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“Westminster Abbey charges £27 per ticket – even God might balk at that price”

by godlove4241
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A research trip for my book (on British art, to be published next year) took me to Westminster Abbey. £27 for an adult ticket! £32 if you visit the museum. The abbey points out, not without reason, that it receives no funding from the Church of England or the government. Considering the number of major state events that have taken place there – the Queen’s funeral, the impending coronation – you wonder if it is right to impose such a financial burden on visitors to the Abbey.

France had a Revolution, Britain a Reformation

But if ever a ticket price reflects British history, it is that of the Abbey. In Paris, you pay for the Louvre, but Notre-Dame is free (at least it was before the fire). In London, we insist that the British Museum is free, but you don’t mind paying to enter Westminster Abbey. France had a Revolution, Britain had a Reformation.

And yet, Westminster Abbey never really had much to do with God. When Henry III undertook his great reconstruction of the Abbey in 1245, he was less interested in the spiritual health of the nation than in the projection of his own royal power. Twenty-five years earlier, when he was just a boy, he had seen the body of Saint Thomas Becket – killed at the request of his grandfather, Henry II – being moved with great fanfare to a new Jewel-encrusted sanctuary in Canterbury Cathedral. Becket’s cult attracted pilgrims from all over Europe, and the Church benefited greatly from it. He even sold ‘Thomas Water’, holy water said to be mixed with Becket’s blood and touted as a panacea, better than anything a doctor could do (which at the time was probably true).

But no king, however young, could easily tolerate the veneration of a saint who opposed resistance to royal authority. As Becket’s cult grew, Henry decided to act. Conveniently, England’s only royal saint, Edward the Confessor, was buried in Westminster Abbey, in a pre-Conquest building he himself had started. Henry had it demolished and rebuilt at the cost of at least £40,000, a sum greater than his entire income in some years.

Worship of the Confessor

Henry also acquired new relics for Westminster, including a sample of Christ’s own blood. Doubts were immediately raised as to its authenticity, but when it performed its only recorded miracle, the king ordered the town bells to be rung. In 1269 Edward’s body was placed in a new shrine behind the high altar, but the cult of the Confessor never took off.

The abbey we see today is largely Henry’s creation. He was so exacting in his creative requirements – specifying everything from his architecture to interior details such as altar cloths – that he can largely be credited with his production. Nowadays, he would probably even call himself an artist, leader of a royal “collective”. The French design of the abbey – much narrower and taller than English cathedrals – reflects Henry’s desire to rival the later French buildings. A poem attributed to Henri reports his reaction to the sight of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, built by his brother-in-law Louis IX: “By the five wounds of God this same Paris is great/There is a chapel that I covet and that I must alienate. ”

It’s like one of those churches that God rarely visits

Little remains of Henry’s original interior scheme. The Reformation swept away all the shrines, hangings, sculptures and paintings that he assiduously supervised. Over time, the British came to worship different icons themselves. The abbey now looks so much like a national pantheon, with over 3,000 memorials to the great and good of British history, that it looks like one of those churches God rarely visits. Perhaps he too disapproves of the price.

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