In today’s blog I hope to give an accurate account of my recent visit to the Collegiate Church of St Peter, or as its commonly known: Westminster Abbey, and in particular my experience of being very kindly invited to enter the Chapel of Edward the Confessor.
Edward was a very pious King who died on 5th January 1066. His remains were buried in the shrine on 13 October 1066. However, it was not until 1161 that Pope Alexander III officially canonized him as a Saint and Confessor.
The first thing that struck me was the unevenness of the floor, and upon discussing it with the guide, he pulled back a small section of the protective covering to reveal the most amazing Cosmati paving which was commissioned by Henry III and laid by Italian workmen who were lead by Pietro di Odersio in 1269.
The floor was painstaking crafted according to Westminster Abbey’s website by “using small precious stones such as onxy and porphyry on a base of dark limestone known as Purbeck marble.” In fact, when the shrine was complete, Pietro or Peter was mentioned on the Latin inscription around the ledge of the Edward’s Shrine. It reads:
“In the thousandth year of the Lord, with the seventieth and twice hundredth with the tenth (1269) more or less complete this work was made which Peter the Roman citizen brought to completion. O man, if you wish to know the cause, the king was Henry, the friend of the present saint”.
The floor has retained its vivid colour 748 years after being completed and I felt an enormous amount of privilege to be looking at, and touching the floor, on which so many illustrious Kings and Queens have trod before me. The floor was last completely uncovered in September 2012 to be assessed for repairs, and has in fact only had its protective covering removed a handful of times in the last 100 years.
Those who know me will recognise that I am not a person who remains speechless for long, but on being in such close proximity to the resting places of five Kings and four Queens I was quite literally at a loss for words. Those buried within the Chapel are Edward the Confessor himself and his wife Edith of Wessex, Henry III, Edward I and his wife Queen Eleanor of Castile, Edward III and his wife Philippa of Hainault, Richard II and his wife Anne of Bohemia and Henry V.
Every single one of the above monarchs and consorts has played a massive part in seismically altering the shape of our country and it was surreal to be standing in such a place with my own thoughts of their lives, their struggles, their victories and their failures.
The next thing to fascinate me was the mid 15th century Chapel screen, which hides the Chapel from the High Altar and the Sanctuary. On either side of the screen are two doors, which both have two pear shape holes cut into them at eye level.
As I peeked through the hole I was looking out from a unique vantage point at the high altar where Sovereigns of the past have prostrated themselves on the floor before God during their coronations. In fact every monarch since 1066, apart from Edward V (disappeared) and Edward VIII (abdicated), was crowned 50 feet from where I was standing. Royal couples, most recently HRH Prince William and Catherine Middleton, solemnised their marriages in that very space but of course, they are not the only couple to be married in the Abbey. Other examples include HRH The Duke of York and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923, and HRH Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947.
Perhaps for me though, the most moving and emotional part of the whole experience was to be moving in the same space as Queen Anne Boleyn did at her own coronation on 1 June 1533. It was at the Shrine of Edward the Confessor that a pregnant Queen Anne made an offering at the altar to the Saint after her own crowning and anointing.
Did she gaze at the splendour or stumble on the unevenness of the Cosmati pavement? Did she experience a sense of awe at being in the presence of such exalted company? Or did she pause for a moment, look through the door in the screen and wonder how a simple knight’s daughter had become Queen of England.
I am so grateful and humble to have had such a truly amazing experience and to have spent even just a few minutes in a place where the emotion of history feels like it is seeping out of the walls at you.