Day 11: London – Westminster Abbey

Guest post by Tracy Ritenour.

Today, we visited Westminster Abbey. If you watched the weddings of Charles and Diana or William and Kate, you might be familiar with Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photographs inside, but here is what the Abbey looks like from outside.

Our approach to Westminster Abbey!

We began our visit with a tour through the Abbey with Dr. Tony Trowles, the Librarian and Head of the Abbey Collection. He gave us some background on the Abbey so that we would have a better understanding of their history and subsequently their collection.

The first known church on the site was established as a Benedictine monastery in 960. The church as presently seen was built in the 13th century as a shrine to St. Edward but King Henry II. It took almost 300 years for the building of the nave and the west tower was not completed until 1745.

In addition to the amazing architecture of the Abbey, one of the first things that you notice are the multiple tombs, shrines, and monuments. Not everyone with a monument is buried in Westminster Abbey and not everyone who is buried has a monument, some are both buried and memorialized. There are 3000 people buried in Westminster Abbey and 800 monuments. A few names you might recognize are Queen Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, Issac Newton, and Geoffrey Chaucer.

Dr. Trowles took us to the library, which was re-established by Queen Elizabeth I after the dissolution of the monasteries by her father, King Henry VIII. It was created to ensure that the clergy had access to writings of the early church members to maintain their knowledge of theological matters.

The library has been in their present location since 1591. The muniment (archive) is located above the Abbey floor in a gallery. The library and muniment work closely with the cathedral itself to ensure that their collections and the cathedral are made available to the public in the best way. To illustrate this matter, Dr. Trowles gave us a sneak peak into one of their upcoming programs, The Queens’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. Since quite a few members of our group are interested in cathedral libraries approaches to digitization, he showed us how they will be incorporating a digital program to aid the use of the physical item. Needless to say, we were all very impressed.

After our wonderful presentation and meeting with Dr. Trowles, we were free to sightsee on our own. A few of us spent more time at Westminster Abbey and others visited nearby markets or walked around Piccadilly Circus.

I had intended to visit the House of Parliament but they were not allowing visitors at the moment, so, I decided to visit the British Museum instead.

Walking around parliament
The exterior of the British Museum!

From the wonderful library at Westminster Abbey, I visited the “first library to contain all knowledge” at the British Museum with the 30,000 volume Mesopotamian library of Ashurbanipal. The early cuneiform tablets are amazing for not only their survival but also their content.

The British Museum also contains the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain, which come from the Roman fort of Vindolanda. Their survival in rubbish/garbage pits easily rivals the cuneiform tablets for a miracle survival story.

No matter where we go we are drawn to the written word and London has no shortage of historical records and quaint little bookshops. Tomorrow we visit the library at Lambeth Palace for even more looks at interesting documents and books.

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