Pilgrimage to Westminster

Westminster Abbey programme

The Westminster Abbey programme

When without a date for Valentine’s Day last week and in need of solace, I decided to seek comfort by joining my college’s pilgrimage to Westminster Abbey. Well – actually I saw the opportunity to see the shrine of Edward the Confessor advertised at the back of last Sunday’s chapel service booklet and thought it was too good an opportunity to miss. Even if it involved a lot of awkwardness on my part, since I didn’t know half of the group, didn’t know the other half beyond names and faces, and was the only person whom the chaplain had not met before.

We travelled to London on the Oxford Tube, broke fast at Pret à Manger a little way past Westminster Cathedral, and walked a little further to Westminster Abbey. The Dean John Hall met us inside the Abbey and led us to the chapel of St. Faith. The chapel was quite plain architecturally compared to the nave outside, and the only embellishment of note were the murals above the altar: a mural depicting St. Faith herself holding her attribute of the rack – on which she was tortured to death – with a monk praying to her at her bottom right, and a rectangular panel painting below. At the centre of the bottom panel was a crucifixion scene, said to be the finest of its kind in northern Europe in its period of the late 13th century.

As well as introducing to us the art in the room, the Dean also told us a brief history of the chapel, the Abbey, Edward the Confessor, and the association of Edward the Confessor – whose shrine we were due to visit – with the Abbey. The chapel was a store-room until recent decades, and most of the floor dates to the 19th century, except the raised platform around the altar, which is contemporary with the mural. The chapel is now used for morning prayers.

The Abbey was previously a monastery founded in 960, and c.1040 was rebuilt in the Romanesque style and consecrated by Edward the Confessor, who was buried in the Abbey and canonised in 1161. Edward the Confessor undertook the building works in lieu of making a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which he had promised to do but could not once he became king. The current Gothic style architecture is the work of Henry III. All English and British monarchs from Harold Godwinson onwards were crowned here, and four are now buried around Edward the Confessor, including Edward I, Richard II, and Henry III.

Even Henry VIII did not bear to dissolve the institution, turning it from an abbey to a cathedral in 1540. However this did not ensure the safety of the relics of Edward the Confessor, which had been reburied in a secret location in the Abbey after Henry’s decision to dissolve England’s monasteries 5 years before. And that location might have been lost to history if those monks had never returned, but luckily, Mary I changed the Cathedral back into an Abbey and the monks came back and reburied the relics in its original location. And here the relics remained, though no longer in an Abbey but in the ‘Collegiate Church of St. Peter’ as of the reign of Elizabeth I.

The cult of Edward the Confessor had declined after the reign of Henry III, but he was still important as a founder of the Abbey, if not as a saint. To visit his shrine, which we did so after a Eucharist service in the Chapel of St. Faith, we walked up wooden steps – I thought in my ignorance that we’d have to descend into a crypt – near one of my favourite monuments in the building – that of General Wolfe, Conqueror of Quebec. But I should go on to describe the shrine before I get distracted by the majesty of the Wolfe monument. On one side of the shrine were sculpted figures, seemingly of saints, gesturing below, perhaps to direct our gaze at the shrine. On the other side was an altar and facing that a screen with a sculpted relief frieze at the top. The shrine itself was a three-tiered edifice, the bottom level of which had 6 niches on either of its long sides, for pilgrims to kneel inside and pray in. All around and within the niches themselves were decorative patterns carved in relief, and no two niches were identical. Some elements are missing, but the shrine is surprisingly intact, considering the fact that it was built at the behest of Henry III so long ago in the 13th century.

We had lunch in the Wesley café of the Methodist Central Hall. For which I was secretly glad since I’d passed it many times and had always wanted to enter, but had not because I had never seen anyone go in or out of the building. An aptly named café not only because John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist movement, but also because he first preached in Oxford and his first meeting house stood on the site of my college’s accommodation complex. There was a post-lunch quiz to which I learnt a lot and was glad to have been at least able to contribute one answer to for my team, and time to have a look inside the auditorium. The interior does not reflect the grand baroque style of the exterior, and the ceiling – to my disappointment – did not recede higher and higher into a square cupola but was flat, boxing in the room and perhaps not giving the room its full acoustic potential. But I should not have judged so quickly, since I then overheard from a guide that pop stars performed here! We attended evensong in the Abbey – not in the evening but at the strange time of 3pm – before heading back to Oxford, which incidentally is near where Edward the Confessor was born. Happily exhausted and leaving my work aside, I decided to keep the day as a true day of rest.

Five facts I learnt after the pilgrimage to Westminster:

  1. The only surviving representation of the Abbey as it was in the time of Edward the Confessor is in the Bayeux Tapestry.
  2. The screen with the frieze in the area where the shrine of Edward the Confessor is depicts scenes from his life.
  3. Edward got his epithet ‘the Confessor’ because he was a saint but not a martyr.
  4. The Methodist Central Hall was where Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was first performed in public. Andrew’s father William was the Musical Director there.
  5. The First Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly was held in the Methodist Central Hall in 1946.
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