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Not just for royal weddings: Thousands buried at Westminster Abbey
A statue at Westminster Abbey pays tribute to composer George Frederic Handel, whose body is buried there.
April 21st, 2011
08:30 AM ET

Not just for royal weddings: Thousands buried at Westminster Abbey

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.

See inside Westminster Abbey with our high-resolution photo gallery

“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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Church • Death • Houses of worship • United Kingdom

soundoff (70 Responses)
  1. Ray

    They forgot the most important grave of all. The Unknown Soldier of World War 1

    April 30, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
  2. RJ

    I I haven't been here before. This is pretty entertaining, if you can stand reading silly posts with little punctuation!

    April 29, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  3. kenneth

    mathew24 JESUS said just like the days of NOAH at his coming people will be drinking eating and giving in to marriage.and this things are happening and will make people miss the kingdom of heaven.

    April 28, 2011 at 3:23 am |
  4. Gerald Gallagher

    Wetminister Abby is not inl lndon. It is in Westminster.

    There are serious differences ih English law about that.

    London is a Royal City. Westminsiter is not..

    Westminister represents the people and hence "The House of Commons" is located there.
    i do not fullly undertand the implications but the impliacation are there.

    G,B.G.

    April 27, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Contraption

      Westminstershire is part of London City and the House of Commons is called that because it is owned by the local council and anyone can live there. You are mixing up Royal Parliament and Westminster Abbey. It is confusing.

      April 27, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  5. marsmotel

    I give this marriage 6 months! Who cares!

    April 27, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  6. matt

    Darwin wasn't the first to propose evolution LOL. NATURAL SELECTION – the process in which it occurs

    April 22, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Matt, and the rest of the story that they won't tell you is the bones they found were those of Apes. LOL. You folks will buy anything.

      Amen.

      April 22, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      No, dear. No one buys your claptrap.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Adelina

      HeavenSent, I agree. Atheists are extrememly naive about themselves and the world.

      April 26, 2011 at 12:30 am |
  7. Adelina

    The nation is more like turning into a graveyard of Christian faith... Britain needs the Lord; Britain needs revival...

    April 22, 2011 at 3:37 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Chicken Little. Look it up.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Rahere

      The Big Society needs leadership. Set to it, Ms A.

      April 30, 2011 at 5:31 am |
  8. Inspector Clouseau

    "Stolen" ? Oh yeah. You mean he decided to have the English people take control of these places of theirs instead of that Italian guy, (whom in my movie I call the pe-wp) with the tri-ple CROWN, who then also called himself the "servant of the servants" and had a wife and mistresses and children, (even though he was "cel-i-bate" and said he had the "keys to the kingdom"). Sorta like the guy from Germany named Mar-tin Luther, whose reformation was part of a major revolt to all the cor-ruption and hypocricy they saw everywhere. Yeah, Henry VIII was a bad boy. That's why Ro-me gave him the t-i-tle, "Defender of the Faith". Oops.

    And yes, LEB they ARE that ignorant. I was hoping Kiri Te Kanawa would be singing at this wedding too, but since she has retired I suppose it will be someone else. But since this PR firm of Royals brings in the largest percent return on invested captal, FAR in excess of ANY Madison Avenue US firm, (billions of pounds in exchange for a few million pounds) to their tourist industry, I think I shouldn't be shoving any of my advice or opinions down their "perfectly capable to make their own decisions" throats.

    I think they should go back to their original tradition and sell indulgences, (on Ebay of course). They'd be RICH again.

    BTW, what do you folks think that person, teresa noelle, above from the marketing firm is smoking ? Looks like fun !

    April 22, 2011 at 2:26 am |
  9. jason

    Don't forget that Westminster Abbey was a Roman Catholic church before it was stolen by King Henry VIII who founded his own "church".

    April 22, 2011 at 1:51 am |
    • Dorianmode

      Wasn't it the community "belonging" to that preacher from the Middle East and ..... oh never mind.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:43 am |
    • Rahere

