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When Charles Dickens died at his home in Kent on 9th June 1870, it was presumed that he would be buried in Rochester Cathedral or in one of the nearby parish churches at Cobham or Shorne. This, after all, was what the author of some of the greatest novels in the English language had wanted.
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Public opinion, though, led by The Times newspaper, demanded that Westminster Abbey was the only place for the burial of a writer of his distinction. A few days after his death, the newspaper published a leader calling for Dickens to be buried at ‘the peculiar resting place of English literary genius’, adding that ‘very few are more worthy than Charles Dickens of such a home’.
Dickens’ friend and biographer, John Forster, seems to have been equally determined. Research published in 2020 suggests that Forster told the family that Dickens’ preferred churchyards were closed for new burials despite there being no evidence of this having been the case. Instead, Forster took up The Times’ cause and approached the Dean of Westminster, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, who readily agreed to burial in the Abbey, and the funeral was held on 14th June.
While Dickens may have preferred a quiet service in Kent, care was taken to follow his strict instructions that the funeral should be private. Just twelve mourners attended, made up of family and close friends, together with the clergy. So Dickens was buried in an almost empty Abbey, with the funeral service from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer read by the Dean.
It was agreed that the grave, in the south transept, should be left open and over the following days thousands of people from all walks of life came to pay their respects and throw in flowers. The grave was closed on 16th June and Dean Stanley preached a memorial sermon the following Sunday.
The simple gravestone, too, respected the wish expressed in Dickens’ will:
that my name be inscribed in plain English letters on my tomb... I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works...
Dickens’ grave remains one of the most popular among visitors to the Abbey, many thousands of whom come from around the world each year to see the monuments to some of the most distinguished figures from our history. Yet this aspect of the Abbey’s life was never deliberately planned. Although some 3,000 people have been buried in Westminster Abbey since its foundation in the tenth century, the great majority of those burials have happened since the dissolution of the monastery in 1540.
Throughout the middle ages the monks of Westminster carefully guarded the privilege of burial in their church. With a few exceptions, the earliest, medieval tombs are the resting places of monarchs, Abbots of Westminster and a small number of nobles who had given service to the Crown or the Abbey.
At the very heart of the church is the Chapel of Edward the Confessor, king and saint. An annual pilgrimage to Edward’s shrine is held each October and remains one of the most significant dates in the Abbey’s calendar, with hundreds coming to remember the life of the Abbey’s re-founder and to pray at the Shrine.
Five kings and four queens lie close to Edward in some of the most important medieval tombs in the country. With the death of Henry VII, royal burials moved into the new Lady Chapel, which became a mausoleum for the Tudor dynasty.
It was only after the monastery was dissolved that a wider variety of tombs began to appear, especially in the ambulatory chapels which had lost their altars and now offered additional space.
Now, just over 600 tombs and other substantial monuments, and more than 300 memorial stones and stained glass windows, commemorate the achievements of scientists, musicians, politicians, and of course, writers.
When he was buried in 1870, Dickens joined some of the greatest names in English literature to be remembered in the Abbey. But how did the idea of an area set aside to honour those that had dominated the nation’s cultural life come about?
The first writer to be buried in what is now known as Poets’ Corner was Geoffrey Chaucer. As the author of The Canterbury Tales Chaucer is, next to Shakespeare, perhaps the most famous English poet, and has been called 'the Father of English Poetry'.
He died in 1400 and was buried in the Abbey, an honour granted not in fact because of his fame as a writer, but because he was clerk of works at the nearby Palace of Westminster and lived in the Abbey precinct. He had held various roles in the household of Edward III and was still in royal favour at the time of his death.
In 1556, during the revival of the Benedictine monastery under Mary I, his remains were moved from the original grave in St Benedict’s Chapel to a new tomb in the south transept.
It was only when Edmund Spenser, the Elizabethan poet who died in 1599, was buried near to Chaucer, that the concept of a ‘Poets' Corner’ in the Abbey was begun.
By 1700 other literary figures had joined Chaucer and Spenser in the south transept, notably John Beaumont, Michael Drayton, Abraham Cowley and John Dryden. In 1711, Joseph Addison (himself later memorialised here) referred in an essay to the Abbey's 'poetical quarter', while a poem published in 1733, Upon the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, is the first known use of the title which has been applied to this part of the Abbey ever since.
By the 1730s, the absence of a memorial to William Shakespeare was seen as a significant omission and the eventual erection of his monument in 1740, funded by public donations, confirms that the Abbey was now seen as the natural place to commemorate national personalities.
