MoboReader> Literature > Highways and Byways in London

   Chapter 9 WESTMINSTER

Highways and Byways in London By Emily Constance Baird Cook Characters: 43568

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

"The devout King destined to God that place, both for that it was near unto the famous and wealthy City of London, and also had a pleasant situation amongst fruitful fields lying round about it, with the principal river running hard by, bringing in from all parts of the world great variety of wares and merchandise of all sorts to the city adjoining; but chiefly for the love of the Chief Apostle, whom he reverenced with a special and singular affection."-Contemporary Life of Edward the Confessor in Harleian M.S.

"The world-famed Abbey by the westering Thames."-Matthew Arnold.

"Westminster Abbey," said Dean Stanley, "stands alone amongst the buildings of the world. There are, it may be, some which surpass it in beauty or grandeur; there are others, certainly, which surpass it in depth and sublimity of association; but there is none which has been entwined by so many continuous threads with the history of a whole nation."

The old Abbey of Westminster, is, indeed, in itself an epitome of English history. Elsewhere in London, you must dig and delve for it, study and reconstruct; here, you have it all together, a chain in a manner unbroken, from Edward the Confessor to the latest of our Hanoverian Kings, crowned here, so lately and so splendidly, in the place of his fathers.

The church has, in a manner, been founded many times; by tradition, by rebuilding, by frequent restoration and enlargement. The earliest church, or temple, on this ancient site is, indeed, almost lost in the semi-fabulous mists of early history. To all famous fanes, the after-years have a tendency to ascribe legendary and miraculous beginnings; thus, the magic haze that surrounds the primitive church of the doubtful Saxon King Lucius is hardly less than that covering the Temple of Apollo, the Sun-god, said to exist here in Roman times. At any rate, it is clear that on this favoured spot, once the little sandy peninsula of "Thorney Island," was an early sanctuary and settlement, both Roman and Briton. In King Sebert's time the mists of antiquity lift, but still slightly. Sebert, King of the East-Saxons, was, early in the seventh century, the traditionary founder of a church here, dedicated to St. Peter. According to the story, Sebert, just returned from a Roman pilgrimage, was about to have his church consecrated by the bishop, Mellitus; when, one evening, a poor Saxon fisher, Edric, who was watching his nets along the shore, saw, on the opposite river bank, a gleaming light, and, approaching it in his boat, found a venerable man who desired to be ferried across the stream. There, the mysterious stranger landed, and proceeded to the church, where, transfigured with light, and attended by hosts of glittering angels, he consecrated it, being, indeed, no other than St. Peter himself:

"Then all again is dark;

And by the fisher's bark

The unknown passenger returning stands.

O Saxon fisher! thou hast had with thee

The fisher from the Lake of Galilee-

"So saith he, blessing him with outspread hands;

Then fades, but speaks the while:

At dawn thou to King Sebert shalt relate

How his St. Peter's Church in Thorney Isle,

Peter, his friend, with light did consecrate."

The chronicle relates the story thus:

"Know, O Edric," said the stranger, while the fisherman's heart glowed within him, "know that I am Peter. I have hallowed the church myself. To-morrow I charge thee that thou tell these things to the Bishop, who will find a sign and token in the church of my hallowing. And for another token, put forth again upon the river, cast thy nets, and thou shalt receive so great a draught of fishes that there will be no doubt left in thy mind. But give one-tenth to this my holy church."

The story continues that Bishop Mellitus, on hearing Edric's miraculous tale, changed the name of the place from Thorney Isle to West Minster.

The tomb of the first traditionary founder of St. Peter's church of Westminster is still shown in the Abbey to-day, as it has been shown ever since the time of its erection. Through all the vicissitudes of the Abbey, its many alterations and restorations, this early relic has always been treated carefully and with respect. The King of the East-Saxons sleeps in peace in the choir, with his wife Ethelgoda and his sister Ricula, first of a long line of kings and potentates.

But if Sebert was the traditional founder of the Abbey, Edward the Confessor was, unquestionably, its real founder. And, for that matter, the legends that surround the mysterious Sebert still linger, like a halo, round the Confessor's memory; he who was, we are told, so saintly, that being one day at mass in the ancient minster, he saw "the Saviour appear as a child, bright and pure as a spirit." Truly, a picturesque age to live in! The rebuilding of the Confessor's church was, as in the later time of Rahere, the outcome of a vision, and of a direct message from the saint. Edward, said St. Peter, must rebuild the ancient minster of Thorney. Edward rebuilt it, laying the foundation stone in 1049, and naming it "the Collegiate Church of St. Peter of Westminster." It was the work of the King's life, and it was only consecrated eight days before his death. Of the Confessor's chapel and monastery all that now remains is the present "Chapel of the Pyx," with portions of the Westminster School Buildings and of the walls of the South Cloister. For Henry III., the Abbey's second founder, who had "a rare taste for building" pulled down, in 1245, most of his predecessor's work, and made the splendid miracle-working shrine that contains the relics of the royal saint. But it was Henry VII., in 1502, who was the great builder and transformer of the Abbey. To him we owe the fine perpendicular chapel called by his name, "the most beautiful chapel in the world," the one building that impresses, at first sight, every visitor to London. Westminster Abbey, as we see it now, is probably in externals much as Henry VII. left it, except for the addition of Wren's two western towers, and "the fact that in the middle ages it was a magnificent apex to a royal palace," surrounded "by a train of subordinate offices and buildings, and with lands extending to the present Oxford Street, Fleet Street, and Vauxhall."