      Stolen? Henry would have argued the opposite, as Rome didn't pay much towards it. It was mostly paid for by the English Crown. The claim you make is based on the doctrine of Papal Supremacy over the Conciliar Kings, formulated by Dufay's mentor d'Ailly with the view of resolving the Great Western Schism on a permanent, defendable basis, and instigated by Pope Eugenius IV and his successors from 1433 onwards. It eventually reached the point where Charles VIII and his successor Louis XII of France rebelled, sparking the Holy League defence of Italy from 1510 (this is, of course, a gross generalisation as it hides the chaotic influence of an almost anarchic set of Italian states portrayed by Machiavelli). Henry had earlier defended a relative version of Papal Authority, earning himself the honorific Defensor Fidei, within a somewhat feudal system, in which suzereinity came with responsibilities to ones vassals. When Pope Clement VII failed to back him, he considered himself released from that debt on the basis that he retained, both theoretically and pragmatically, plenipotentiarity, and needing funds to defend his nation from the consequences, it was natural justice to impose the expense on the offender, the Catholic Church: it is to be noticed that the grounds for his divorce action were that he had been induced into marrying Catherine by the deliberate misrepresentation of Pope Julius II.
      Therefore, it was no theft.

      April 30, 2011 at 5:29 am |
  10. LEB

    I'm amazed that there has to be an article on this. Are my fellow Americans really so ignorant of other countries and cultures that they don't already know the significance of Westminster Abbey?

    April 21, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • MugWamp

      Yes, unfortunately, the majority of our countrymen are exactly that ignorant. The worst part is that a large percentage of them are actually proud of their ignorance.
      Visit the Abbey if you get the chance...it's mind-blowing for anyone with a knowlege of British history & literature.

      April 21, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You must be new here, LEB. Most of the dolts who post are illiterate hillbillies and rednecks.

      April 21, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Yes LEB, listen to Tommie, Tom who has no job, no life, lives in the bedroom his parents provide.

      LOL.

      April 22, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      As opposed to HS, the kook, who's never been to Westminster and couldn't tell you who Handel was without looking it up.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Adelina

      Tom, yes. Handel produced his masterpiece by thinking of God, thinking of Jesus. Europe wouldn't have music without Christianity.

      April 26, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • marsmotel

      Adelina – are you insane or stupid? There was music before Christianity. I can not believe you just said that. It just shows you how easy you are to brainwash to admit a comment like that. Go back to believing in your fabled stories and your tunneled vision mind, it needs a rest. Wow, that might be the dumbest comment I have ever read! I feel for you!

      April 27, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Suzie

      "who has no job, no life, lives in the bedroom his parents provide."
      Just like you HeavenSent.

      April 27, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Rahere

      I think he means Western Classical music, the guy wasn't thinking of the Muslim and Oriental schools, as the starting point of the comment was Handel. Within that limited framework, it's justifiable, as the musical aspect of the quadrivium mediaeval academic norm wiped out almost everything earlier. Dufay worked to that norm and influenced everything which followed. The quadrivium in this context? Examine the Cosmati pavement they were married on in detail.

      April 30, 2011 at 5:07 am |
  11. Roscoe Chait

    Admit it. We all love the royals and the upcoming royal wedding. It sure beats thinking about how the banks, corporations, Wall Street and the government are having their way with us. It sure beats worrying about whether you can afford the next outrageously priced pharmaceutical drug. At least with the royals, we can all agree to agree and to disagree, to point fingers, to clap our hands with glee, to shake our heads with despair and to laugh out loud. Contrary to what we would like to believe, the royals work for their handouts. The monarchy and all its hangers on make up England's biggest PR firm. They are worth their weight in gold just for having to smile 24/7 and flap their hands like idiots. As for me, I'll be watching the wedding so I can say how old the queen looks, wonder if Charles will ever be King, and watch the new couple say their vows and put themselves under the microscope for the rest of their lives like some exotic bugs.

    April 21, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Rahere

      Try telling the guy he rescues next that. His real work is a coastguard rescue chopper pilot in a mountain area, where he has to lay his life on the line near rock faces. Can you say the same?

      April 30, 2011 at 5:01 am |
  12. YounanMarketingAndManagementAssociatesInc, Int'l Intst'r

    my brother tom's(wife tammy's)birthday and easter card arrived today earlier with a money gift. his address is at an 1111 address on a christmas tree name street. theresa noelle younan ymma-iii interpole galactica i-pic

    April 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  13. YounanMarketingAndManagementAssociatesInc, Int'l Intst'r

    My calendar shows it to be your birthday today elizabeth the 11, happy birthday to the wickkadest witch mustardplayer rat runner leader of the world.
    theresa noelle younan ymma-iii i-pic interpole galactica

    April 21, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  14. YounanMarketingAndManagementAssociatesInc, Int'l Intst'r

    Very a pro pos, lets people know what they're in for if they can't stand your ignorant criminalness. most buried there are just hoodlums of yours and shouldn't have been born just like your sleaze club rulership.
    cemetery is what you hound people with even if they've never heard about who you are. every one of your kind of people and their following should get married in a cemetery
    theresa noelle younan, ymma-iii i-pic interpole galactica The Lord Spirit Madonna Monarch.