Today, around 40 writers are buried in the south transept with a further 70 memorialised there, from Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Lord Byron to Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, making it a place of pilgrimage for literature lovers worldwide. Recent additions include stones to Ted Hughes (dedicated in 2011), CS Lewis (2013) and Philip Larkin (2016).
From the 17th century the north transept began to fill with monuments too, starting with that to Lord Chatham on its western side. Later, the main aisle became especially associated with the commemoration of politicians, the series of 19th-century statues along the eastern side – including those of Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone – leading to the popular description of this part of the Abbey as ‘Statesmen’s Aisle’.
Similarly, the north quire aisle became known as ‘Musicians’ Aisle’ following the burial of Henry Purcell here in 1695 and the subsequent burial of other musicians associated with the Abbey close by, including Herbert Howells, Charles Villiers Stanford and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The north east corner of the nave is devoted to scientists, with some of the most eminent names in physics, chemistry, mathematics and astronomy remembered here. The grave of Sir Isaac Newton lies in front of the quire screen with a monument designed by William Kent nearby.
A few feet away from Newton, just beyond the memorial stones to Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, is the grave of Charles Darwin, whose funeral was held in the Abbey on 26th April 1882. The Dean of Westminster, George Granville Bradley, was away in France when he received a telegram forwarded from the President of the Royal Society in London saying ‘…it would be acceptable to a very large number of our fellow-countrymen of all classes and opinions that our illustrious countryman, Mr Darwin, should be buried in Westminster Abbey’. The Dean recalled ‘I did not hesitate as to my answer and telegraphed direct…that my assent would be cheerfully given’.
Although Darwin was an agnostic, the Bishop of Carlisle, Harvey Goodwin, preached in the Abbey on the Sunday following the funeral:
I think that the interment of the remains of Mr Darwin in Westminster Abbey is in accordance with the judgment of the wisest of his countrymen…It would have been unfortunate if anything had occurred to give weight and currency to the foolish notion which some have diligently propagated, but for which Mr Darwin was not responsible, that there is a necessary conflict between a knowledge of Nature and a belief in God…
By the late 20th century, burials in the Abbey (and then only of cremated remains) had become very rare. It was though an honour granted to theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking, whose ashes were interred here during a service of thanksgiving for his life and work in June 2018.
The Caithness slate grave stone is carved with the equation for Hawking radiation, and the inscription is an English translation of a phrase which appears in Latin on Newton's gravestone:
Here lies what was mortal of Stephen Hawking 1942-2018
From kings and queens to statesmen, poets and scientists, some of the most famous names from the last thousand years of British history are buried in the Abbey. But one of the most visited and most poignant graves is that of a man whose name is unknown.
The First World War and its aftermath had a significant impact on Westminster Abbey as a place of memorialisation. Even before the end of the war in 1918, the Abbey held special services of remembrance for those who had died, and the burial of the Unknown Warrior in the nave, on 11th November 1920, provided a unique and abiding focus for remembrance within the church.
The grave is covered by a slab of black Belgian marble. On it is the following inscription, composed by Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster:
Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British warrior
Unknown by name or rank
Brought from France to lie among
The most illustrious of the land
And buried here on Armistice Day
11 Nov: 1920, in the presence of
His majesty King George V
His ministers of state
The chiefs of his forces
And a vast concourse of the nation
Thus are commemorated the many
Multitudes who during the great
War of 1914-1918 gave the most that
Man can give life itself
For King and country
For loved ones home and empire
For the sacred cause of justice and
The freedom of the world
They buried him among the kings because he
Had done good toward god and toward
The warrior’s body was brought from the battlefields of northern France after the armistice which ended the First World War, and buried during a funeral service in the Abbey attended by George V. The King placed a wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin. His card read:
In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known; as dying, and behold they live. George R.I. November 11th 1920.
The Grave captured the public imagination and had particular significance for people grieving for those who had no known place of burial.
The Grave is at the heart of remembrance services and ceremonies every November, but wreaths are laid there throughout the year, especially by visiting heads of state who come to the Abbey to pay their respects to the fallen of the First World War and more recent conflicts. It stands as a remarkable tribute to all those who have lost their lives in the service of their country.
Whatever the status, field of achievement or walk of life, the decision as to who may be buried or receive a memorial in the Abbey rests with the Dean of Westminster. Over the centuries, these decisions, combined with the Abbey’s impressive architecture and many historic associations, have created an abiding national attachment to the church as a special place of commemoration.
For centuries, the Abbey’s and the nation’s histories have been intertwined, a relationship which continues to fascinate to this day.
Extracts from the book The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries, Westminster Abbey, edited by Susan Jenkins and Tony Trowles, assisted by Julia Snape, were used in this article by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster.
It’s a privilege to live and work here – the Abbey really is the heart of the country and its history.