A review of Westminster Abbey: Behind Closed Doors….

I have now watched all of the Channel 5 series Westminster Abbey: Behind Closed Doors, which is so packed with information that I hardly know where to begin with this review. Aha, did I hear you say the beginning might be a good idea? You’re right, so here goes with a selection of descriptions from the series. Be warned, the review is rather long:-

The series was filmed before the death of Queen Elizabeth, so allowance must be made for this. The abbey is open seven days a week, 365 days a year, and there are four services every day, so a lot goes on there.

The series kicks off with the preparations for the wedding of the (now) Prince and Princess of Wales. They will be the sixteenth royal couple to be wed at the 1000-year-old abbey. However, it was said that because the now King Charles and Lady Diana Spencer were married at St Paul’s, this latest royal wedding had to be at Westminster Abbey. I don’t know if that meant the prince and princess would actually have preferred St Paul’s!

As an aside, here’s a link  a link that lists the royal coronations at the abbey. It has been pointed out to me that King Harold has been omitted. But it seems there’s no proof that he was crowned there, it’s only thought he was. Which seems to me to be a good enough reason not to include him in the list. You can read more about Harold’s coronation here.

Harold’s Coronation, from the Bayeux Tapestry

The unchanged coronation ceremony predates the abbey, and since 1308 all new monarchs have used the same coronation chair. Mention was made of the theft—and return—of the Scottish coronation stone (albeit broken in two) just before the crowning of the late Queen Elizabeth II. We learned that King Charles wants to “modernise” the ancient ceremony. Heaven knows what that means, although one suggestion is that he wishes to be crowned “Defender of the Faiths” as distinct from the one faith that has been established since Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Modernisation isn’t always a wise move, but I think this change would probably very good, because nowadays the United Kingdom is certainly more diverse than one single faith.

For over a decade a group of leading dignitaries led by the Duke of Norfolk have been meeting behind closed doors. Their job is to plan the crowning of King Charles III. It’s called Operation Golden Orb, and the group’s cover was blown by a journalist. But I do I hope that our new monarch’s desire to modernise doesn’t also mean slicing away much of what makes coronations so ancient, vital and important. Westminster Abbey doesn’t deserve to be short-changed. Nor do we.

Seventeen kings and queens are buried at the abbey, “along with over 3000 of the great and the good, from Dickens to Darwin”. (In the next episode we will be shown the marble memorial stone for Sir John Gielgud being prepared for its inclusion in Poets’ Corner.)

The abbey is the place for hatches, matches and dispatches, and is a Royal Peculiar, meaning that it’s answerable only to the monarch. We were shown the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which must never be trodden upon, and saw film from the Queen Mother’s funeral, which was rather eerie, given that since then we’ve had the funeral of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

The Funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

In the next episode the running of Westminster Abbey is described as “the spit, polish and professionalism…[of] keeping everything spick and span”. Especially when last minute preparations are made for a ceremony to remember Prince Philip. We are shown the meticulous dusting, cleaning and polishing of the statues. Richard II’s face gets fond attention. We are also introduced to the abbey’s most ancient chapel, the Pyx Chamber, which is 950 years old, about which you can read here.

The shrine of Edward the Confessor was shown to us by the Dean of Westminster The Very Reverend David Hoyle MBE, see here and here

Ian Bartlett, the Clerk of Works, ventures up to the abbey roof. He lives in a beautiful house that comes with the job and which can be seen from where he’s standing. His purpose now is to see a stonemason putting finishing touches to the repair of serious weathering and splitting of stonework. Such crumbling masonry is a definite red flag!

Then comes the annual external inspection of the abbey’s towers, involving some hair-raising abseiling. I couldn’t look when Deputy Clerk of Works Iain McDonald dangles 69 metres up the Hawksmoor tower. He finds some potentially dangerous stonework in the bell tower, but the nearly 300-year-old Hawksmoor clock looks pretty good for its age —except that up close it has seen better days, its gilding having been exposed to the relentless elements. Lower down he finds that the unkind weather has also left its mark on one of the stained-glass windows.

