A secret attic room in London’s Westminster Abbey has opened to the public for the first time in 700 years. And it’s packed full of treasures.
Built in the 13th century, the 900-square-metre space has been cleared of centuries of dust in order to display 300 prized objects – many of them never seen before – from the abbey’s 1,000-year history. Until now, the abbey’s medieval triforium, or attic space, has been used mostly for storage, but the Dean of Westminster, Very Rev. Dr. John Hall, was able to look beyond the cobwebs and clutter and see opportunity.
With permission from the Queen herself, Dr. Hall fundraised £22.9-million (nearly $40-million) from private donors to turn the triforium into galleries that would provide the abbey’s more than two million annual visitors with even more to explore. Opening to visitors June 11, the space lets the public gain a brand new perspective on the abbey as a working church and a living emblem of England’s rich and riveting history.
This perspective can be vertiginous at times. Look out the flower-shaped windows and you’ll see grotesques cavorting along the buttresses, with the Houses of Parliament in the distance. Gaze down from the balcony into the abbey’s nave, and you’ll feel as giddy as the Queen probably did during her 1953 coronation, or how Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge likely felt during their wedding in 2011. It’s from this vantage point that both events were filmed, and it’s very probably the best view in all of London.
However, it’s the inside of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries that provides the most visual interest. Objects are positioned around the galleries according to their sensitivity to incoming sunbeams. They range from the divine (carvings of holy saints) to the indecent (Elizabeth I’s funeral corset), and from the morbid (a stone coffin jutting out of the wall, with an unidentified skeleton inside) to the mundane (a monk’s shoe found under the floorboards). The more delicate, light-sensitive objects are tucked into shadowy niches or shrouded by smelly leather curtains.
The contemplative mood is gilded by the coruscating light streaming in from stained-glass windows and occasional murmurs of sung prayers that drift up from the abbey floor. The thoughtful, dignified installation of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries is a sublime way for a space of such splendour to be brought back to life after its 700-year slumber.
Six key objects
Detail of Christ holding an orb, from the Westminster Retable, 1259-69
The Westminster Retable is the oldest surviving altarpiece in England. Measuring three-by-11 feet – about the size of two twin mattresses stacked end to end – it is made of oak and was once decorated with oil paint, inlaid with dazzling blue lapis lazuli and studded with 1,250 imitation gems. And it was almost forgotten, painted over and repurposed as the ceiling of a cupboard used to store wax funeral effigies in the 18th century. It took six years of conservation work to remove centuries of filth from the panels, which revealed this detail of Christ blessing and cradling an orb representing the world in his left hand – one of the very first instances of Salvator Mundi (Latin for “Saviour of the World”) iconography in the history of Western art. The orb, no bigger than a loonie, contains the earthly realm in its entirety: the sun, moon and stars hang together in a cloudy sky, birds and beasts move among palm trees swaying in a breeze, and a boat navigates choppy waters filled with dancing fish.
Funeral effigy of Catherine de Valois, 1437
Before she was 20, Queen Catherine was the daughter of a king (Charles VI of France), the wife and widow of a king (Henry V of England) and the mother of a king (Henry VI). Her father and husband died with a few months of each other, in 1422, and her son became king of both England and France at just nine months old. Catherine was not allowed to remarry, but according to legend she secretly wed handsome Welshman Owen Tudor in 1429. In 1436, their union was discovered, and Owen was imprisoned. Catherine died shortly after giving birth to their fifth child together, Margaret, in 1437, and her first son, Henry VI, had her buried at the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey. As was custom from the 14th to the early 17th centuries, her wooden funeral effigy was carried on top of her coffin during her funeral procession. The inscription on her tomb contains no mention of her second marriage.
Coronation chair of Queen Mary II, 1689
There was only one occasion in England’s history when two monarchs were crowned to rule the nation together: At the coronation of William III and Mary II, in 1689. The couple, who were first cousins, married in 1677 and became co-regents of England, Scotland and Ireland after deposing James II, Mary’s father and William’s uncle. This chair, made for Mary, was constructed using Dutch wood in a design similar to the ancient, existing coronation chair, but with fewer decorative elements. In the 18th century, however, the chair received some unsanctioned “decoration,” courtesy of the boys from nearby Westminster School carving their initials into its oak panels.
Parrot belonging to Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, 1702
This stuffed West African grey parrot is perched on a wooden mount positioned at the shoulder of the effigy belonging to Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond. Frances is most famous for refusing to become the mistress of King Charles II, and for being the model for the likeness of Britannia used on coinage and commemorative medals; in fact, her face is still in circulation on all 50 pence pieces created before 2008. The parrot – held together with wires spiked through its body, and probably the oldest stuffed bird in Britain – was Frances’s loyal companion for 40 years, and died just a few days after she did.
Marriage licence of William and Catherine, 2011
Millions of people worldwide watched the televised wedding of the Prince to his college sweetheart, Kate Middleton. The couple followed in the footsteps of William’s grandparents, the Queen and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who married at Westminster Abbey in 1947. Just like any other couple getting married in England, William and Catherine had to be issued a marriage licence before their wedding ceremony could be performed. Yes, their licence happens to have been painted with an illuminated floral border and affixed with a Great Seal of the Realm in red wax, but essentially, it serves the same purpose. The inclusion of this document in the galleries’ collection speaks to the ongoing close relationship that the Royal Family shares with Westminster Abbey.
