Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Something new about Westminster Abbey

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume II (1859-1860)
Something new about Westminster Abbey
by Mackenzie Walcott


Confessors Buildings at Westminster (Hine).png

Remains of the Confessor’s Buildings at Westminster Abbey.

Something new about Westminster Abbey! What, after the library of books that have been written, from the account of Keepe to the “Minsters of England,” published by Stanford in this year of grace 1860, can there possibly be anything new said? Even so; under the shadow of the old Abbey are “things not generally known,” and certainly inaccessible to the general public. Let us try, as well as we are able, with the means of pen and ink, to give a sketch of this terra incognita to our readers. We shall simply detail, with one exception hereafter to be noticed, the aspect of places which we have actually seen and traversed—buildings of the time of the Confessor, remnants of a larger pile eight centuries old.

Few persons, as they cross the Broad Sanctuary or Palace Yard, or take their way to St. John’s Square—mayhap to trace the house in which D’Israeli’s Sybil counted the hours tolled by the clock of that extraordinary piece of barbaric magnificence, the church which fills the centre of the enclosure—can reproduce to their mind’s eye the ancient grandeur of that superb abbey, its accessory buildings, and ample precinct. Allow us to recall the scene. To the south of King Street stood the northern gateway of the abbey, a double prison-gate, with doors opening westward and southward—the Bishop of London’s prison for refractory clerks, and subsequently of John Selden, Sir Walter Raleigh, jovial Pepys, and Colonel Richard Lovelace, who sung here that glorious strain within his gloomy cell,—

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for a hermitage.

On the site of the present Sessions House was the detached belfry tower of the abbey, like that now to be seen near Chichester Cathedral, and adjoining it stood the chapel of the Sanctuary, the Alsatia of the west of London, and the birthplace of the unhappy Edward V., from which he was consigned to a more fatal durance in the Tower. Westward, where the new hotel is rapidly approaching completion, was the Almonry, in which Caxton first practised his immortal art—a site deserving a national commemoration. Fronting the gateway was a bridge, first built by “good Queen Maud,” across the arm of the Thames that moated Thorney Island, at the head of Tothill-street. Westward and southward the walls bent round along the modern Dean and College streets; to the south of the latter were the bowling-green, with the hooded gamesters busy at their sport; the Abbat’s pleasaunce with its sweet flowers and babbling runnels, and the Hostry garden of the hospitable Guest-house, well-filled with vines and fruits, adjoining the Paradise and orchard, and beyond which stretched the meadows of Tothill, Eubery, and Neyte, where the snipe and wild duck fed among the marshes, and fish for fasting-days filled the pools; where the golden corn ricks redden in the sun, and the ruddy cattle and snow-white sheep have their folds. At the foot of College Street was another bridge; and to the eastward lay the king’s palace.

Entering by the southern gateway, on the left are granaries, with their massive tower and double tier of pointed windows, the bakehouses and brewhouses stretching westwards; on the right are monastic offices, with old walls of grey flint and coigns of stone. Two gateways flank the cellarer’s apartments on the east side, and these still remain; the northern tower was, as now, the porter’s lodge; the southernmost opened into the quadrangle, and the present Little Dean’s-yard, but then surrounded with the lodgings of the subordinate great officers of the abbey—the prior, sacrist, chamberlain, and lesser ecclesiastical magnates.

If we now pass under the porter’s lodge, we shall see on the left a small court-yard; on the north is the Jerusalem Chamber, once the abbat’s great chamber, and deriving its name from pictures of the Holy City which adorned its walls; on the west is the Abbot’s Hall, now the dining-room of the Westminster schoolboys; and on the east and south is the deanery, formerly the abbat’s lodge, and the palace of the Bishop of Westminster during the short episcopate of Dr. T. Thurlby. The Jerusalem Chamber, in which King Henry IV. died, and Sir Isaac Newton and Campbell the poet were laid in state, contains some curious glass of the time of Henry III., a quaintly-carved Jacobæan mantlepiece of cedar-wood, and portions of the old tapestry hangings which long formed the ornament of the choir.

