London, England — When Britain’s Prince William marries Kate Middleton in Westminster Abbey in April this year, they will be the latest royal participants in a blue-blood tradition that goes back a thousand years.
Britain’s monarchs have been crowned in Westminster Abbey since 1066 — and many have exchanged their marriage vows there, too.
As Kate Middleton walks up the aisle underneath the abbey’s soaring Gothic arches, to the notes of the impressive organ and choir, she’ll pass by priceless sculptures, medieval paintings and the tombs of past kings and queens
She may feel nervous. Even on an average day, the Abbey is an awe-inspiring place. Light filters through enormous stained-glass windows and candles flicker in its cool, echoing corridors. Gilded tombs, gleaming altars and the smell of incense all impress the Abbey’s importance as a time-honored place of worship.
This hallowed ground is also the final resting place for the nation’s most important thinkers, artists and statesmen, including scientists Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin; writers and poets Charles Dickens and Geoffrey Chaucer; and composer George Frederic Handel.
The impressive Gothic church that stands today, considered one of the finest in the United Kingdom, was largely built by England’s King Henry III in the 13th century.
Its flying buttresses, stained-glass windows and the 102-ft high Gothic vault, the tallest in England, cost Â£50,000 ($80,000) to construct. It was a staggering amount at the time, so much in fact, that building the Abbey bankrupted Henry, says Dr. Tony Trowles, Head of Collections at the Abbey and author of “Treasures of Westminster Abbey.”
Prince William and his bride-to-be will likely exchange their vows standing on the 13th-century Cosmati Pavement, the treasured mosaic in front of the golden High Altar. The Queen and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, meanwhile, are likely to be watching from special carved wood seats they use when at the Abbey.
The Abbey’s royal stamp is evident everywhere, from the painting of King Richard II (reigned 1377-1399) in the nave to the opulent tombs of Saint Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-1066), one of the last Anglo-Saxon Kings, and Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603).
Yet despite the grandeur of this awe-inspiring church, a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament and close to St. James’s Palace, it is designed to feel smaller and more intimate in certain places — a deciding factor in the couple’s choice.
“The couple were moved to choose the venue because of its staggering beauty, its thousand-year Royal history and — in spite of its overall size — by its relative intimacy,” said Prince William’s private secretary, Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton in a statement from Clarence House.
“By that, I mean, when at the High Altar, it has the uncanny feel of an intimate space,” he added.
There is no other church in Britain that compares with it both in terms of royal history and also for the role it has played in the life of the nation, according to Trowles.
It is also a “Royal Peculiar,” which, he explained, is a church that comes under the sole authority of the monarch.
There has been a church on the site since 960 A.D., and what makes the Abbey unique, said Trowles, is the treasure trove of art and monumental sculpture inside. They “all come together to make this kind of tapestry of British history over 1,000 years,” he added.
Of the many treasures to be found in the Abbey, Trowles believes one of the most significant is the 700-year-old carved oak Coronation Chair, on which all monarchs have been crowned since the 14th century.
The Abbey also boasts delicate medieval paintings, including 13th-century wall paintings of Christ with St. Christopher and St. Thomas that lay hidden behind two monuments until 1934 when they were unearthed during cleaning.
“We have what I think is probably the greatest collection of British sculpture anywhere in the country gathered together all in one place,” said Trowles. He points out the fine marble sculpture work in the monuments to William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton as particularly impressive examples.
Over one million people visit the Abbey each year, they say, and many more will likely walk through its archways in the approach to, and after, the royal wedding on April 29.
For Kate, though, the Abbey may have further significance: The next time she walks up the aisle could be the day William is crowned King.