The Litlyngton Missal, 1383-84
This 682-page Latin service book is one of the physically largest and longest surviving medieval manuscripts made in England. Four people worked on putting it together, with two artists painting 62 illuminated initials and decorated borders in coloured ink and gold leaf, one artist creating the intricate, full-page crucifixion scene pictured here – and one writer, who was paid four pounds for two years of work. The initials NL can be seen at the bottom of the crucifixion scene’s border, topped by a golden coronet. These initials are for the manuscript’s commissioner, Nicholas Litlyngton, who was Abbot of Westminster from 1362 to 1386. The missal was made for use at the high altar, and contains readings, prayers, a list of festivals and saint’s days, and instructions for blessing salt when making a new batch of holy water.
Westminster Abbey: By the numbers
Number of monarchs crowned at the abbey, beginning with William the Conqueror in 1066. Replica coronation regalia, used in rehearsals, are on view in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, as is the Liber Regalis, a 14th-century manuscript that serves as a how-to manual for staging coronations and royal funerals.
Number of monarchs not crowned at the abbey: Edward V, who was possibly murdered by his uncle Richard III at the age of 13 and buried in the Tower of London; and Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne in order to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson.
Year of the coronation of the Queen, the first to be televised. The camera operator filmed the momentous occasion from the balcony of the triforium.
Royal weddings held. The first was on Nov. 11, 1100, between Henry I and Princess Matilda of Scotland, who chose the abbey as their venue because it was next door to their home, the Palace of Westminster – now more commonly known as the Houses of Parliament. The most recent royal wedding at the Abbey was between William and Catherine on April 29, 2011.
Royal funerals held, most recently Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, and the Queen Mother in 2002.
People buried at the abbey, including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking.
Age at death of Robert Sheffield, Marquess of Normanby, whose funeral effigy is displayed alongside that of his mother, Catherine Sheffield, Duchess of Buckingham. Catherine’s effigy was the last to have been carried at a funeral, in 1743. Robert’s effigy is dressed in the boy’s own floral silk coat and velvet robe.
Number of individual people’s remains found buried under Victorian drainage pipes when the 1950s lavatory block near Poet’s Corner was demolished to make way for the galleries’ new elevator tower. The bones date from the 11th or early 12th century, and include the skeleton of an unknown three-year-old child.
Westminster Abbey curator Susan Jenkins on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries
Westminster Abbey is more than 1,000 years old, so I’m sure you had a lot of objects to choose from. Which historical periods do the galleries cover?
Susan Jenkins: The exhibition has been driven by the best-quality objects and the ones that told the most significant stories. The oldest object on view is our Roman sarcophagus, which dates from about AD 300-400. It was dug up on the abbey’s North Green in 1869. The person who originally occupied it was called Valerius Amandinus – there’s an inscription that says his sons created this sarcophagus for him. But it was later given a new top with a Christian cross on and then had someone else buried in it: an Anglo-Saxon, whose bones date from about AD 1000.
After the cobwebs were blown away in the triforium, did you find anything else that had been forgotten about?
SJ: When we took the old floor up to replace it, it was a bit like an archeological dig – but into the ceiling of the abbey, rather than underground. We hired specialized cleaners to bag up the dust and debris that was in the vault pockets, and in there they found 30,000 little fragments of black-and white grisaille glass from 1250-1500. Some of that glass is now being used in the donor windows. And there were other things, too: 17th-century playing cards and tobacco papers, tickets from Queen Anne’s coronation in 1702. We also found a shoe with a pointy wooden sole – it was called a patten, and looks like a mule with a leather strap – that would have been very fashionable in, say, 1400, but not really for monks. So obviously someone went up in the triforium who wasn’t a monk and dropped their shoe under the floorboards.
Those details are so interesting – because it’s that human mark, that accidental stuff, that makes it so much easier to relate to the past.
SJ: We also have a case of textile fragments that have come off incredibly important things, such as little blue scraps of velvet from Henry V’s shield, bits of original fabric from the funeral effigies of Elizabeth of York and Edward III, and even a piece of silk stocking worn by Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales. At first, the exhibition designers didn’t understand why I wanted to display them, but for people interested in textiles, they’re fascinating. People can connect with a silk stocking in a way they might not connect with other things.
Can you tell me about your exhibition designers, MUMA (McInnes Usher McKnight Architects)?
SJ: They were appointed on the strength of their record for the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance galleries, for which they were both architects and exhibition designers. Their response to our galleries was to design around the sunbeams and shadows, and I think we owe the look and feel of the place to them. In terms of our interpretive approach, we also hired somebody to work with us on the language, because people who visit may not be religious, and they also may not have English as their first language. We have to explain things in a simple, sensible way so that people aren’t baffled. What I’ve been trying to do is show the history, context and use of all the objects in the abbey, so that people can appreciate them for what they are.
What do you think will be visitors’ favourite part of the galleries?
SJ: I know in my heart that a lot of people will just be drawn to the east side of the galleries to look down toward the west, across Edward the Confessor’s shrine, the Cosmati Pavement, the choir – and even to imagine William and Kate coming up there on their wedding day. It is such a powerful view. But that’s also part of the point of the galleries: To try and put the objects back in the context of where they came from, which was the abbey floor. So just looking down and taking in that view will help people understand that relationship.