April 21st, 2011
08:30 AM ET
Editor's Note: Tune in to CNN Sunday at 8 p.m. ET for a behind-the-scenes look at the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, on “The Women Who Would Be Queen.” And don’t miss a second of the big day on CNN, CNN.com and CNN Mobile, starting at 4 a.m. ET on April 29.
By Kyle Almond, CNN
(CNN) - Westminster Abbey, the extraordinary church where Prince William and Kate Middleton will marry later this month, is the final resting place for many of Britain’s former kings and queens.
But it’s not just royals who are buried on the church’s grounds.
Some of the nation’s most influential figures, including playwrights, poets, scientists and statesmen, are among the 3,000-plus people interred at the site in central London.
“One does get a real sense of history” when entering the building, said David Carpenter, a professor of medieval history at King’s College London. The location of many famous bodies can be found via inscriptions on the church floor or on raised tombs not far from where William and Kate will tie the knot.
Some of the more well-known names at Westminster Abbey include:
* Geoffrey Chaucer, author of “The Canterbury Tales” and one of the most famous English poets in history
* Charles Darwin, the scientist who first proposed the theory of evolution
* Charles Dickens, the writer who penned classics such as “Oliver Twist,” “A Christmas Carol” and “A Tale of Two Cities”
* George Frederic Handel, the influential 18th-century composer whose works inspired the likes of Beethoven and Brahms
* Sir Isaac Newton, the renowned physicist and mathematician who was the first to describe the scientific laws behind gravity and motion
* Laurence Olivier, one of the most celebrated actors of the 20th century
Many other significant figures are memorialized at Westminster Abbey, even though their physical remains are elsewhere. Prominent examples include Sir Winston Churchill, playwright William Shakespeare, and writers Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde.
The memorials for Shakespeare, Austen and Wilde -– as well as the tombs of Chaucer and Dickens - can be found in Poets’ Corner, a popular area of the church that pays tribute to the nation’s long legacy of literary greatness. Other recognizable names at Poets’ Corner include John Keats, Rudyard Kipling and the Bronte sisters.
“Since about the year 1600, there has been this connection between literary eminence and burial in Westminster Abbey,” said Elisabeth Cawthon, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Cawthon says it all traces back to Chaucer, who was buried at the church in 1400 because he had worked at Westminster Palace -– not because he was necessarily viewed as a great literary figure at the time.
“He gained in reputation after his death, and people wanted to be buried near him,” Cawthon said. “And the first time I know about someone actually asking or making the wish to be buried there was Edmund Spenser in 1599.”
Decades later, Oliver Cromwell took it a step further when he had Adm. Robert Blake buried in the Abbey in 1657. Cromwell ruled England during the Interregnum, the period between 1649 and 1660 when there were no kings or queens, and he oversaw the burial of several nonroyal political figures.
“He was trying to sort of symbolically demonstrate that the Abbey was connected with the leadership of England, even though he was not a monarch anymore,” Cawthon said. “He wanted to make the nation connect the idea of recognizing achievement with whoever was in charge of England. And that was when it really took off, this process of burying eminent people there.”
Westminster Abbey, which started as a monastery before evolving into the collegiate church it is today, is a Royal Peculiar, meaning it is under the monarchy’s jurisdiction. Its royal tradition can be traced to its evolution.
“It was a church founded and built by kings, three kings in particular -– Edward the Confessor, Henry III and Henry VII,” said Carpenter, the medieval history professor. “And they very much designed it … as a royal mausoleum where members of the royal family would be buried.”
There are 17 monarchs buried at the church, including those three kings, as well as Queen Elizabeth I, whose tomb might be the most popular tourist attraction in the church, according to Carpenter.
Edward the Confessor was the first person to be buried at the church. He constructed the church in the 11th century and died just days after it was consecrated. He later was canonized.
In the 13th century, when Henry III rebuilt the Abbey into its current Gothic style, Edward's remains were moved there and made into a shrine that still exists today.
“The church we have today was built in honor of Edward the Confessor, to provide him with a far more beautiful and up-to-date church to house his body,” Carpenter said. “And the centerpiece of the new church was a new shrine for Edward the Confessor.”
The most recent monarch to be buried at the church was George II in 1760, and he will be the last, Carpenter said.
“The traditional burial of poets, statesmen and great national figures, and indeed kings and queens, has actually ceased … partly because you couldn’t find any more room for the bodies,” Carpenter said. “Occasionally, people are cremated and buried in the Abbey still - normally deans of Westminster, for example -– but people are not buried there.”
Today, royals are normally buried near Windsor Castle in the county of Berkshire.
Want to know more? Check out the Westminster Abbey website for a larger list of famous people buried there, a list of the royals buried at the church, and a layout of the church and who's buried where.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.