Westminster Abbey is a church; a royal church in fact. The building you can see in the picture, which you might have seen on the tv, in a film or in real life, is 750 years old. However, there has been a place of worship on this site for over 1,000 years. The church you are looking at is the third church on this site, built by a king called Henry III. Christian services have been celebrated on the site for all that time, and continue today.
While the three churches on this site were of different sizes and styles, did you know that they all faced East? That’s because East faces toward the Holy Land where Jesus Christ was born. Join in these navigation games as you explore inside the Abbey…
Did you know that Westminster Abbey began its life over a thousand years ago? In the beginning it was a home to monks. A monks’ home is called a monastery. The monks lived, worked and worshipped here, in order to devote their life to God. The Abbey monks were a special kind of monk called Benedictine Monks because a saint called St Benedict had written a set of instructions which told them how they should live their lives. There were many rules, such as being quiet at meal times. Are you good at following rules?
Most of a monk’s day was spent praying in church and reading the Bible. The rest of the day was spent working hard on chores around the monastery. The monks also helped to feed the poor and take care of the sick. See if you can survive a meal time as a monk…
A coronation is a special ceremony where a new king or queen is crowned. This ceremony only takes place in Westminster Abbey. During the service, the monarch is anointed with holy oil, presented with the Crown Jewels (including the orb and sceptres), and the crown is placed on their head.
From William the Conqueror in 1066 through to Queen Elizabeth II, all except two monarchs have been crowned in the Abbey. That’s 38 in total. This awe-inspiring service brings the nation together. For the first time ever, in 1953, people all over the country were able to watch it on tv in their own homes.
Why not have a go at making your own crown and recreate this historic event?
Did you know that Westminster Abbey is home to Britain’s oldest door? It may not look like much but this wooden door was constructed almost a thousand years ago. It is one of the surviving parts of the Norman Abbey that was built during the reign of King Edward the Confessor (find out more about him in letter “E”).
There are many doorways in Westminster Abbey – some are grand and decorated, some are simple and small. One of the most impressive doors is the Great West Door, which is used as the entrance for Kings and Queens at their Coronation.
Let’s start at the Great West Door, as we go on a virtual hunt of doors, big and small, in the Abbey…
Meet Edward the Confessor. This Anglo-Saxon king of England, who ruled from 1042 to 1066, is the reason we have a Westminster Abbey in the first place. Edward asked for it to be built when he was king, however, he died one week after it was consecrated, or blessed, in 1065, making him the first person to be buried in the Abbey.
Jump forward a hundred years to when Edward the Confessor became a saint. Today, St Edward the Confessor's remains are housed in a beautiful shrine, built by Henry III in 1245 (more about him in letter “H”). Since then and still today, this shrine is an important site of pilgrimage for Christians, who visit it to pray to St Edward.
Pilgrims would collect little badges to show others that they had been on a pilgrimage. Why not have a go at making your own pilgrim badge?
When we have faith in someone or something, it means that we trust and believe in them without being absolutely sure. Some people have faith in God — they believe God is loving and caring. You can also have faith that something will happen or have faith in a person or even an idea.
Westminster Abbey is a Christian church welcoming people of all religious faiths and none. In the Abbey, people often take a moment to pray or to think about their life and the people they love. They might do this by lighting a candle.
It is important that everyone, whoever we are and whatever we believe in, takes time to be still and peaceful, especially in hard and busy times.
Here’s an activity that might help you to find a moment of stillness wherever you are.
With thousands of people buried under the floor of Westminster Abbey, it is one of the few places where you might find yourself walking on graves. Many of these people will be people you have heard of, from famous kings and queens to scientists and writers. However, there is one grave in the Abbey that no one, not even the monarch, is allowed to walk over. It belongs to an unknown warrior from the First World War. Whoever he was, this unknown warrior fought for Britain. Perhaps he was an 18-year-old from India or a 43-year-old from Canada or a 35-year-old from London? Perhaps he was a relation of yours? We will probably never know this man's identity, which is important as he represents all those warriors who died and who have no known grave. This is why visitors pause and walk around his grave, as a mark of respect.
This grave is surrounded by beautiful red poppies. Find out why poppies are used and have a go at making your own poppy.
