ending in homage to its most prominent, yet most anonymous occupant, the unknown soldier.
(On the north side of the nave, just before the rood screen.)
Scientists’ Corner, it may be noted, occupies a space in the nave, right ‘outside’ the rood screen: a physical and symbolic barrier that separated the laity from the sacred part of the church. It may be seen as a psychological power play, therefore, that men who challenge God end up so marginalised.
I remember an irreverent scene of preparation before physicist Stephen Hawking’s ashes were interred here in 2018. Next to a rickety old wheelbarrow, a large man in a hi-vis vest knelt on the floor, smoothing the insides of a newly excavated hole with a trowelful of cement. However, in the act of leaning forward, he revealed a rather dark and hairy ‘builder’s bum’. I was strangely reminded of Hawking’s theory of black holes emitting radiation, a theme depicted on his memorial stone.
Baron Mendip Welbore Ellis
(No dedicated gravestone. A mention of his resting place is buried in a long inscription on the monument to his nephew Charles Agar, Archbishop of Dublin, on the north wall of the north quire aisle, just inside the blue gates.)
First Baron Mendip Welbore Ellis was the last government minister to represent America under British rule. He strongly protested against Lord North’s motion for the repeal of the American tea duty in 1770. The commentator Junius referred to him as a ‘little mannikin’, while Horace Walpole nicknamed him ‘Forlorn Hope.’
Nightingale (Gascoigne) Monument
(St Michael’s Chapel in the north transept, parallel to the high altar.)
The Nightingale monument tells the tragic story of Elizabeth Gascoigne, Lady Nightingale, who died in 1731 aged twenty-seven. Heavily pregnant, Lady Nightingale was out walking one day with her husband Joseph when she was fatally struck by lightning. In her death throes, she gave birth to a daughter who survived.
Their son Washington commissioned the French sculptor Roubiliac to carve this marble monument in 1761. In the early models, the skeletal leg of Death is glimpsed creeping from the underworld. In the final rendition, Death has fully leapt out and now brandishes a spear, representing the bolt of lightning, which is pointed directly at Elizabeth. Meanwhile, her husband helplessly tries to ward off the inevitable.
The American writer Washington Irving found the sculpture horrific but claimed it was ‘among the most renowned achievements of modern art’. A cursory study of the skeletal details or the folds of cloth on Lady Nightingale’s dress makes it hard to disagree.
(White marble gravestone on the floor of the north ambulatory.)
In the north ambulatory lies the richly inscribed marble gravestone of Lady Elland. The inscription, re-spelt, reads:
Esther de la Tour de Gouvernet, a name renowned in France, and which her excellent endowments of mind and body rendered much more illustrious, was the best of wives and soon the widow of the most noble Lord Elland, eldest son of the Marquis of Halifax. Her extraordinary goodness towards all, her singular dutifulness to her parents made her beloved of all, but by her mother above all. Her soul thus adorned with heavenly graces, she early resigned to heaven and her body to this tomb which her mother, herself almost buried in sorrows as the least mark of her unspeakable grief, made for her. She died the 28th year of her age of the Christian account 1694.
A lower inscription tells us she was the daughter of Huguenot refugees who had fled France in 1685 after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. This revocation was issued by Louis XIV of France. It denied Huguenots the right to practise their religion, which had been originally been granted to them in 1598.
(Square beige stone on the south transept floor of Poets’ Corner.)
Poets’ Corner marks the burial place of the illustrious writer and poet Thomas Hardy. After his death, his heart was surgically removed with the intention of it being buried in his garden in his beloved Wessex. A rumour persists that his cat ate it while it was awaiting burial.
In 1911, Hardy wrote a poem called ‘The Coronation’. It is themed around an imagined conversation held by the monarchs who are buried in Westminster Abbey. The main contributor to this afterlife discussion is Henry VIII. The problem with this is that this particular monarch is buried in Windsor Castle.
(Small white oblong stone on the south transept floor of Poets’ Corner.)
Born in 1483, Shropshireman Thomas Parr was said to have lived to the ripest old age of 152. The inscription on his memorial stone claims he saw the reigns of ten monarchs from Edward IV to Charles I, in which case he outlived the entire Tudor dynasty.
According to various legends, Parr fathered a child when he was over a hundred and married for the last time aged 120. His long life he put down to eating well and drinking beer and sherry. When he died in 1635, according to the diarist John Evelyn, it was not from extreme old age, but owing to the foul stench of the London air.
‘Old Parr’ is mentioned in Dickens’s Dombey and Son and The Old Curiosity Shop, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and the Robert Graves poem ‘A Country Mansion’. He also had his portrait painted by the Dutch painter Rubens.
Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore
(Well-worn black gravestone on the south transept floor of Poets’ Corner. Immediately to the left of the memorial stone to Thomas Parr.)
Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess Dowager of Strathmore, was once the wealthiest heiress in Britain. Referred to as the Unhappy Countess, she was notorious for her licentious lifestyle. After her first husband, John Lyon, 9th Earl of Strathmore, died at sea, Mary married an adventurer called Andrew Stoney. After years of physical and mental abuse from him, she became the first British woman to successfully sue for divorce and keep her property.
A poet and passionate naturalist, Mary corresponded with the great plant collectors of the day, including Joseph Banks and William Paterson. Indeed, she was once described by surgeon Jesse Foot as ‘the most intelligent female botanist of the age’.
Mary died in 1800 at the age of fifty-one. She was buried in her diamond-encrusted bridal dress with courtly accessories and a small silver trumpet. She is a direct ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II.