We will now enter the South Cloister, in which rests the great canonist Lyndwood, Bishop of St. David’s, whose remains were transferred hither not many years since from the undercroft of St. Stephen’s Chapel. Beautiful indeed is the solemn grey light—beautiful the misty perspective; yet it is not a hundred years ago since the wife of a reverend canon felt herself oppressed by the spleen, the vapours, or some similar complaint—mysteriously restricted to be the torment of the gentler sex—and prayed and besought her reverend spouse to alter what to her appeared a dim funereal hue. The canon consented: the edict went forth for whitewash: and whitewashed these glorious alleys would have been, but that the dean, one of the first of Oxford scholars as well as a man of taste, suddenly appeared—a Deus ex machinâ—when he was supposed to be snugly rusticating in the country, and stayed the profane hands, we trust for ever and a day. In these days we should have a storm of indignation raised at such an act of barbarity, as efficacious as that unearthly tempest which routed Dr. Dee under these grey roofs when he was plying his magic wand to discover the monks’ buried treasures. On the right-hand side of the door, which is marked by a brass plate bearing the name of the sub-dean, is a blank arcade, which served as the lavatory of the monks. Let us pass through another door on the lower side. We enter a little yard surrounded by sheds, and stumble, if we are not forewarned, over planks and garden tools; one moment—just peep behind that woodstore, and on that bit of rugged wall you will, even in the imperfect light, discern traces of a round-headed arcade: that is a fragment of the south wall of the monks’ refectory. Now look up, with your back turned on that relic of one of the oldest parts of the conventual buildings; it is Saxon work, and you will see a range of decorated windows in that South Cloister wall, which lighted once the north side of that same chamber, where, on the annual high day, the salmon was served after having been laid before the high altar of the choir; there the successor of Edric the fisherman sate as the guest of my lord abbat. For the monks could tell a wonderful story of the ferry of Lambeth; how, at stormy midnight, a cry from the reedy shore of the Thames awoke the Saxon fisher to convey across the swollen river a mysterious stranger; how the unconsecrated minster suddenly blazed with tapers, and became vocal with pealing hymns; and when the bishop came at early dawn with holy oil and solemn procession, he found on walls and altar the unction administered by no less holy hands than those of St. Peter himself; and how the saint commended Edric to all good fortune, on condition that he and his sons should offer year by year a salmon in the new church dedicated to his honour.

Once more in the old Cloister. We glance up at the grand pile of the Minster through the bars of the moulding arcade, and down at the rude effigies of abbats laid under the low-arched recesses below the bench table, and tread upon Long Meg, the huge stone that covers the Forty who fell victims in a great year of plague and pestilence, centuries ago; on the right side is the last alley of the Cloister, on the left hand are the Dark Cloisters—alas! they have been whitewashed. Along the walls will be seen a range of doors; the northernmost the superb entrance of the vestibule of the Chapter-house; the next that of the library, whereby hangs a tale; the third that of the Pyx-chamber, and then others which we shall enter in succession; nearly at the extreme end is the passage into the Little Cloisters.

This line of building, raised by the Confessor, forms the substructure of the Dormitory, now the Westminster boys’ schoolroom. It runs in a direct line southward from the south transept, and is divided through the greater part of its length, about 100 feet in extent, by an arcade of massive columns. The range was once continuous and open like the ambulatory of Fountains Abbey, which was in fact a series of store-chambers allotted to the reception of the wheat grown and wool shorn by the homely farmer-like Cistercians, in preparation for their annual fair, and the base of the market-cross still stands among the ruins. The buildings at Westminster are similarly divided. The rude pillars, three feet six inches in diameter and three feet five inches high in the shaft, have only a rude abacus and chamfer, like a Doric capital, with bases as simple. They carry a plain groining with square transverse ribs: and the southern portion has a waggon vault of tufa laid in rubble work still retaining in the plaster the traces of the centering-boards. One rude loop window yet remains. The Norman monks were sorely grieved with the simplicity of the capitals, and pared down the homely axe-hewn block, ornamenting the edges with quaint masks, and the opposite sides, where no partition intervened, with patterns of foliage of graceful design.

