I’ve visited Westminster Abbey a half-dozen times since I first went to London in the 1980s. I’ve been inside 2 or 3 times and found myself inadvertently standing on a grave-slab in the floor over someone famous: Sir Isaac Newton on one occasion, and Aphra Behn at a later date.
I don’t intend to give a general overview of the abbey inside or out, nor of its long history. For the purposes of this blog, I’m concerned only with my most recent visit, which was a very brief drop-by while I was in London one spring afternoon. As long as I was nearby, I had to take a few minutes to see the site of Time Team’s 17th-series opening episode, Corridors of Power.
In this episode, Time Team was looking for the location of the sacristy of Henry III, the 13th-century king who began building the current abbey to replace the older abbey of Edward the Confessor on this same site (although it wasn’t finished until more than a century later; in the nave you can see the point where the original, elaborate stonework was left off and resumed in a more simply carved fashion).
Henry III was obsessed with Edward the Confessor, naming his eldest son Edward and encouraging pilgrimages to the saint’s elaborate shrine, which is still inside the abbey with Henry’s own tomb placed near it.
The lost sacristy was said to be a “great” chamber, up to 60 feet long. There is another, smaller sacristy within the abbey, where valuables would have been stored. Time Team’s work uncovered a long, L-shaped gallery on the north side of the abbey, connecting the nave to the north transept; they theorized that this wasn’t used for keeping church treasures, but was built for the preparation and assembly of the great processions that were part of important ceremonies, such as coronations or high masses, involving large numbers of people. The vestiges of another door can be seen just inside to the right of the great north door, which would have been an entrance to this gallery.
When the sacristy was demolished, other outbuildings were placed against the abbey walls during the medieval period and later. These too have been demolished in their turn and today the area is a grassy corner called the Abbey Green.
There was an additional, even more exciting discovery in this area. In the 1860s, renovation work by architect Sir George Gilbert Scott uncovered two ancient chalk-lined graves; these two graves were located again by the Time Team dig. Their placement is skewed at an angle from the present abbey’s east-west alignment, which suggests that these two people were buried when Edward the Confessor’s earlier abbey was still standing and they are related to it.
When I stopped by Westminster Abbey to have a look at this particular spot, I wasn’t quite sure where it was. St. Margaret’s Church was my guide, since it was often visible in the background during the Time Team dig.
After wandering around outside the abbey and having a look at the area which I though must be the location of the sacristy dig and the medieval graves, I asked a man about to lead a group in for a tour via the North Door. He told me that it was on the other side of the abbey. Well, I’ve reviewed the episode again since then and he was wrong. I was at the right place.