Even more than of the British Museum I feel that it would be an impertinence to speak of Westminster Abbey as a London corner unnoticed by Londoners, and yet I have known people who have left London and gone back across the seas with never a thought for the cloisters nor a “memorie “of Jane Lister, “dear childe,”who lies buried there, people who may have perfunctorily “done “the Abbey with a guide but have never lingered there at the uncrowded hours till the exquisite beauty of its many corners has become a possession they can carry away with them.
I can make no attempt to point out the manifold interest of the Abbey, but there are certain places that I love that I would not willingly let anyone miss.
There is no need to write of the interior. No one was ever known to miss the Poets’ Corner, or the Coronation Chair, or Henry VII’s Chapel, or the Chapel of Edward the Confessor, but I have known people who visited Westminster Abbey and missed seeing the Chapter House.
To miss seeing that thirteenth-century octagonal room is a calamity. It is not only very beautiful, with a beauty that reminds you at once of the Sainte Chapelle, but there is an atmosphere about it that takes you back through the centuries to the time when Sirnon de Montfort was laying the foundations of constitutional government, and the first parliament of twentythree barons, one hundred and twenty ecclesiastics, two knights from each shire and two burghers from each town met in this very room.
The House of Commons was born within these grey walls nearly five and a half centuries ago, when the Commons were told to go to “leur ancienne place en la maison du Chapitre de 1′Abbeye de Westminster.”The members met here till they moved to the Chapel of St. Stephen, within the walls of Westminster Palace, in 1547. Turn your back on the ugly cases of the seals and charters that should have been removed to the Record Office with the rest of the public records that were stored here since Elizabethan days, and look instead at the faint fourteenthcentury mural decoration of Christ surrounded by the Christian virtues. Even the unsightly cases cannot destroy the sense of the lovely proportions of the shaft-supported roof and the arcaded walls with the six noble windows, filled with glass none the less beautiful because it happens to be modern, and all the more interesting because it honours the memory of that great lover of Westminster, Dean Stanley.
When Edward the Confessor about 1050 built the first round Chapter House on this spot for his Benedictine monks to transact the business of their monastery, they little thought to what varied uses it would be put. The present octagonal room has seen the age-long struggle of the people for their liberties. It was damaged in the Civil Wars and suffered from repairs in the eighteenth century. It has had its painted walls concealed by unsightly cupboards, when the public records were stored there. It has housed the Domesday Book till it and the records were removed in 1862, and now that it has been restored as nearly as possible to its old beauty, it exists, spacious and dignified as ever, to remind the passing visitor of the value of tradition and the history of a great nation.
A few steps farther along the cloister is another less well-known corner, the Chapel of the Pyx-not so ecclesiastical a chamber as it sounds, “pyx “meaning only a chest or box where the standard of references for testing the coins of the realm used to be kept. Nowadays they make these tests at the hall of the ancient Company of Goldsmiths, at the corner of Foster Lane and Gresham Street.
Long ago the king’s treasure was kept here, and only the king and my Lord Chancellor and the Abbot of Westminster had the keys, a fact that was very inconvenient when a robbery occurred, as at least one abbot found to his cost. He and forty of his monks saw the inside of the Tower in consequence, but punishment was not always so light, as the pieces of human skin still to be seen nailed to the door will show.
Inside the seven-locked door with its gruesome lining, that is only opened to visitors on Tuesdays and Fridays, you find a low vaulted room supported by rounded Romanesque arches on thick short pillars, and a stone altar-the earliest in the Abbey.
After leaving the Chapel of the Pyx, stroll along the Norman cloister to the left, past the Norman undercroft, where, if you have a mind to pay a small fee to the verger in the Poets’ Corner, you can see any day in the week the quaint effigies that used to be carried at royal funerals. Through the dark entry you come to the Little Cloister, a part of the old monastery, that ought only to be seen on a hot summer’s day, for in the winter-time it is dreary and your thoughts tend to turn to the smug ingratitude that allowed the woman Nelson loved to die in poverty,-for she once lived in the tower built by Abbot Littlington and originally the bell tower of the church.
Turn back through the south walk of the Great Cloister and come into the Deanery Yard. It is customary to write to the dean for permission to see the Jerusalem Chamber, but, if you go without this formality and he happens to be’ absent, the caretaker will show it to you and tell quite unique stories which I will not steal his thunder by repeating.
You go through the sixteenth-century Jericho Room first, and it too is interesting, with its linenfold deal panelling. It is the ante-room to the Jerusalem Chamber, and is now used as a sort of vestry room, for the cathedral. In the Jerusalem. Chamber, as every schoolboy knows, King Henry IV. died in 1413. I refuse to quote Shakespeare on this occasion. It is a fine fourteenth-century cedar-panelled room, and the light through fragments of very ancient glass in the windows shines on early seventeenthcentury tapestries and a very old medioeval portrait of Richard II. It is a gracious place, but when the authors of the Revised Version of the Bible worked here in 1870, it failed to inspire them with the same sense of the beauty. of words that made their predecessors produce the finest literature in the world.
Many famous men have lain in state in the Jerusalem Room before their interment in the Abbey – Congreve and Addison were both honoured in this way, and that seventeenthcentury poet-diplomatist, Matthew Prior, who was so esteemed by Louis XIV. that he sent him a bust by the great Coysevox. With one of those piquant inconsistencies that enliven history, Nance Oldfield, Mrs. Bracegirdle’s rival, also lay in state in the Jerusalem Chamber before she was buried in the Abbey. Mrs. Bracegirdle lies in front of the entrance to the Chapter House, but Nance Oldfield was the only actress honoured by burial within the Abbey walls.
The Jerusalem Chamber was originally the drawing-room of the Abbot of Westminster, and in James the First’s day a banquet was given here to the French Ambassadors who came over to arrange the marriage of Prince Charles and the daughter of Henri IV.