The Chapel of the Pyx is entered only by the representatives of the Exchequer, Treasury, and Goldsmiths’ Company, who are armed with six mighty keys, when they come to assay new coin with the standards of the realm, which are here preserved. No other “Sesame” can open this mysterious door, or admit to the secrets that lie behind. And a gloomy, murky, low-browed den it is, after all, with presses against the wall, once containing records of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and retaining drawers labelled in the handwriting of “painful Master Agarde,” and on the floor empty chests and cases of the XIIIth century, one of leather, powdered with fleur-de-lys, and strapped with iron, another with thick plates of the same material; and a third, of richer work in metal, with the dies of medieval coins. In the eastern bay stands a stone altar, with the round hollow for the “mensa;” and a water-drain of the XIIIth century placed conveniently on one side. A detached column fills the centre of the building. The small windows are doubly grated, to prevent mischance from itching palms; they were probably added, according to the proverb, on the principle of shutting the door after the steed has been stolen, subsequent to the loss of 100,000l., laid up prudently by Edward I. for his Scottish wars: a precedent worthy of imitation by modern Chancellors of Exchequer in these evil days of double and anticipated income-tax. The abbat and forty monks fell under bare suspicion, and were sent without benefit of clergy, or of judge and jury, to taste the cold comfort of the Tower.

On the east side of the chapel is the staircase to the Library; under which is a modern wine-cellar. On the door, once, probably, the entrance of the Pyx-chamber, are some dry, hard strips—fragments of white leather which once covered the entire surface—they are human skin! probably, flayed from some wretched thief caught in the act of peering too curiously into the dim darkness on the other side, and set up here as a warning to all bold robbers. A very narrow strip—a mere passage—lies between the cellar and the chamber beyond; when the present excellent architect of the abbey first entered it, he found the floor heaped up with rubbish, which had a springy motion beneath his feet. He searched this mass, which lay feet deep, and found a number of little poplar-wood boxes, with parchment deeds and seals of the XIIIth century, and a deposit of vellum packets, writs of the courts of justice, from the reign of Edward III. to Henry VII., and encaustic tiles with the glaze as fresh as when they left the kiln.

The undermost part of the heap was in a state of hopeless decay, the salvage lies on the floor of the Library. This room is part of the grand old dormitory, and retains its timber roof. Most of the old chartularies or MSS. of the abbey are in the keeping of that “helluo librorum,” the British Museum. But still there are some curious books: old copies of the English Bible, 1540—1706; a Welsh Bible of 1588; a Suetonius, 1490; Suidas and Avicenna, 1498; Littleburius in Threnos, printed at Oxford, 1482; the Complutensian Polyglott, 1515; the first printed Greek edition of the Holy Scriptures, by Aldi at Venice, 1518; Day’s Service Book, with the musical notation; Barnard’s Cathedral Music (the only other known copy is at Berlin); Abbat Litlington’s Missal, dated 1362, and the first edition of Aristotle, and Lucian, Florence, 1517; and an Editio-princeps of Plato on vellum. There is also a Μέγα ὄργανον, but not of Aristotle: curious fragments of iron-work spurs, rowels, &c., lie on a table, and in a book-case hard by are copies of Coronation Services; that of James II. is radiant with crimson and gold, a style of binding decreasing in splendour as it grows more modern, till, under the Reformed Parliament it dwindles into a thin ill-printed 4to. “done up” in glazed black covers. We took it at first for a form of Burial, or the Sermon preached before the Lords.

Let us now descend the stairs, and following the line of the Dark Cloisters and the very work of the Confessor, but deformed by modern whitewash, turn sharply to the eastward through the cross passage to the Little Cloisters. On the right is an oak-door and a small tower; the one was the entrance of the gloomy Star-chamber, that English Inquisition through which many a bold heart has passed fluttering and apprehensive of fine and mutilation. The other was the belfry of the Infirmary Chapel of St. Katharine. It is impossible now to decide whether the infirmary-hall lay east or west across the little garth, or may be traced in an apartment now converted into servants’ rooms by floors and partitions in a canon’s house, which boasts a fine Tudor-roof with carved bosses and beams, carefully whitewashed! In the south-west angle of the Little Cloister a door admits into the hall of the Infirmarer’s house, built by Abbat Litlington, which has been recently restored; a gallery on the north side, once extended over the south aisle of the chapel beyond; the fire-place is still visible. The early perpendicular door of the Infirmary Chapel occupies the centre of the east alley of the Cloister, and the southern arcade of its nave of late Norman work, which remains, bears a great resemblance to that of a similar building at Ely.