King Henry III is famous for rebuilding Westminster Abbey, over 750 years ago. Why did he want to build a new Westminster Abbey when the old one was perfectly fine? He wanted to show his devotion to St Edward the Confessor, who we met in letter “E”, by building a new Abbey using a new style of architecture called Gothic. He took a personal interest in this special building project and he spent a lot of money on it. Henry wanted the Abbey to be more beautiful than any other church. Hundreds of people worked on the building including stonemasons, carpenters, glaziers and painters. Can you imagine how many hours of work it would have taken?
We know that King Henry III was personally involved because we have surviving documents from the time that had his wax seal attached. The seal was like an official signature. Why not have a go at creating your own special seal?
Westminster Abbey is filled with the graves, statues and memorials of over 4,000 people so that we can remember these people as a nation. When you think about this big number, it’s easy to forget that each individual here at Westminster Abbey has a story to tell - we all have our own story. From monks to monarchs, plumbers to politicians, they had many jobs, interests and roles. They are remembered here because their choices and actions have helped to shape the world we live in today.
On the outside of the Abbey there are statues of Christian martyrs, who died for their faith, from around the world. On the inside of the church you will find scientists. writers, philanthropists, musicians, priests, monks, kings and queens and many more.
Many individuals’ stories are well known today, while others have been lost completely. See what you can discover…
Christianity is inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus, who was the Son of God. As Jesus Christ is incredibly important to Christians, there are lots of images of him within Westminster Abbey. There are special paintings called icons, images of Jesus within colourful, stained glass windows and this beautiful mosaic of Jesus eating is last meal with his friends known as The Last Supper. As Jesus died on a cross, many Christian places of worship. like Westminster Abbey, are built in a cross-shape.
Jesus lived over 2,000 years ago, in a time before there was electricity, cars or phones. His teachings were about love and forgiveness. Jesus spread his message using stories known as parables, as well as setting an example of good behavior to those around him. Parables use the characters in the story to help us understand his key messages. Let’s explore one of Jesus’ parables…
Westminster Abbey has been an important place for kings and queens for over 1,000 years. We’ve already met two kings who were involved in the building and re-building of the Abbey. For many monarchs, the Abbey has been a place of celebration during their lives. Many monarchs have been married here, all except two have been crowned here and it has always been a royal church.
For many monarchs, Westminster Abbey is their final resting place. From 1066 to 1760, 30 kings and queens chose to be buried here. Many of the royal tombs are topped with an effigy, or statue, of the king or queen. These effigies give us clues about the life of the monarch and how they wished to be remembered. Can you recognise any of them? Don your best detective hat as we go on a fact-finding mission…
The Lady Chapel was once described as ‘the wonder of the world’ by John Leland, a historian writing over 450 years ago. The Lady of ‘Lady Chapel’ refers to Mary, who was the mother of Jesus. Chapels in churches were often named after Mary. This chapel was built on the orders of King Henry VII and completed by his son King Henry VIII. All the Tudor monarchs apart from Henry VIII are buried here. The colourful flags belong to a special group of knights who meet here every four years. The knights are called the Order of the Bath.
The Lady Chapel was damaged during the Second World War and now modern glass windows sit next to ancient stone. Stonemasons carved the beautiful ceiling decorations out of stone. It is known as a fan-vaulted ceiling. Can you guess why? Today visitors still look up and wonder how they made it. Why not make a beautiful fan of your own out of paper?
Believe it or not, medicine has been a big part of the Abbey’s history. Many people who have made an impact on caring for the sick are remembered within Westminster Abbey. These include a chapel dedicated to nurse Florence Nightingale and memorials to surgeon Joseph Lister and physician Matthew Baillie.
When Benedictine monks lived in the Abbey (find out more about them in letter “B”), their duties included caring for the sick and injured. In fact, there was even a hospital located within the Abbey grounds. The monks had to grow the ingredients for their medicines in the herb garden and the Abbey gardeners still grow medicinal herbs today. Not sure which herbs would be helpful? Let’s find out…
At the very west end of Westminster Abbey is a space called the nave – it is where the congregation sit. The word nave comes from a Latin word which means ship. Some people think of the church as a ship, guiding people through the waters on the journey of life. The nave also looks like an upside-down ship – can you picture it?