Yet, without any of its former palatial accessories, is not the gray fret-work of Henry VIIth's chapel, as it breaks on the delighted vision of the traveller down Whitehall, an ever-renewed joy and wonder? To Henry Tudor we owe the union of the houses of York and Lancaster; yet we remember him far more by this, the chapel that he has given us for all time. Truly, he too must have had "a rare taste in building!" "It is to the exaltation of the building art," says Mr. Ruskin, in an eloquent passage, "that we owe:

-"those vaulted gates ... those window-labyrinths of twisted tracery and starry light; those misty masses of multitudinous pinnacle and diademed tower; the only witnesses, perhaps, that remain to us of the faith and fear of nations. All else for which the builders sacrificed, has passed away-all their living interests, and aims, and achievements. We know not for what they laboured, and we see no evidence of their reward. Victory, wealth, authority, happiness-all have departed, though bought by many a bitter sacrifice. But of them, and their life and their toil upon the earth, one reward, one evidence, is left to us in those gray heaps of deep-wrought stone. They have taken with them to the grave their powers, their honours, and their errors; but they have left us their adoration."

But, apart from the beauty of its architecture, apart from the associations and traditions of its early history, apart from its honour as the place of coronations, the feeling that every true Englishman has for the Abbey of Westminster must necessarily be strong; for it represents to him not only the essential spirit of his mother-city; it is also, in a sense, his national Valhalla,

-"place of tombs,

Where lie the mighty bones of ancient men."-

Here, in this "cathedral close of Westminster," is his true fatherland. This, he may say, is his national Holy of Holies; the sacred spot:

"Wo meine Traüme wandeln gehn,

Wo meine Todten aufersteh'n."

Here he may feel all the reverence, all the love for his country, that is ever the birthright of the true citizen. For, not only kings, queens, and nobles, but also the great and mighty in art, science, literature, are buried within this narrow space. It is England's Temple of Fame, her crowing glory of a life of honour and merit. The "immortal dead" are thus in their death brought near to each one of us, and become part of our special family. They are our national inheritance.

Westminster Abbey is "the silent meeting-place of the dead of eight centuries," the "great temple of silence and reconciliation where the enmities of twenty generations lie buried." Death is ever the great peacemaker. Round the medi?val shrine of Edward the Confessor, in its faded and rifled splendour, lie, in a closely-joined circle, the peaceful Tombs of the Kings; sturdy Plantagenets, their warfare ended, the features of their effigies composed in an eternal calm. They sleep well, after life's fitful fever! In Henry VIIth's chapel, Mary and Elizabeth, sisters of bitter hate and strange destiny, rest together in a contracted sepulchre, admitting of none other occupant but they two. "The sisters are at one; the daughter of Catherine of Aragon and the daughter of Anne Boleyn repose in peace at last." On their monument is the striking inscription: an inscription placed there by James I.; "closing," said Dean Stanley, "the long war of the English Reformation;" "Regno consortes et urna, hic obdormimus Elizabetha et Maria sorores, in spe resurrectionis." And those great statesmen of a later age, Pitt and Fox, their life-long rivalry ended, rest in the north transept, dying in the same year, and buried close together:

"Here-taming thought to human pride-

The mighty chiefs sleep side by side.

Drop upon Fox's grave the tear,

'Twill trickle to his rival's bier;

O'er Pitt's the mournful requiem sound,

And Fox's shall the notes rebound.

The solemn echo seems to cry-

'Here let their discord with them die.'"

The figure of William Pitt, Lord Chatham, in parliamentary robes, his arm outstretched as if speaking, rises high above the surrounding monuments:

"High over those venerable graves," says Macaulay, "towers the stately monument of Chatham, and from above, his effigy, graven by a cunning hand, seems still, with eagle face and outstretched arm, to bid England be of good cheer, and to hurl defiance at her foes."