Next we are treated to what is arguably England’s oldest garden. And a treat it is, with Head Gardener Jan Pancheri showing us the 1000-year-old College Garden, where Benedictine monks once grew herbs and which is clearly her pride and joy. It is hope the garden will soon be opened to the public. The monks’ herb-growing is a tradition Jan has started to revive. She showed us some of the herbs, from lemon balm to put in tea to aid sleep, and feverfew for migraine. To have any effect on such dreadful headaches, feverfew must be eaten every day in a sandwich for at least two weeks. I don’t know what it tastes like but am fortunate not to suffer from migraines!

The College Garden

By the early evening, when the tourists are leaving, the new Gielgud stone is put in place. Then there is a service in Sir John’s honour. Among the famous names who attend are Sir Ian McKellen. Dame Judi Dench, Sir Derek Jacobi and Timothy West.

At the end of the day the last job for two lady vergers is at the shrine of Edward the Confessor. They greet the long-dead monarch with a cheery  “Hello, Edward!” and then extinguish the candles at four corners – or rather refill the candles, which seem to actually be oil lamps of some description. When they leave, the Confessor is wished a fond “Goodnight Edward, sleep well.”

Shrine of Edward the Confessor

Next it’s Easter at the Abbey. Holy Week is the most important week of the church year, with powerful and serious services that will commence with an outdoor procession on Palm Sunday. Intense preparations are made. It’s the boy choristers’ busiest time, and their first hymn will be sung outside, so the rather troublesome microphones are tested. The idea is to re-enact the arrival in Jerusalem of Jesus on a donkey, and it was joked that so far they hadn’t used a real donkey. The boy choristers board at the abbey and have large cooked breakfasts every day  because they need stamina, especially this week. Choral music as we know it began in the 14th century when they began to involve boys as choristers. Then the congregation starts to arrive, everyone carrying one of the palm crosses with which (as a child) I remember being presented every year.

The organist carries a heavy responsibility, of course, and he practices when the abbey has closed for the night. His organ has nearly 7000 pipes, and a stack of keyboards. It looks very complicated but sounds wonderful. A lot of its machinery is underground in what seems to be called the burning chamber, but the pipes extend up into the triforia. I could have done without the fearsome views over the precipice!

The Keeper of the Muniments (archives) is in charge of over 1000 years of records. But the documents aren’t the point of this visit because something mysterious has been spotted about the room itself. There is a corner that doesn’t make architectural sense. It appears to be a blocked doorway that has never had anywhere to open to and from. The guess is that it hides a niche or space in which to keep things. Why go to the trouble of blocking it up? Didn’t the monks want people to find something? Abbey treasures? Is it a medieval strong room? If so, whatever might it have held? Perhaps still holds? GPR is brought in. Rather frustratingly and inconclusively, it proves to be a recess, not a way through to anywhere. More research unearths that it was one of the most secure and high status places in the abbey. For a long time the abbey looked after the royal regalia. Royal regalia was stored at the abbey throughout the medieval period, and only went to the Tower in 1649 on the death of Charles I. Nowadays the abbey holds copies. It isn’t known where the originals were kept. Perhaps in the strange recess?

Muniments Room

Easter is make or break time for the abbey. Visitors are its lifeblood and the pandemic has affected numbers badly. New revenue schemes are necessary, one of which is Platinum Jubilee Roof Tours! Last year they opened up areas of the abbey people wouldn’t normally see and allowed them views over London they’d never have seen before. There’s confidence of getting the visitor numbers they need. Income from visitors is the abbey’s only income!

On Easter Sunday is held the all-important Easter vigil, which celebrates the Resurrection of Christ. It’s a crucial day for visitor numbers and will be the busiest day of all. Hopefully. The vestments will be the best gold for Easter, and the solemn Lenten draperies behind the High Altar, which have been up there for the forty days of Lent, have to be taken down and stored away until Lent commences again next year. All altars have to be dressed in their Easter best in time for the big evening service, which will begin in complete darkness late on the Saturday.

