The Houses of Parliament dwarf their much older neighbour, Westminster Abbey, yet this single building embodies much of the history of England: it has been the venue for all coronations since the time of William the Conqueror, and the site of more or less every royal burial for some five hundred years between the reigns of Henry III and George II. Scores of the nation’s most famous citizens are honoured here, too (though many of the stones commemorate people buried elsewhere), and the interior is crammed with hundreds of monuments and statues.
Entry is via the north transept, cluttered with monuments to politicians and traditionally known as Statesmen’s Aisle, from which you can view the central sanctuary, site of the coronations, and the wonderful Cosmati floor mosaic, constructed in the thirteenth century by Italian craftsmen, and often covered by a carpet to protect it.
The abbey’s most dazzling architectural set piece, the Lady Chapel, was added by Henry VII in 1503 as his future resting place. With its intricately carved vaulting and fan-shaped gilded pendants, the chapel represents the final spectacular gasp of the English Perpendicular style. Look out for Edward I’s Coronation Chair, a decrepit oak throne dating from around 1300 and still used for coronations.
Nowadays, the abbey’s royal tombs are upstaged by Poets’ Corner, in the south transept, though the first occupant, Geoffrey Chaucer, was in fact buried here not because he was a poet, but because he lived nearby. By the eighteenth century this zone had become an artistic pantheon, and since then, the transept has been filled with tributes to all shades of talent.
Great Cloisters and Nave
Doors in the south choir aisle (plus a separate entrance from Dean’s Yard) lead to the Great Cloisters, rebuilt after a fire in 1298. On the east side lies the octagonal Chapter House, where the House of Commons met from 1257, boasting thirteenth-century apocalyptic wall paintings. Also worth a look is the Abbey Museum, filled with generations of lifelike (but bald) royal funereal effigies.
It’s only after exploring the cloisters that you get to see the nave itself: narrow, light and, at over a hundred feet in height, by far the tallest in the country. The most famous monument in this section is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, by the west door, which now serves as the main exit.