In another splendid passage, Macaulay describes the later burial of the son near the father:

"The grave of Pitt had been made near to the spot where his great father lay, near also to the spot where his great rival was soon to lie.... Wilberforce, who carried the banner before the hearse, described the awful ceremony with deep feeling. As the coffin descended into the earth, he said, the eagle face of Chatham from above seemed to look down with consternation into the dark house which was receiving all that remained of so much power and glory."

"The silence of death," says Dean Stanley, "breathes here the lesson which the tumult of life hardly suffered to be heard."

As, then, the Appian Way was to the Romans, so is Westminster Abbey to us, our "Highway of Tombs." As the stranger walks along the vast Nave and the Transepts, he passes through a veritable City of the Dead, commemorated here by every kind of monument, statue, bust, tablet, cenotaph, tomb. Here are now no more the simple tombs and effigies of the earliest time, no more the rich, imposing magnificence of the medi?val shrines, but a later efflorescence of sculpture and ornament, an efflorescence differing as widely from the severity of former ages, as the laudatory epitaphs differ from the simplicity and humility of the early inscriptions. Justice and Mercy, Neptune and Britannia, cherubs and clouds, are generally very painfully in evidence, and in their vast size and depressing ubiquity testify to the false taste of their day. Nor are the monuments always deserved. "Some day," said Carlyle, cynically, "there will be a terrible gaol-delivery in Westminster Abbey!" The worst of such theatrical sculpture is, also, that it always takes up so much room; we, in our day, should often be glad of the space of one cloudlet,-of one unnecessary virtue,-for the modest perpetuation of a great man's memory. Who now recalls the merits of the forgotten magnates of past ages? but Dickens's humble grave-stone is ever freshly tended, bright with geranium or violet. Ruskin's small tablet and bas-relief must hang in a dark, unnoticed, corner, and Tennyson's bust is relegated to a pillar of Poet's Corner. And what is left, one may ask, of our National Valhalla, for the great names of a future age?

The solemn dignity of the Confessor's Chapel, and of Henry VIIth's beautiful chapel behind it, have, after the crude monuments of the Nave, all the calm of a secluded byway after the clamour of a noisy street.

Westminster Abbey is full of beautiful pictures. On a sunny day, especially, the play of light and shade on its pillars, the fretted tracery of its interlaced arches, the fine harmony of its proportions, the golden, mellowing, subdued light that enters through its "rose" windows, the colour of its many tombs and rich marbles, that, on a day of London winter, so beautifully harmonises with the whole, may well tempt many an artist. To gain the full glory of the long aisles in their aerial perspective, the Abbey should be seen from the far end of the Nave. Everywhere is beauty; but perhaps one of the most lovely "bits" in the church is that furnished by the three canopied tombs of Henry III.'s family,-the tombs of Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster, Countess Aveline, his wife, and Aymer de Valence. These three tombs make a charming picture from the Sacrarium, where they stand; viewed, too, from the aisle just beneath them, two of them tower up grandly, to their full height; the third, however, that of Aveline, is hidden from the aisle by an ugly eighteenth-century monument. (Truly, the eighteenth century has much to answer for!) The lofty pinnacles of these tombs, the richness of their sculptured foliage and crockets, and the calmness of their supported effigies, are very impressive. Among other strikingly picturesque views is that of the small chapel, or rather, doorway, of St. Erasmus, dating from Richard II.'s time, a low arch supported by clustered pillars; and also that of the splendid "Chantry of Henry V.," towering at the entrance to Henry VIIth's Chapel, above the royal circle of tombs on either side. Over the Arch that canopies Henry's tomb, (an arch in the shape of the letter "H,") is the iron bar with the king's shield, saddle and helmet,-the helmet which we would fain for poetry's sake, think to be

-"that casque that did affright the air at Agincourt,"

-but which was, probably, merely a tilting-helmet made for the funeral. There is a sad humanity about these blackened accoutrements of the dead, standing out against the golden half-light of the dimly-seen chapel beyond, hanging so long in their lofty position as to seem a part of the Abbey itself. Have they not, before now, appealed to the imagination of many a Westminster school-boy, sitting below in the choir, and set him wondering about those old Plantagenets and Tudors, who seem here so much more alive and human than in the dull pages of a history book?