Ruins of infirmary chapels are found about Canterbury and Peterborough. They were so designed that the sick monks could hear the service as they lay on their pallets. This chapel was the scene of the battle ecclesiastical between à Becket and Roger of York, when the northern primate plumped down in the lap of “Canterbury” on failing to dispossess himself of the presidential chair, and monks and retainers fought lustily, northern and southern, only ceasing when with bloody crowns and broken limbs, they at length took breath, and York, with a torn rochet and crimson face, betook himself to Windsor to complain lustily before the king. The College Garden was the Paradise of the infirmary, where Queen Mary kept tryst with Duke Maximilian,—the one bright spot in a long life of sorrow. Here it was that the royal pursuivant brought the mandate of exile to the aged Feckenham, as he was planting some young trees.

“Sir,” said the last of the Abbats, “suffer me to finish my work; but I know of a truth, that this Abbey of Westminster shall ever be preserved.”

Star Chamber door (Hine).png

The door of the Star Chamber, Westminster Abbey.

We must retrace our steps to the Great Cloister. Before us the beautiful double doorway, with faint traces of gold and colour; its exquisite scrollwork and foliage, with a tree of Jesse entwined, admits us to the vestibule of the Chapter-house, which is situated under the old dormitory. Those prints upon the stone-pavement were by the feet of the monks. On the right is the door with its ugly fringe of human skin; on the left the former entrance to the sacristy, commonly but erroneously known as the Chapel of St. Blaise. Before us is the inner vestibule with a flight of stairs leading up to the great portal of the Chapter-house; the walled-up windows on the side lighted the altar of the sacristy, which is now entered from the south transept. The footpace of the altar at the east end, and a fresco in oil of the Madonna, a crucifix with a Benedictine in prayer, remain, with a monkish distich:

Me, quem culpa gravis premit erige Virgo suavis,
Fac mihi placatum Christum, deleasque reatum.

The western end was the vestry, and years ago the rack for copes and vestments remained on the wall; the aumbries for the sacred vessels and jewels have been preserved; and so valuable was the store that three strong-doors—one lined with human skins—were considered to be indispensable to its security. A bridge of stone and a winding stair once formed a communication between the dormitory and transept.

The Chapter-house was, soon after its erection in the latter part of the thirteenth century, alienated from use by the Benedictines. In the two last parliaments of King Edward III. we find the Commons desired to remove from the Painted Chamber—“a leur ancienne place en la maison de chapitre de l’abbaye de Westm'.” Almost 60 ft. in diameter, and only inferior in point of size to the Chapter-house of Lincoln, but far surpassing it in beauty, it is an octagon, a form substituted for the oblong ground-plan of the former century in imitation, probably, of the circular churches introduced by the Templars. The height of the crown of the vaulting is fifty-four feet; the groined roof was taken down upwards of a century since, but the ribs have been found carefully packed away in a recess in the walls. The central shafted pillar of Purbeck marble, thirty-five feet high, is still standing; beneath the boarded-floor lies a superb encaustic pavement with tiles of noble design, and stained with the legend of St. John and the Confessor; and the walls are arcaded with stalls, and, in one portion, have oil-paintings of the fourteenth century, representing the Saviour showing His five wounds to the Heavenly host, and angels with wings full of eyes within, and inscribed with the names of virtues, receiving the souls of the ransomed and setting crowns of gold upon their heads, as also some later paintings of subjects from the Apocalypse.