The Lent hangings are taken down

There are atmospheric shadows and the sweet singing of the choristers and light is at last brought back into the church. There is incense as the Easter candle (paschal candle) has to be placed in a stand in the very centre of the Cosmati pavement, where when lit it symbolises Christ’s resurrection. “The light of Christmas rising in glory to banish all darkness from our hearts and minds….” We are shown a view from above, with only the newly lit candles of the congregation illuminating the shadows. Then comes a great burst of organ sound as Easter is announced. The lights of the abbey come up at last. It’s very beautiful and moving.

Easter Vigil

Moving on, the abbey’s jubilee celebrations are on the brink. Timing is of the essence, and the bells must ring at the moment the royals exit the abbey. Inside all the shrines and memorials are being given a good dusting. Some tlc for Henry V, but especially for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Clerk of Works Ian Bartlett recently discovered something that might add a new chapter to the story of the unknown warrior. We learn that the memorial there now isn’t the first one. The original was only temporary and was there for two years while the present one was prepared. When other work was being done on something else recently they found half of the original stone. Now Ian is on the trail of the missing half, which is believed to be somewhere in the cloister. The masonry team is called in.

Preparations are under way for Anzac Day, when the service will be for the men and women of Australia and New Zealand. Anzac Day at the abbey is tickets only, and the occasion is attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (now Prince and Princess of Wales). There are VIPs everywhere, and the royals will be the last to arrive.

We go down in the abbey crypt where the abbey’s precious textiles are stored and are very vulnerable to insect pest damage. Pheromone moth lures in are in place to attract male moths, which become stuck. It’s not the adult moth that causes the damage, but the larvae. There’s an inspection of King Charles II’s funeral cope – a beautiful creation of midnight blue velvet with golden embroidery. We are shown the important cupboard containing the altar cloths, all made of velvet and silk with silver and gold thread. Many are over a century old. Thankfully, the dreaded moths are actually in retreat!

Two copes from the time of Charles II

The royals arrive for the Anzac Day service, which begins. We are shown Liz Truss gazing up at the ceiling, as if at a great revelation. I can’t think what it might have been. A grim omen, perchance?

Anzac Day at the Abbey

At the end of the service the Last Post sounds, and wreaths are lain at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Time to signal the bellringers, so the bells peal out just as the royals and top clergy emerge.

The search for the missing half of the first memorial stone of the Unknown Soldier is still ongoing. They think they have struck lucky, but there’s disappointment and so the search goes on.

The medieval cloister garden is usually out of bounds to visitors, but today they are trying out a tea party. It is another fund-raising scheme. Customers will pay handsomely, but it all needs to be extra special. The lady singer has to compete with helicopters and the abbey bells, and a strong wind plays havoc with the tablecloths. Oh dear.

The abbey’s 500-year-old library is preparing for a new exhibition of historic documents, including an early writ (1065) of Edward the Confessor. In 1952  8000 people crammed into the abbey to witness the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and many of the preparatory documents are included in the display. Another document is dated 11 June 1501, proving that Henry VII 😒dined at Cheyneygates. That was two years before the new Lady Chapel started to be built, so it’s believed they must have been talking about the plans.

As the year advances, the death of Queen Elizabeth will mean that history is in the making. Her state funeral has to be prepared in final minute detail, having been planned for years.

On a lighter note the Liber Regalis (Royal Book) is one of the items on display in the library, and the Head of Collections takes it out of its locked cabinet to change the page. This is so that one page alone isn’t subjected to the light. I recognised an illustration of Richard II, whose tomb (with his queen, Anne of Bohemia) lies directly below the room where the book is displayed. The Liber Regalis is the coronation manual. In it is described the order, form and elements of service that were used originally and still continue now.

Liber Regalis

It was at about the time the Liber Regalis was written that the abbey gained the choir boys which have been at the heart of royal occasions ever since. And

Today one of the boys has his tenth birthday. He can have the birthday cake of his choice…and he wants dark chocolate fudge! We see them at cricket practice and rehearsals for evensong….then enjoying the cake!