(Worn black gravestone on the floor in Poets’ Corner. Opposite Dryden’s monument.)
This tomb has an indent of a lost brass of a knight in armour. A nineteenth-century inscription notes, ‘Robert Hawle, Knight. Murdered in the choir. August 1378.’
A further Latin inscription on the grave, now lost, was recorded in 1600. Roughly translated, it read:
The false anger of the mob and raging swords of soldiers did for me in this renowned refuge of piety, while the priest read mass at the altar. Alas, in my death throes, the faces of the monks were splattered with my blood. The Quire is my witness forever. And now this sanctuary holds me, because it was here that I, the innocent Robert Haule, felt the first sword of death.
In the 1370s, as a result of an English military victory in Castile, Spain, Robert Hauley and his colleague John Shakel held the lucrative ransom rights of the Count of Denia. However, King Richard II and his uncle John of Gaunt, who was trying to claim the Castilian crown, demanded the hostage be handed over to them. Hauley and Shakel refused and were imprisoned in the Tower.
A year later, they escaped and made a plea for sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. In medieval times fugitives could evade their pursuers by seeking refuge in certain sacred buildings. By law they were immune to arrest and entitled to the protection of the church for a period of time. The abbey’s western precinct is still recorded on a street sign as ‘The Sanctuary.’
The abbot refused to give up Hauley and Shakel. So, in order to capture them, fifty armed men led by the constable of the Tower of London forced their way into the abbey during a mass. Shakel surrendered, but Hauley resisted, and the soldiers surrounded him at the altar and cut him down with swords, also killing a monk in the process. As a result of this shocking incident, the constable was excommunicated and the abbey had to be reconsecrated.
(Monument on south quire aisle wall, to right of south-eastern door to cloisters.)
Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell was an English naval commander who once captained the ship HMS Sapphire. In 1707, the fleet that he commanded was wrecked off the Scilly Isles with the loss of nearly 1,500 souls. The disaster was probably precipitated by the fact that the navigational tables he was using were full of errors. The admiral was washed up alive but, according to legend, was killed by a local woman who was after the emerald ring on his finger.
Shovell’s monument was sculpted by Grinling Gibbons in 1708. The Westmonasterium is an early eighteenth-century study of the abbey’s tombs and monuments by the Reverend John Dart. In it, Dart criticised the memorial to Shovell, saying it reminded him of a ‘figure of a Beau, reposing himself against velvet cushions’.
Not far from the abbey, another image of Shovell can be found in a pub sign at Charing Cross. Some time ago, the Ship, which dates back to 1730, merged with the pub opposite named after the admiral. Now, the Ship & Shovell sits uniquely split over two sides of Craven Passage. It is said to have been Benjamin Franklin’s local.
As a place for reposing officers, the Royal Navy is well served by the abbey. The Navy’s most famous hero, Lord Nelson, understood its impact on the psyche of his men when he rallied them with the battle cry, ‘Westminster Abbey or victory.’ Despite this, Nelson was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.
In the same year that Nelson was laid to rest, 1806, a life-size wax effigy of him was installed in the abbey as a counterattraction. Dressed in his genuine uniform, it’s the only wax effigy in the abbey of someone who is not actually buried there.
(On the floor of the main altar.)
A mysterious mosaic interset with ancient precious stones. In 1258, the abbot of Westminster returned from a trip to Rome with a family of Italian craftsmen named Cosmati. He commissioned them to design and create this pavement.
At the time it was being laid, there was an ecclesiastical crisis. As a result of the Crusades to the Holy Land, there had been a rediscovery of the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. He had once taught that everything relates to a ‘first cause’ or prime mover (an early ‘Big Bang’ theory?). Some medieval minds believed Aristotle made more sense than Christian doctrine. The thirteenth-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas argued that the prime mover was God, thus assimilating Aristotelian thought with Christian beliefs.
It is claimed the Cosmati mosaic depicts the known universe of the thirteenth century. It is also said to predict the end of the world, according to a formula in its inscription, after 19,683 years. A very similar floor design features in Holbein’s compelling Ambassadors portrait in the National Gallery.
(Tomb on the floor at the western end of the church, just inside the entrance.)
The body of the unknown soldier was interred here on Armistice Day, 11 November, in 1920. It represents all soldiers missing in action, presumed dead.
After World War I had ended, a padre on the Western Front discovered a burial place in the yard of a French house dedicated to ‘an unknown warrior’. He took the idea to the dean of Westminster Abbey. An unidentified Allied soldier who had been killed during World War I was chosen at random from a number of bodies by a general who had been blinded in action. The body was placed in an English oak coffin and shipped back to Britain in a Royal Navy battleship.
The soldier was given a full state funeral – the only (presumed) commoner to get one. A team of horses that had survived the war together pulled the funeral carriage. The guard of honour was a hundred men who had been awarded the Victoria Cross and a hundred women whose husbands had been listed as missing in action. A quarter of a million people filed past the coffin before it was set in the tomb – the last body buried in the abbey.
The soldier lies with a medieval sword from the royal collection. The coffin is entombed in French soil and covered by a slab of Belgian marble. The brass inscription, made from recast ammunition shells, states that the soldier is British, although he could be of any nationality then allied to the British forces. The tomb is surrounded by poppies – the hardy flower that grew amongst the mud and blood on the Western Front. The Medal of Honor was awarded to the unknown soldier on behalf of the USA in 1921. In 1923, the Queen Mother placed a wedding bouquet on the tomb. She lost a brother during World War I. Brides at Westminster Abbey have placed their bouquets on the tomb ever since.
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