The best tombs of the Abbey are only free and open to inspection on Mondays and Tuesdays within certain hours; on all other days, they are locked up, and people are only "taken round" them at stated times and under supervision. On Mondays and Tuesdays there is, mostly, a good assembly of sightseers; and, whether one choses a free day, full of people, or whether one rather elects to be taken round on a sixpenny day in custody, in either case one inevitably loses much of the charm and feeling of the beautiful old church and its associations. On free days, boys have a tendency to clatter distractingly up and down the wooden steps that lead to the Confessor's Chapel, with other diversions natural to the juvenile mind; on sixpenny days, you go in and out with the crowd in a depressing "queue," while each chapel in turn is unlocked and its monuments explained in a sad monotone. No other arrangement, no doubt, is possible; yet, who could penetrate to the soul of the Abbey under such conditions as these? It is perhaps not unnatural that the vergers, who have performed the office so often, should feel a certain satiety in the process, and that they should wish to hurry the visitor through the chapels as quickly and perfunctorily as may be; and yet, how charming would it be to spend a long afternoon here, in study or enjoyment, undisturbed! In an unwashed and noisy crowd, a crowd which seems to imagine that the Tombs of the Kings are a species of Waxworks, who can think, or enjoy, or remember? Moreover, when one is, so to speak, "in custody," one must always be very careful to do nothing which may draw down on one's self the suspicion of the custodian. In this connexion one is tempted to recall the story told of a certain too-conscientious verger in one of our provincial cathedrals. A devout visitor knelt down at an altar-tomb; an action for which the said verger promptly reprimanded him. "I was only praying," murmured the visitor, rising abashed. "Oh, that can't be allowed," said the verger; "we can't let people pray about wherever they like; that would never do."

In Westminster Abbey they are hardly so particular; and yet, something of this same sense of restriction the reverent visitor to the ancient edifice also experiences. His spirit recoils from locked entrance gates and tours of perfunctory inspection, and yearns for but one hour of the "bliss of solitude," to invoke, if not the shades of the mighty dead, at least something of the feeling that clings round their memorial chapels. It is this feeling that Froude has so well described: "Between us and the old English," he says in an eloquent passage, "there lies a gulf of mystery which the prose of the historian will never adequately bridge. They cannot come to us, and our imagination can but feebly penetrate to them. Only among the aisles of the cathedral, only as we gaze upon their silent figures sleeping on their tombs, some faint conceptions float before us of what these men were when they were alive; and perhaps in the sound of church bells, that peculiar creation of medi?val age, which falls upon the ear like the echo of a vanished world."

And now for the other side of the picture. I was once, on a "sixpenny day," in the north aisle of Henry VIIth's chapel, admiring the quaint cradle-tomb of that "royal rosebud" of three days old,-Princess Sophia,-and pondering over that strange curse of Stuarts and Tudors, when up came a couple, 'Arry and 'Arriet, of the usual cockney honey-mooning type. They were evidently "doing" the London monuments in style, and eschewed free days. The bride seemed tired and somewhat apathetic; she evidently had to be kept severely up to the mark.

"Funny little nipper," said the young man peeping into the cradle: "It's a won'erful big child for three days old," said the bride, with some faint show of interest; and, "my! how silly it is dressed! only fancy, a cap like that there for a byby!" Then they turned to Queen Elizabeth's effigy: "I don't like the looks of 'er," said the lady, with something between a shudder and a giggle: "I come over jes' now so faint," she continued, her pink colour fading: "it's 'ardly' 'elthy in 'ere with all these corpses, is it?.... Wax-works is much nicer; they don't give yer the creeps so. Let's go and 'ave a 'bus ride, an' give the old Johnny the slip. I think we've 'ad our sixpennorth." So they went, but alas! they had left me their desecration.

Strange, indeed, are Fate's ironies! Queen Elizabeth and her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, rest in the two side aisles of Henry VIIth's chapel in stately tombs, much resembling one another, erected, with praiseworthy impartiality, to his "dearest mother" and his "dear sister," by King James I. In the Stuart vault, close to the unhappy Queen of Scots, is buried Lady Arabella Stuart, "childe of woe"; that poor prisoner of the Tower, separated from her loved and just-wedded husband and kept by her cousin James I. in durance vile, till "her reason left her," and she died. Even in death her disgrace followed her, when, for fear of being thought too respectful to one "dying out of royal favour," the authorities dared not even provide her poor body with an adequate coffin! Poor "Ladie Arbell!" Of all the tragedies of English history, none are sadder or more cruel than hers, or reflect, more vividly, the inhumanity of the time.

The interior of Henry VIIth's Chapel,-in its darkened glory of golden light, with its fretted roof, its "walls wrought into universal ornament," its many statues and sculptures, and contrasted dark oak choir stalls, with the banners of their owners, the Knights of the Bath, hanging overhead,-is very fine. In the centre of the chapel is the magnificent tomb of Henry VII., the third founder of the Abbey, who, with much of the feeling of the men who built the Pyramids, determined this as the splendid mausoleum of his race. The monument, enclosed by a screen, or "closure," of gilt copper, is by Torregiano. Here, with Henry, is buried his wife, Elizabeth of York, in marriage with whom the king finall

y united the York and Lancaster cause. Hither was brought in state, in 1502, the body of this last Queen of the House of York, dead at twenty-seven, her waxen effigy, with dishevelled hair and Royal robes, lying outside her coffin:

"The first stone of the splendid edifice founded by Henry VII., and which was to contain all the glory of his race, had only been laid a month when his wife, Elizabeth of York, died. She lies in its first grave. More wrote an elegy on the Queen, who died in giving birth to a child in the Tower:-

"Adieu, sweetheart! my little daughter late,

Thou shalt, sweet babe, such is thy destiny,

Thy mother never know; for here I lie.