Hidden behind the lady chapel is the little cloister, once used by monks as an infirmary. Today it’s where senior staff and clergy have their homes and delightful little gardens. However, because the abbey is built on marshy Thorney Island there’s a medieval concrete platform underneath the gardens, so water drains off immediately. No sooner have the frustrated gardeners watered their plants than they have to do it again!

Lady Chapel

There is a display in Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee gallery, overseen by curator Susan Jenkins. Wonderful vessels are on view. Bath plate from the collection will be used in the Order of the Bath service in the Lady Chapel, where the Order’s glorious standards are on display, together with the stall plates. Every four years there’s a ceremony when incoming knight and their dames will take the oath and be installed. On Tuesday 24 May 2022 the Great Master of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath,  the (then) Prince of Wales, is to attend. Rehearsals are in full swing, with the State Trumpeters, the choir et al required at such a grand occasion. The knights will all be in their ruby-red robes. By tradition, the actual installation of new knights takes place in private.

Back in the gallery there are many very royal treasures which may also need to come out of their cases one day. The replica regalia is used in rehearsals for royal occasions, e.g. coronations. The St Edward Crown is only for coronations and is never used outside the abbey! The Imperial State Crown is used for State Opening of the Parliament.

Replica Royal Regalia

The vergers have to attend to post-service clear-ups. Their duties have been unchanged for centuries. They wait upon morning service and evening prayer every day, and silver chalices are not known to be dishwasher safe so have to be washed by hand! Dare I trust the vergers use Marigolds and Fairy Liquid?

The Dean and Chapter still run the abbey, but there are far fewer of them (four plus the Dean) than in centuries gone by, so they meet in Jerusalem Chamber instead of the much larger 700-year-old Chapter House (which seated 80 monks plus the abbot on a chair at foot of the central column. He was what has now become the Speaker. In medieval times the Chapter House was where the King’s Great Council met, and this was effectively the beginning of the English Parliament.

The final episode was about Christmas at the abbey, and I confess that when I heard the phrase “The most wonderful time of the year”, Andy Williams popped into my head! But at the abbey it is the most wonderful time, when the joy of Christmas is anticipated. There will be everything from wreath-making to nativity scenes, Christmas trees to carols from the choir. And the Abbey restaurant will have a menu that nods back 500 years and provides a medieval theme.

The Christmas rush is in full swing. Three weeks before Christmas Day delivery is taken of all the Christmas trees, including the main one on the North Green. It’s over 20’ high and must look perfect. The branches are carefully freed and arranged…and then decorated with no fewer than 1800 lights.

The abbey garden provides all the many wreaths. Such things were once pagan but are now abbey-approved. They’ll be hung on doors throughout the abbey, and are now said to represent the Crucifixion.

 “Snow” is added to the windows of the abbey shop, which this year will have a special display for three windows. Each window will feature a person who is buried or remembered in the abbey, The three “residents” have to be chosen out of hundreds, and there’s no doubt that Charles Dickens will be one. After all, if it weren’t for A Christmas Carol our Christmases today wouldn’t be quite the same. The other two windows will be of Handel and the Royal Ballet.  (Wot, no kings or queens? 😲) I’m not sure about the Royal Ballet…which for me just doesn’t seem to fit.

There’s a crisis when it’s realised there’s a leak in the abbey roof, directly above the choir. This must be repaired as a matter of urgency.

The first Advent carol service is imminent. It forms the first glimpse of Christmas, and the choir will wear red. The congregation will all have been provided with one of 650 special candles, each protected by a collar, to spare hands from wax splashes. The vestments must be at their best, with all repairs done, such as loose threads. The service commences outside with the big switching on of the Christmas Tree on the North Green. The choir is present, and one of the boys performs the actual switching on. The congregation watches on as all 1800 lights flare into glorious life.