Some fine images and statues have survived the wreck wrought by iconoclasts; lovely little figures still stand among foliage of exquisite daintiness; capitals still retain their refined and delicate work; but the tall windows are blocked up with brick and stone, and the whole building betrays the neglect and ill-usage to which it has been for years subjected since it was converted into a public record office in the reign of Edward VI., and so continued until last year, when the curious collection was removed: Wills and pipe-rolls, rolls of parliament and treaties of state, the Domesday-book of the Norman, the golden bull of Clement VII. conferring the title of Defender of the Faith on Henry VIII., the resignation of the Scottish crown by John Baliol, and the exquisite seal wrought by the hands of Benvenuto Cellini, and attached to the treaty of perpetual amity signed by Bluff Hal and Francis I.

Below the Chapter-house is an undercroft—a crypt with a vault supported on a round pillar. Midway in its height the latter has a deep set aumbry for relics, cut into its very centre. There are also in the walls a water-drain, altar-recess, aumbry, and the sockets of a screen.

Once more in the Cloister; the door in the turret opposite is open, and up the winding stair we rise step by step until we stand alongside of the roof of the dormitory, which still retains two windows of the time of the Confessor. Southward rises the long north wall of the Refectory; were the windows divested of their brickwork, we might fancy the remainder of the building was yet perfect. We stoop our head, and pass under a low door into a small room with timbered partitions and plastered walls; it contains the indentures of the chapel of Henry VII., in a trunk of that period. On the other side of the compartment is the large painting of the White Hart, the badge of Richard II., and we think of his prophecy, that when that supporter was removed from the arms of England, her green fields should be crimsoned with the blood of her sons, warring one with another. We are standing in a tribune, built over the east alley of the cloister, which occupies the place of what would have been otherwise a west aisle of the south transept. Those muniment chests of oak, that quadrant-shaped cope-box, those coffers and trunks, some reaching back to the XIIIth century, contain the archives of the abbey. The cope-box is not here, but in the triforium gallery.

There, before us, is that glorious interior, the grandest of all Gothic buildings, majestic, imperturbable, sublime, beautiful as ever. The haze of grey and purple fills distant chantry and aisle, and floats through tall arches and along the gilded roofs: but on the diapered walls fall golden gleams, bars of light cast by the fast-westering sun; two lines of tapers in the choir grow momentarily brighter as we stand and gaze across the transept: and then from the white-robed choristers—the white robes gradually fading paler and paler with the waning daylight—rises the soft, low anthem in a minor key—in that voice of boys that seems with innocence to lose also its freshness and thrilling power. There is a passive inspiration in all around: the air grows thick with crowding fancies, enhanced by the indistinctness which falls shadowy and mysterious on the chanting choir, and the building that apparently dilates its vast dimensions; a sovereign anodyne for every sorrow seems to fill the very atmosphere. And then the glorious organ lifts its grand voice—broad waves of glorious music beat against the windows, shivering in every pane, as though they trembled for pleasure at those triumphant tones. Then all is still again, and—

From yonder tower
The day is tolled into eternity!
How hollow, dread, and dismal is the peal,
Now rolling up its vast account to Heaven!
Awhile it undulates, then dies away
In mutter’d echoes, like the ebbing groans
Of drowning men!

We cannot close this paper without adding a few lines in acknowledgment of the great debt which the abbey owes to Mr. G. G. Scott, who has not only exposed to view the columns of St. Catherine’s Chapel, which were formerly concealed in dustbins and coal-cellars, opened and restored the vestibule to the Chapter-house, and discovered and reopened the staircase to what once was the Dormitory, but has stereotyped a large portion of the internal surface which was fast crumbling to decay, by saturating it with an invisible resinous solution. This process has been recently applied to the Royal tombs and the whole of the wall-arcading of the more ancient parts of the church, the older triforium, and the entrance to the Chapter house; and it is intended to extend it to the rest of the building. Though much has been done in the way of preservation, and of restoration too, we fear that the spirit in which the Chapter, as a body, deal with the old monastic buildings is somewhat utilitarian, and that they are collectively too much inclined to view the remains of antiquity as a lot of rubbish which militates against the convenience of their residences and those of their officers and dependants. It is to be feared too that this utilitarian spirit may derive some encouragement from the contemplated removal of Westminster School from the precincts of the abbey to a more rural and retired spot, which would probably be followed at no distant interval by a removal also of some of the most interesting of ancient landmarks.