At Westminster, that costly work of yours,

Mine own dear lord, I now shall never see."

In front of the chantry of his grandparents, is the altar-tomb of Edward VI., the boy-king of sixteen, "flower of the Tudor name"; a small portion of the frieze of his ancient monument, also by Torregiano, has survived Republican zeal, and has been let into the more modern structure.

In one of the five small apsidal chapels at the eastern extremity of the Abbey is Dean Stanley's fine monument, a recumbent figure, by Boehm. Here, in the "farthest east" of the Abbey that they so loved and lived in, he and his wife, Lady Augusta, "devoted servant of her Queen," rest until the judgment day. The Duke of Buckingham's huge tomb, that almost blocks another of these small chapels, is picturesque: and near it, on the floor of the main building, is a blue slab simply inscribed with the name of "Elizabeth Claypole." Close to the great shrine of Henry and Elizabeth rests peacefully this favourite daughter of Oliver Cromwell, the only member of her family suffered to remain in the Abbey after the Restoration, when the mouldering bodies of her father and his myrmidons were exhumed and hanged at Tyburn, showing the furious brutality, unconquered even by death, of the

-"foolish people, unsounde and ever untreue."

The "great Temple of Silence and Reconciliation," that had condoned so many even greater wrongs, has, here alone, failed to protect its dead.

Henry VIIth's Chapel is now mainly used for such functions as the yearly convocation of the bishops, and for early bi-weekly services for the deanery and its precincts, &c. Its banners are decaying, its stalls are no longer used by the "Knights of the Bath"; and the last banner placed here was that of the Duke of Wellington, in 1804.

As Henry VIIth's Chapel is the mausoleum of the Tudors, so is Edward the Confessor's Chapel that of the Plantagenets. Here the whole space, indeed, is "paved with kings, queens, and princes, who all wished to rest as near as possible to the miracle-working shrine." In the royal ring of tombs, the treasure, the jewels, the gilt-bronze accessories, and, in some cases, the arms and even the heads of the effigies have been raided at some past time. The beautiful effigy of Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, that "queen of good memory" who accompanied her lord to the Crusades, and in honour to whom nine monumental crosses were erected in London, still, however, remains intact. "The beautiful features of the dead queen are expressed in the most serene quietude; her long hair waves from beneath the circlet on her brow." Edward I, the greatest of the Plantagenets, lies near on a bare altar-tomb of grey marble; a plain monument for so great and glorious a being. On the north side are the words: "Scotorum Malleus" (the Hammer of the Scots). At the head of Eleanor, his daughter-in-law, lies Henry III., the "second founder" of the Abbey; "quiet Henry III., our English Nestor," who reigned fifty-six years; his effigy is of gilt brass. Katherine of Valois, widow of Henry V., the ancestress of the Tudor line, rests under the altar of her husband's chantry; she it was whose mummified corpse Pepys records that he kissed in 1668, "reflecting upon it that I did kiss a queene." Queen Philippa of Hainault, her husband Edward III., and the luckless Richard II., complete the royal circle.

Just in front of the screen that stands at the foot of the Confessor's shrine, are the Coronation Chairs. The most battered and ancient of these is the old coronation chair of Edward I, enclosing the famous "Prophetic Stone" or "Stone of Destiny," of Scone; concerning which the Scots believed, that wherever it was carried the supreme power would go with it. Edward I. brought it from Scotland in 1297, in token of the complete subjugation of that country. Every English monarch since then has been crowned in this chair, and Queen Victoria used it at her Jubilee service. The second coronation chair, (made for Queen Mary II., wife of William III.), is only used when kings and queens are crowned together: it was used for Queen Adelaide in 1831; and lately for Queen Alexandra.