    April 21, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  15. YounanMarketingAndManagementAssociatesInc, Int'l Intst'r

    Very a pro pos, lets people know what they're in for if they can't stand your ignorant criminalness. most buried there are just hoodlums of yours and shouldn't have been born just like your sleaze club rulership.
    cemetery is what you hound people with even if they've never heard about who you are.
    theresa noelle younan, ymma-iii i-pic interpole galactica The Lord Spirit Madonna Monarch.

    April 21, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Okay, who has the Idiot Translator Ring?

      April 21, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  16. Reality

    The wedding is nothing more than a "tourist event" held to bring more pounds into the coffers of a group of people who still maintain they have some "divine" right to con the common people. Tis sad that so many dead con artists are buried along side some of the giants of intelligence.

    April 21, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Valerie

      Wow, have you got anything negative to say? All that cheer and sunshine you are displaying makes me feel so upbeat!

      April 21, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Sandra

      What an idiotic comment.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:18 am |
    • Reality

      "The United Kingdom and more specifically London, is a must-see for every traveler. The capital of Great Britain is the second most visited city in the world, with a number of visitors totaling to almost 15 million in 2008. With the strong British pound, the country is also one of the most expensive destinations where coffee may cost you twice as much as in other European countries. Still 30 million of visitors annually prove United Kingdom is worth what it earns." ($36 billion/yr)

      April 22, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Rahere

      It came as a huge shock to find a memorial to Frank Whittle, somebody I remember from having had Sunday lunch with, at the far end of the Henry VII Chapel. That's not a con man.

      April 30, 2011 at 4:58 am |
  17. Reality

    The wedding is nothing more that a "tourist event" held to bring more pounds into the coffers of a group of people who still maintain they have some "divine" right to con the common people. Tis sad that so many dead con artists are buried along side some of the giants of intelligence.

    April 21, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • San Onofre Surfer

      Wow. Reality, you are one of one, or two or three of the really serious and thorough scholars on these boards. NEVER thought I'd be disagreeing with you ! I do agree it's a tourist event, part of a larger pattern of bringing attention to British culture and history by these folks, but I don't see the implied arrogance there, that you do. I think I should back off and let them indulge their historic patterns and traditions, if that's what they want to celebrate. No one actually takes the Monarchy seriously any more as the "Divine Right of Kings", and maybe it provides a good opportunity for discussion of precisely that wierd and anachronistic notion and the origins of state and civil authority in Western Civilization. And then there ARE some "rulers" in Europe, (in red and purple dresses), who DO still maintain......well.....let's not start THAT up again here.

      Hope you find all the eggs the bunny hides in your yard. May they be filled with gold, and other substances, which at least one of us seems to be "doing".

      April 22, 2011 at 3:03 am |
    • Rahere

      Did you check out the thinking behind the Cosmati pavement they were married on and around? You're setting yourself up against mainstream orthodoxy in that statement, my friend, because at the very least it was a reminder to them both of the very real responibilites they are undertaking as future Head of one of the most economically important States, but also as future Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the mother house of the Anglican Communion. That pavement has some very serious importance in the Roman Communion as well, if you start researching its design background.

      April 30, 2011 at 4:54 am |
  18. theoldadam

    My wife is just going to stand me up outside next to the rubbish bin. She did say she'd put a hat on me, in case it rains.

    You've got to save a buck in these hard times.

    .

    April 21, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • Luek

      Maybe she will go first?

      April 22, 2011 at 3:40 am |
    • Rahere

      Well, if it was good enough for Ben Jonson, it should be good enough for you. He's buried in a vertical position there.

      April 30, 2011 at 4:56 am |
  19. J Johnston

    I had the great pleasure of visiting Westminster Abbey in 1989 and the experience was jaw-dropping. The sense of history and, at the same time, a feeling of timelessness was very strong. At one point (I clearly rememeber) Mom wondered where Charles Dickens was – something made me look down and, as it turned out, he was directly under our feet (sorry about that sir!) Long live England!

    April 21, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  20. SadieSadie

    I love west minster abbey. In fact I love London architecture. There is something forbidding and exciting about all the history involved. I think my idea of the perfect retirement would be someplace that I could get to London easily.

    April 21, 2011 at 10:03 am |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.