You may have spotted that the nave has a very tall ceiling. Large churches like this were built to look breathtakingly beautiful for the greater glory of God. These huge, soaring arches help to support the weight of the roof. It would have taken hundreds of skilled workers many years to complete this magnificent building. The design of the roof is very important – if you can get the design right, you could build a strong roof just from paper. Have a go at our roof building challenge….
Music has been an important part of worship for hundreds of years and is still very important today. In big churches like Westminster Abbey, you need a big sound to fill all that space and there is no bigger sound than that made by the organ. The oldest organ we know of at the Abbey dated back to the year 1304, but the organ we use today was built in 1937 for the Coronation of King George VI. It is made up of hundreds of buttons, pedals, keys and, of course, pipes – with the whole instrument powered by wind. Now, our organ took years to build and needs a building as big as Westminster Abbey to fill, but you can also make your own wind instrument at home. Do you want to try making your own portable organ?
Where’s the best spot in Westminster Abbey for story lovers? Poets’ Corner, of course. The first poet to be buried here, over 600 years ago, was Geoffrey Chaucer, known for a group of poems called The Canterbury Tales which are very famous. Since then, over one hundred writers have been buried or remembered for the way they have filled our heads and hearts with wonder. Some writers you might know, others you might not, but all have used their words to make our imaginations run wild.
Poems are particularly good at using a small number of words to tell a big story. They can be serious and thought-provoking, or playful and silly. Some were even nonsense. Do you think you could write nonsense?
Have you seen the word quire before? What do you think it means? Try saying it out loud. It sounds like the word choir because it is – it’s just a different spelling of the word. At the Abbey, we use the word quire to describe the place the choir sit during services when they sing.
For nearly 500 years, Westminster Abbey has had its own choir school. The choristers have a very important role as singing has always been an important part of worship. With an important role comes a very special uniform. Choristers wear a long red cassock (like a coat), a white surplice (like a tunic) which goes over the top and a ruff (which looks like a rumpled collar which fastens round the neck). Find out more about a chorister’s ruff and make your own…
Weddings at Westminster Abbey are Christian services and follow certain traditions. Westminster Abbey has been the host of 16 royal weddings, with the first one taking place in 1100 between King Henry I and Princess Matilda of Scotland.
A wedding, whether a royal one or not, is always a special occasion and a celebration of a couple’s love for each other. Being invited to a wedding is very exciting. The last royal wedding at Westminster Abbey was in 2011, when Prince William married Catherine Middleton got married. You might be too young to remember that wedding – why not ask your family if they remember it?
Let’s imagine you were one of the special guests invited to a royal wedding in Westminster Abbey. Why not try these activities to get you prepared for the big day?
Did you know that Scientists’ Corner, although technically not a corner, is known as the resting place for some great scientists? You may have heard of Sir Isaac Newton, whose thoughts about apples always falling from trees in the same direction led to the understanding of gravity. Perhaps Charles Darwin’s name rings a bell – he was a natural history expert whose trips to the Galapagos Islands resulted in a famous book about evolution. Or more recently, have you heard of Stephen Hawking, who is remembered for his explanations of the origins of the universe and black holes? Some of the scientists were Christians and some were not, but either way, they are remembered in the Abbey for their contribution to science.
Scientific discoveries can happen at any moment, anywhere in the world. Although we know lots about how our world works, there is always more to find out. Who knows – you could be one of our great scientists of the future. Lab coats and safety goggles on, let’s get experimenting…
Way up high above the Abbey floor is an upper storey known as the triforium, originally intended to be chapels, which now houses the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. For hundreds of years the triforium was either empty or being used as a storage space, but it is now open to the public as a museum. From the world’s oldest stuffed parrot to glittering copies of the Crown Jewels, from gold-covered manuscripts to figures of kings and queens, there are many wonderful objects to explore.
With 1,000 years of history to cover, many objects to pick from and limited space, staff had to make difficult decisions about which objects to display in the galleries. Find out more about some of the Abbey’s greatest treasures and create a museum display of your own. Which objects from your home would you put on display?
UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. What a mouthful! It is an organisation that makes sure that important buildings and places all over the world are kept safe for future generations – for you and all the people that come after. Luckily, Westminster Abbey, St Margaret’s Church and the Palace of Westminster count together as one site that will be protected.
So, how do they decide if somewhere should be on the UNESCO World Heritage List? They select places that are important to people all over the world. As many kings and queens have been crowned here (as we explored in letter “C”), Westminster Abbey is of great historic and symbolic significance to the world. There are lots of other reasons why the Abbey is meaningful to so many people. Can you explain to visitors what makes Westminster Abbey special and unique?
Inside the Abbey, wherever you look there is a fabulous view. When great churches all around the country were built hundreds of years ago, they were made to look as magnificent as possible as a way of glorifying God. No expense was spared – the ceilings were painted and highly decorated, the floor was covered in expensive tiles and all around were finely carved statues. Whether you look up, down, or all around, there are some great views of the Abbey.
When special events happen in the Abbey, people are seeking the best view – whether that is of a priest, a member of the Royal family or the choir. Imagine you were in the Abbey at a special event and create your own view…
Windows play a very important role for Westminster Abbey. As well as allowing in light, the beautiful stained-glass windows tell us stories of both the Bible and the Abbey’s history. In the medieval period, when the Abbey was first built, many people couldn’t read so the windows were used to help them understand the Bible and the church services spoken in Latin. While much of the medieval glass has disappeared now, in the windows today you’ll see people from the Old Testament, Jesus and his disciples, kings and queens of England, and names and images of important people who are remembered here.
The most recent stained-glass window was added in 2018 designed by artist David Hockney. It celebrates the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. In fact, it was designed on his iPad! Time to explore some of the stained-glass windows at Westminster Abbey and use these activities to tell your own stories…
X marks the spot might be something you’ve heard before, perhaps you’ve seen it on a treasure map. Here at the Abbey, in front of the High Altar, is a very special spot where space and time meet. The Cosmati Pavement was made nearly 800 years ago. It is a beautiful, patterned floor showing the Earth at the centre of the universe, as the first place God created, surrounded by planets and stars. It tells us that the Earth, our home, is very important. In the pattern is a hidden message about time. See if you can solve the riddle, devise your own secret message and create a time capsule for the future…
Westminster Abbey is a beautiful church which took many years to build. The Abbey was built very thoughtfully with many symbols. For example, the building has soaring arches which point upwards. For people of faith, they can act as a reminder of God above us. As you have learnt so far, the Abbey celebrates and marks national events, remembers many interesting people who have helped shape our world, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the coronation church.
This amazing building means lots of different things to many people around the world who love and treasure it. What does your Westminster Abbey look like? Would you like to build your Westminster Abbey or be inspired to create your own special building?
It may seem strange to imagine, but Westminster Abbey is full of creatures, great and small, perhaps even more than a zoo! They can be found everywhere — on the roof, in the nave, in the cloisters, hanging from the ceiling or lurking in the gardens. Wherever you turn there is sure to be a creature hiding from view, minding its own business, or even waiting to pounce…
Of course, not all these animals are real (though if you come and explore our gardens you are likely to find a whole range of animals enjoying the open space). Most of our animals are made of wood, stone, glass, or metal. Some are quite common - the kind you might see at home like dogs and cats. Others are a little more exotic - the kind of animals you might see on holiday, such as camels and parrots. But the animals you are most likely to discover whilst exploring Westminster Abbey are those you find in stories of myth and legend such as dragons, unicorns and griffins.
For our final A to Z activity, discover just some of the menagerie of animals who call Westminster Abbey home.
Well done you! With your help as time-travellers, explorers, creators, detectives and thinkers, we’ve covered over 1,000 years of faith and history in just 26 letters. We hope you’ve had lots of fun as a family and learnt something about this national place of worship. What was your favourite activity?
We’ve really only scratched the surface of all the amazing stories to be uncovered in Westminster Abbey. We would love to share even more with you - perhaps we’ll see your family at the Abbey soon!
And finally, Livingstone the Lion is so proud that he wants you to have your own certificate for being brilliant.