Opposite the wooden staircase that descends from the Confessor's Chapel to the ambulatory below, a small doorway leads to the Islip Chapel; where on "free" days, the "Wax Effigies" may be seen. This curious and ghoul-like collection is the outcome of a custom dating from ancient times; the custom of carrying in funeral procession, first, the embalmed body open on the bier, and subsequently, the wax effigy, or portrait model, for the crowd to gaze at; the effigy to rest beside the tomb or monument. Remains of such effigies, broken, mutilated and often unrecognisable, are extant even as far back as Queen Philippa's time; these ghastly fragments are however, not on general view. Eleven wax figures still remain; dirty, but in a tolerable state of preservation; they suggest a very grimy and antiquated Chamber of Horrors. Presumably taken from life, or, in some cases, from a cast after death, they are invaluable as contemporary likenesses. Charles II., an unpleasantly yellow, ogling creature in wig and feathered hat, a ghoulish dandy with the well-known "drop" in his cheeks, confronts us at the top of a narrow wooden stair. If it be difficult to imagine his fascinations,-those of his neighbour, "La Belle Stuart," are a trifle more suggestive; yet here the lady is, surely, no longer very young; and we can hardly connect her with the figure of "Britannia" on our pence, for which it is said she consented to sit as model. Queen Anne's effigy (she died at fifty) is, possibly, flattering; or it may be a more youthful portrait. Her sad, pale face, in her gorgeous dress, suggest remembrances of her eighteen dead children, buried in the Stuart Vault of Henry VIIth's chapel, about the coffin of the Queen of Scots; "pressing in and around, with their accumulated weight, the illustrious dust below." Strange doom of the Stuart race! Were these people merely human and not royal, would not such afflictions win our sympathy? We hear of James II.'s faults-history is reticent about his eleven dead children; of "Good Queen Anne's" virtues,-hardly a word as to her maternal grief. Poor, kindly, amiable queen! as she sits here in her tarnished grandeur, she seems, of a truth, overpowered by the "load,"

-"wellnigh not to be borne,

Of the too great orb of her fate."

Mary II., a big woman, nearly six feet in height, towers over her small husband, William III., who, nevertheless, stands on a footstool beside her. Most witch-like of all is the effigy of Queen Elizabeth, (a restoration of the Chapter, in 1760, of the original figure carried at her funeral, which had by then fallen to pieces). The portrait is evidently from a cast taken after death, for it suggests the wasting of disease, the anguish of suffering. The Queen seems haunted and hag-ridden; the wizened and weird appearance of the figure is in horrid contrast with its gay attire; the high-heeled, gold shoes with rosettes, stomacher covered with jewels, and huge ruff of the time. A strange experience, indeed, is this "Islip Chapel"; and one that leaves a lasting impression!

The small chapels round the Confessor's shrine, separated from it by the Ambulatories, are filled with interesting medi?val tombs, and some brasses of great beauty. In one of them is the eighteenth-century monument of Lady Elizabeth Nightingale, by Roubiliac, so popular among the Abbey sightseers. This theatrical figure of the skeleton Death hurling a dart at the dying lady, so affrighted, says tradition, an intending robber, that he fled in terror, leaving his crowbar behind. And I can never leave the Abbey without admiring that lovely figure of the beggar girl holding a baby, in the North Transept, that commemorates, among surrounding politicians and soldiers, the charities of a certain Mrs. Elizabeth Warren, dead in 1816.

How dazzlingly the sunlight of London gleams upon us, as we leave the twilight of the Abbey! We may quit it by the small door of "Poet's Corner," that door where poor, ill-used, foolish Queen Caroline beat in vain and undignified effort for admittance to and participation in her cruel husband's coronation; dying, one short fortnight afterwards, "of a broken heart." From Poet's Corner we enter upon a pleasant green sward, diversified by the flying buttresses that, in grand blackness of London smoke, support the Chapter-House; emerging, presently, into the strange twentieth-century bustle and din of Victoria-Street. Or, going out through the front entrance in the North Transept, ("Solomon's Porch,") we come upon St. Margaret's Church, that building which, beautiful in itself, renders such service to the Abbey, by presenting it to the eye in its true proportions. The ancient cloisters, part of which date from the early conventual buildings here, (a Benedictine house connected with the foundation of the first minster), may be reached, either through a door from the South Aisle, or through the neighbouring "Dean's Yard," a pleasant square of old-fashioned houses, where from time immemorial the merry Westminster boys have played. If the visitor be of an antiquarian, or historical, turn of mind, he may now penetrate to the old "Chapel of the Pyx," a remnant of the earliest times, and the ancient treasure-house of England's Kings; or to the Chapter-House, an octagonal chamber, now restored to its pristine beauty by judicious restoration. If, on the contrary, he merely prefer to wander vaguely, every turn of the cloisters will present to him a new and charming picture. Especially in spring are these cloisters delightful, when the old trees of the courts and closes put on their early green, an innocent green that contrasts so poetically with the crumbling grime of the ancient walls. It is the eternal contrast of Life and of Death. In this favoured spot, the Canons' houses, the old School of Westminster, and the ecclesiastical precincts generally, are all entangled in a labyrinth of cloisters, difficult to thread, save to the elect. School and church buildings, cloisters, picturesque byways and back streets, seem all here inextricably confused; but this only renders the locality the more attractive. Suddenly, you come upon a brass door, announcing, in spotless metal, "The Deanery." It is in a quiet court, built up under the Abbey's very shadow; and here, facing you, is the famous "Jerusalem Chamber," a most picturesque building outside, with ancient, crumbling, (happily not "restored,") stones, and painted glass windows. Here, as told in Shakespeare, King Henry IVth died:

King Henry: "Doth any name particular belong

Unto the lodging where I first did swoon?"

