The Plan of Westminster Abbey
This chapter on the geography of the Abbey, as I call it, has nothing to do with the stories which begin in the next chapter, and the only reason that I have written it at all is this. In the days when I first heard many of the stories which I am going to tell you now, they were told to us by Dean Stanley in the Abbey. As we walked about with him he explained to us what part of the church we were in, and pointed out the tomb or monument of the man, or woman, or child about whom he was telling us. But some of you may read this little book before you have ever been to Westminster Abbey, and others may have been there, but may not know the names of the different parts of the church, or where any particular monument or tomb is.
So, instead of trying to explain at the beginning of every story whereabouts we are supposed to be standing, I am putting all such explanations in this chapter; and this will, I hope, help you to find your way about in the Abbey for yourselves. If you only want to hear the stories, you must miss this chapter and go on to the next one.
Just as we have maps to understand the geography of countries, so we have maps, which are called plans, to understand the geography of churches and houses, and the drawing you see on the opposite page is a map or plan of the inside of Westminster Abbey. The picture at the beginning of this book is a view of the outside.
We will now suppose we have just come into the Abbey at the great west door, the door between the two towers (see frontispiece). The name is marked on the plan. We should then be standing in what is called the nave, and right in front of us and through those iron gates underneath the organ is the choir. That is where service is held every morning and every afternoon, and where all the Westminster School boys sit on Sundays when they come to church, for as Westminster school has no chapel of its own, the boys have all their services in the Abbey. Through the choir gates you can see the communion table in front of you, and behind that, again, are all the chapels where the kings and queens are buried. The nave and transepts are full of the monuments and graves of great men. The numbers 1, 2, 3, etc., on the plan mark those about which you will find stories later on.
And now, if you look at the plan, you will see exactly where everything is. The whole Abbey is built on a piece of land which has the shape of a cross laid upon the ground. The nave and choir represent the stem of the cross, and the two transepts form the two arms.
In the part of the choir beyond the communion table are the chapels. Altogether there are eleven, and they are arranged like a wreath round the shrine of Edward the Confessor. They are marked on the plan by the letters A, B, C, etc., and their names you will find on the plan, beginning with A, which is the Chapel of Edward the Confessor.
One last thing I must explain before we begin the stories, and that is—how this great church came to be called an Abbey, and not a Cathedral. It is not at all difficult to remember when you have once been told.
The Church of St. Peter did not stand, as you may have supposed, all by itself on Thorney Isle, but was only one part of a mass of buildings called the Monastery of St. Peter.
A monastery, as you very likely already know, was a kind of college for monks. Here they lived under the rule of an abbot; and the church belonging to the monastery—for every monastery had a church, as well as a school and hospital or infirmary, belonging to it—was called an Abbey.
In early days the life of the monks was a very busy one. They did all the rough work, such as cooking, and cleaning pots and pans; for although many of them had been great soldiers or great nobles, they did not think any work done for the monastery was beneath them. They ploughed the land and planted seeds; they cut down trees for firewood; they nursed the sick; they fed and looked after the poor who lived round about them; and they taught in the School, and watched over the boys who were sent there to be educated.
Many boys—not only those who intended to become monks when they grew up, but those also who were to go out into the world, or become soldiers—went to the monastery schools to be taught. Here the sons of great nobles sat to learn their lessons side by side with the children of the poorest people, who were allowed to come and have as good an education as the rich without paying any school fees. The schools were open to all who wished to learn.
Of course, Scripture was the chief thing that they were taught, but the monks did not think that alone was enough, and the boys often learnt, besides reading and writing, grammar, poetry, astronomy, and arithmetic. Latin many of the monks talked almost as easily as their own language, and very often music and painting were added to all this. In the cloisters, or covered walks belonging to the monastery, the boys learned their lessons, always with a master near by, and sitting one behind another, so that no signals or jokes were possible. And very hard it must have been to keep their attention on their work in summer time when, if they looked up, they could see through the open archways the sun shining on the grass in the centre of the cloisters, and inviting them to come and play there. Something was always going on in the cloisters. Sometimes the school-boys were tempted to waste their time watching the monks shaving. Once a fortnight in summer, and once in three weeks in winter, the monks came out here with hot water and soap, and the important business of shaving went on, while on "Saturdays the heads and feet of the brethren were duly washed." If while all these things were going on the abbot appeared, every one stood up and bowed, and the lessons and the shaving and the washing stopped until he has passed by.
Perhaps the most important part of every monastery was the library, and an abbot who cared much for the monastery over which he ruled tried to collect and preserve and buy as many books as he could. In those days printing was not invented, and so every book of which many copies were wanted had to be written out by the monks. And this they did in a most wonderful way, copying them, so we are told, "on parchment of extreme fineness prepared by their own hands," and ornamenting them with "the most delicate miniatures and paintings." The monks at that time loved their books more than anything else, and there was a saying among them that a cloister without books was like a fortress without an arsenal. Often they took long and difficult journeys to see or to copy the books in other monasteries. "Our books," said a monk, "are our delight and our wealth in time of peace, . . . our food when we are hungry, and our medicine when we are sick."
And now, having told you a little about the life of the monks in those far-off days, we must come back to these buildings on Thorney Isle, which as I have said were called the Monastery of St. Peter. It is not known when this particular monastery was first founded; but it is said that St. Dunstan, who lived in the reign of King Edwy, found there some half-ruined buildings. He repaired them, and then brought twelve monks to live in company with him. But probably the Danes, who were often invading England at that time, destroyed this little monastery, for when Edward the Confessor came to the throne, many years afterwards, it had almost, if not quite, disappeared; and when he rebuilt it he added this great church of St. Peter, about which I told you in the first chapter.
There is a pretty story told of how this came about. An old monk was one day lying asleep, and in his sleep he was commanded by St. Peter, who appeared visibly to him, to acquaint the king that it was his pleasure he should restore the monastery. "There is," said the apostle, "a place of mine in the west part of London which I choose and love. The name of the place is Thorny. . . . There let the king by my command make a dwelling of monks, stately build and amply endow; it shall be no less than the House of God, and the Gates of Heaven." When he woke up, the old monk went to the king and told him his vision. Upon hearing it Edward journeyed to "the west part of London;" there he found Thorney Isle, and there he built the monastery and church, which he called after the apostle.
And now at last we have finished all the explanations. In the first chapter I told you how the Abbey came to be built, and in this one I have shown you how to find your way about it. In the next I shall begin telling you the stories, the first being about Lord Shaftesbury, whose monument is in the nave, where you see No. 1 on the plan.