Finally the Nativity scene is brought out of storage in the attic. Each piece is very heavy and easily damaged, and all have to be lowered 80’ down to the nave. It’s nerve-wracking for all concerned, but is achieved successfully and the scene is set up…with suitably fire-retardant straw for the true stable effect.

The final episode fades out to carol-singing from the choir, O Come All Ye Faithful and Ding Dong Merrily on High, but I crave your indulgence, ladies and gentlemen, because it isn’t the end of my review, because I will now return to the penultimate episode, in which was my highlight of the whole series; the hunt for a lost Tudor royal. Why would I be so interested in a lost Tudor? Ah, read on and all will be revealed.

Matthew Payne, Keeper of the Muniments, searches an early burial list from  the 16th century because a few years ago a coffin was discovered on the south side of the Lady Chapel. It was a very rare, very high status anthropoid coffin (i.e. in the shape of a human) so whosever it was had been extremely rich and important. This mysterious coffin is now housed in the abbey’s attic storeroom while more delving is done into its occupant. There are two candidates, one of whom had only been buried there for three years before the old Lady Chapel was pulled down by Henry VII in 1516. Um, no. This is an error because if it was 1516 it wasn’t odious Henry VII but his even more odious son, Henry VIII.

The coffin was found close to the chapel walls, and to find exact location the help is enlisted of Curator, Dr Susan Jenkins. A number of lead coffins were found in one (now external) location. One of them was the anthropoid coffin now under investigation. Because they’re outside the Lady Chapel, it’s thought they belong to a period before it was built, so they were moved from the old Lady Chapel and reburied outside. Because Abbey is a royal peculiar a special licence has to be procured from the Ministry of Justice to excavate human remains. For such fragile objects some delicate and gentle work is required to get them out of the ground. The lids are soldered on, and the coffins aren’t opened during excavation. Such bones as are found are bagged up. There’s great excitement about the anthropoid coffin. Everyone is keen to know whose it is.

On opening up the coffin’s cast-lead decorated lid is dated to somewhere between 1400-1500, and the only person who was buried in old Lady Chapel and is still unaccounted for is John, Viscount Welles, Henry VII’s half-uncle….and half-brother of Margaret Beaufort. To read more about him go here https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-commemorations/commemorations/john-1st-viscount-welles. So, while Henry lies cosily (and sumptuously!) inside the abbey, together with Margaret, poor Uncle John was abandoned, all forlorn and lost. That is if this coffin is Uncle John’s. They can’t be absolutely certain.

My interest in John Welles dates back to the early 1970s, when I wrote my original trilogy about Cicely, daughter of King Edward IV. She was married to John Welles (as we now know he was her second husband, Ralph Scrope being the first). I hauled my husband up to London on a mission to find John Welles’s tomb. They were very helpful at the abbey and we were taken through many passages and shown the place where he could have been buried, but to all intents and purposes he’d disappeared into the ether. Well, he wasn’t buried where they thought back then, but now it seems they do, after all, know where he really was all the time! I’m glad he’s been found because I became very fond of him when I wrote about his wife.

All in all this series of documentaries is very entertaining, and if I’ve gone on a little (um, a lot) it’s because it’s very hard to single out brief sentences here and there without seeming disrespectful. I hope that far from boring you I’ve kindled an appetite to watch the series in full.



  1. Great review. As for feverfew for headaches, I grow it in my garden (it self seeds all over the garden) and have tried eating it in a sandwich for a migraine but the taste is so horrendously bitter, like chewing paracetamol, I felt I’d prefer to put up with the headache.
    Love reading your articles, very interesting and informative.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I watched all of these programmes and enjoyed them immensely.
    In fact I didn’t want the series to end and wish there were more programmes like this.
    I think your review is really good, and follows faithfully what we were shown. Once again, well done on your review.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had no idea of any of this, but now I am really curious how long black and white tile floor has been around because my first deja vu experience as a child was from walking into a room that had that tile and now I see it here!
    Oh, and thank you, the Andy Williams song is now stuck in my head too!
    Beautiful article!


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