Warwick: "'Tis called Jerusalem, my noble lord."

King Henry: "Laud be to God! even there my life must end;

It hath been prophesied to me many years

I should not die but in Jerusalem,

Which vainly I supposed the Holy Land;

But bear me to that chamber; there I'll lie;

In that Jerusalem shall Harry die."

Henry IVth, Act IV, Sc. 4.

The Deanery is a low gabled building, with a charming old-world air. Further on is a small enclosure called "Little Cloisters;" a tiny secluded court where the clergy of the Abbey live. Here is a curious tablet that records the death of a poor sufferer "who through ye spotted veil of ye smallpox rendered up his pure and unspotted soul." Reached from Dean's Yard by a vaulted passage and an ancient gate, is Little Dean's Yard, where is the classic gateway to Westminster School.

The cloisters, like the Abbey itself, contain many monuments and inscriptions. One in particular, "Jane Lister, dear childe, 1688" charmed Dean Stanley, as recalling, in its simplicity, the early monuments of the catacombs.

The blackened, time-honoured houses of Dean's Yard are now varied by some new private mansions. Part of the square is now occupied by "Church House," a kind of large ecclesiastical club and office. Its main portion, which extends far back into neighbouring streets and purlieus, is of cheerful red brick.

The narrow streets of Westminster are curious and interesting, if occasionally just a trifle "slummy." They are generally old, tortuous, and picturesque; but the old, as in other parts of London, is gradually being displaced by the new. Westminster is now much sought after as a residential neighbourhood; building is increasing there, and rents are proportionately rising. The houses are often much shadowed and built up to, yet, here and there, charming views of the Abbey and its precincts almost compensate for want of light. The too ubiquitous "flats" and "mansions" are multiplying here as elsewhere; but Cowley Street has still an old world charm, and Queen Anne's Gate has its attractions. On the Whitehall side, the late removal of the obstructing Parliament Street, and the rebuilding of Government offices, have made great structural alterations.

Just outside the Abbey is "Broad Sanctuary," a name that commemorates the ancient rights and powers of the Church in protecting political victims and offenders from the law. "The Sanctuary" in medi?val times was a square Norman tower, containing two cruciform chapels. Here did that poor Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV., seek refuge twice in her chequered and mournful life; it was on her second flight hither, in her widowhood, with all her children, that her "young princes, her tender babes," were dragged away from her to be murdered by their uncle Richard of Gloucester.

In all the structural alterations of Westminster, its old Hall, built first by William Rufus, has always mercifully been spared. It was rebuilt by Richard II., who, if only for the sake of such a monument, deserved of England a better fate. This Hall, which has witnessed more tragedies than any other London building, is principally famous to us as the place of trial of Charles Stuart, King of England, 1649. Here, with the Naseby banners hanging over his devoted head, Charles showed all that firmness and control that had been so conspicuously lacking in his life. Macaulay describes it thus:

"The great hall of William Rufus, the hall which had resounded with acclamations at the inauguration of thirty kings: the hall which had witnessed the just sentence of Bacon and the just absolution of Somers; the hall where the eloquence of Strafford had for a moment awed and melted a victorious party inflamed with just resentment; the hall where Charles had confronted the High Court of Justice with the placid courage which has half redeemed his fame."

Victoria Tower, Westminster.

On Barry's enormous Gothic Palace, the Houses of Parliament-Time, which does so much both for the London buildings and for the opinions of Londoners,-will no doubt deliver a favourable verdict. Its florid richness of decoration, unsuitable, say art critics, to such a vast building, was in imitation of Henry VIIth's miniature chapel opposite. Its galleries and courts, almost as labyrinthine as the Westminster cloisters, require a long experience to understand and unravel. That Sir Charles Barry has worked Westminster Hall into his newer palace, entitles him to our respect and gratitude. In Old Palace Yard is that equestrian statue of Richard C?ur-de-Lion that has won so much praise from the greatest of our art critics. Old Palace Yard, too, has tragic associations. It was here that the Gunpowder Plot conspirators suffered death, opposite the windows of the house through which they had carried the gunpowder into the cellars under the threatened House of Lords. Here, also, Sir Walter Raleigh was executed in 1618.

