Last week I was in London for the RNA Winter Party and Industry Awards, and had the pleasure of meeting up with fellow Word Wench Susanna Kearsley who had come to talk to the RNA’s members about her latest book, Bellewether. It was a fabulous occasion and as an added bonus, the following day I had a ticket for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Gallery in Westminster Abbey. I’ve wanted to visit the gallery ever since I read of how they had found so many treasures up in the roof space at Westminster Abbey and that they were restoring and displaying some of them.
To get to the Queen’s Gallery you have to climb up a spiral staircase (or take the lift) up a newly-constructed tower on the exterior of Westminster Abbey. This proved to be one of the most exciting parts of the tour because the walls are made of glass and as you ascend you can look at all the external architecture of the cathedral; the huge flying buttresses and the glorious stained glass windows. It was awe-inspiring! Unfortunately there is no photography allowed anywhere in the cathedral but I've done my best to illustrate the blog anyway!
Up in the gallery you have to mind you head so that you don’t bump it on the original 13th century beams, which are quite low. Originally the whole space was intended to be a series of chapels but they were never completed. For centuries they were packed with junk (just like my attic!) from the earliest time of the original abbey to the recent past. This was all cleared out and now the space is divided into four separate exhibition areas.
The first area looks at how the Abbey was built and contains stonework and stained glass dating from the 13th century. The carved beasts and faces on the stone were fabulous, especially this face of a craftsman with a rather fashionable beard – I wondered if it was a self-portrait of the mason! The original Saxon minster church probably dated from around 800AD but this has been lost; the earliest traces of building on the site are from 1050. Over the years many changes and alterations have taken place, as is the way with most ancient buildings, so that there were building phases in the 13th and 16th century. Apparently by the 17th century the cathedral was in showing its age and needed repairing, a process that took 55 years! There are also several scale models of the cathedral from the 17th century. These were made by Elizabeth Gregory who ran the Abbey’s carpentry workshop. In a space dominated by memorials to men it was good to see the work of a number of female artisans celebrated. (There's also a tomb in the main church that I loved because the inscription reads "The illustrious Lady Newcastle." She wrote it herself – and why not!)
I wasn’t so keen on the exhibition of waxworks and wooden funeral effigies although these are fascinating historical artefacts and did have a story to tell. From the 14th to the early 17th century, royal funerals included an effigy of the deceased monarch as part of the procession into the church. These lay on top of the coffin and were usually left in the church afterwards. They would have been clothed and wearing a wig and a crown! After the restoration of Charles II this practice was discontinued but effigies were still made – as souvenirs for tourists!
The funeral "achievements" of Henry V were very interesting. In the later middle ages it was customary for the funeral processions of nobles to include a set of objects associated with the the chivalric knight, including helmets, gauntlets, banners and equipment for horses. The huge helmet belonging to Henry V looked far to big for any normal man to wear, and there was also a beautiful shield and an exceptionally uncomfortable-looking saddle!
The gallery is open to the rest of the church and you are fifty feet above the cathedral nave and so have a unique view of the church from high up. One of the benefits of this is that you can look down directly onto the shrine of St Edward “The Confessor” which isn’t open to view from below because it is so ancient and fragile.
My favourite part of the exhibition was the little odds and ends that each told a story. There was the coronation chair of Queen Mary II, made in 1688, which has graffiti all over it from the 18th century when the schoolboys at Westminster carved their names and initials on it! There was a 17th century playing card that had probably belonged to one of the masons working on the repairs under Christopher Wren, and a hand –written ticket for Queen Anne’s coronation in 1702. It was amazing to stand there and imagine the lives and the work of all the people who had been in Westminster Abbey over the centuries, and to see the traces they had left behind.
I don’t have funeral effigies or waxworks in my attic but I did once find a gorgeous old vase that had belonged to my grandmother and had been put away years before. Have you ever found anything special that had been hidden away in storage somewhere and forgotten?