Where Barry's palace now stands, stood, from Anglo Saxon days till Henry VIIIth's time, the ancient palace of the English Kings; and here, in their very palace, grew the germ of those Houses of Parliament that gradually came to occupy the entire area. The Star Chamber, the Painted Chamber, St. Stephen's Chapel, were parts of the old building made familiar to us by association and by history. The ancient palace was safe under the shadow of its abbey and sanctuary, till Henry VIII., who defied both abbey and sanctuary, actuated by Naboth-like desire of possession, moved his residence to Whitehall. The Whitehall palace is gone as if it had never been; but that of Westminster has risen again from its ashes. This sacred spot was the place of our national liberties; here arose the "Mother of Parliaments."

Not long ago, I was standing on Westminster Bridge in the gathering twilight; the misty glory of a fine winter's day. The river edges were sprinkled with a thin crust of silvery frost, the dulled red sun was going down in splendour behind a galaxy of pink and golden clouds. Insensibly, as the light faded, and the mist rose, I seemed to lose the forms of the modern buildings, and to see, as though in a vision, the "Thorney Isle" of the dim past. The huge "New Palace of Westminster," with its towers, was for a moment blotted out.... There, in the dreamy haze of sunset, I saw

-"the Minster's outlined mass

Rise dim from the morass."

-That, surely, was no longer the Terrace of the House of Commons, but a marshy bed of osiers and rushes! The dark shadow yonder, across the broad river, was it any more the grimy, disused Lambeth landing-stage, or had it changed to the rude primitive boats of the Saxon fisher-folk, "moored among the bulrush stems"? The clamour yonder,-was it the shouting of drunken bargees, or merely the voices of simple peasants, busy with their nets, singing the evening hymn?... And was that a barge being towed up stream, or was it not, rather, a boat crossing to the nearer shore, with its unknown, saintly passenger? Then, suddenly, a blaze of light irradiating the gloom-is it the miraculous glow from the consecrated Minster, or....

I start, for some one touches me gently on the shoulder. I turn round, half expecting to see a Saxon hind in leather jerkin and thonged sandals.... But a modern lamplighter with tall pole pushes past me, and--

"Please, lydy, gimme suthin' jis' to keep the life in my little byby," wails the voice of the professional beggar, breaking the spell, and disclosing an unhappy, shawled, and croupy infant. "I ain't got a place ter sleep in this night. Gawd knows I ain't, dear lydy."

The woman's appearance suggests the public-house, and I realise all the sinfulness of encouraging croupy (and possibly borrowed) babies to be out at unseasonable hours; nevertheless, the simpler Anglo-Saxon mood prevails, and the woman gets my sixpence. She departs with husky blessings ... and a chorus of coughs. "Ah, poor soul," I thought as I watched the wretched creature disappear to the shadow of some yet darker archway, "would not you, and such as you, have found better shrift in old days?-There was the convent;-there the sanctuary; there the gracious, unquestioning succour; there the majestic houses of the Father of Mankind and His special servants.... And ever at the sacred gates sat Mercy, pouring out relief from a never-failing store to the poor and the suffering; ever within the sacred aisles the voices of holy men were pealing heavenwards in intercession for the sins of mankind; and such blessed influences were thought to exhale around those mysterious precincts, that even the poor outcasts of society,-the debtor, the felon, and the outlaw-gathered round the walls as the sick men sought the shadow of the apostles, and lay there sheltered from the avenging hand, till their sins were washed from off their souls...."

But the vision has fled-the present once more dominates.... Now the lights begin, in serried rows and twinkling patterns, to glow along the shores of the vast and deceptive Armida-palace; the "cruel lights of London," hiding so much that is grim, sad, and terrible.... There, grey against a background of rosy opal, the Houses of Parliament rise from the silvery river in misty grandeur.... Then, gradually the "nocturne" changes its key; the darkness deepens, and the Westminster towers begin to loom up blackly against the lurid sky.... Big Ben booms solemnly through the invading mist.... For how many centuries, I wondered, has the evening bell resounded over the marshes of Thorney? Only in the lapse of time it has somewhat changed its note.... Convent bell,-church bell,-secular bell! It calls now no longer to prayer and devotion, but to business, or, maybe, pleasure ... as the blaze of light that now shines from its tower flashes forth the might of the Temporal power, not the miraculous workings of the Eternal.... Yet, "the Lord God of Israel, he slumbers not, nor sleeps." ... How loudly the strokes peal!... One ... two ... three ... four....

"Move on, please," sounds the voice of the burly policeman, evidently suspecting my motives, and accrediting me with suicidal intentions. "Can't stay 'ere all night, y'know."

So I "move on"; and Night, and the river-mist, between them envelop, as with a pall, the enormous city.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top