The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries at Westminster Abbey. 2018. Photographer - Alan Williams. Image courtesy of Westminster Abbey

Treasures Unseen

15th June 2018

Westminster Abbey, a royal church and centre of national celebration since the 13th century, has just unveiled its newest addition, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. Jack Watkins shares his impressions…

For centuries, the cavernous chambers concealed high above the nave floor were Westminster’s Abbey’s dark and dirty secret. Intended to replicate the chapels at ground level when built in the 1250s, they were left unfinished. Lit only by sunbeams pouring in from the rose windows, and virtually unvisited, they had been used as a dumping ground. When workmen and archaeologists moved in to begin a new project recently, they collected over 4,000 bags of rubble and dust, along with a selection of treasures probably unseen since the Pre-Reformation days when the Abbey housed a community of monks.

The reason for the flurry of activity was the decision to utilise the space for the display of over 300 treasures from the Abbey Collection. Named the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, and funded entirely by private donors and trusts, this offers not only a look at historic items, many of which have never been displayed before, but also the chance to see them in a part of the Abbey previously off limits to the public.

There’s always something mysterious and rather spooky about the arched openings that loom far above as you gaze upwards while standing in the nave of an early medieval cathedral. Technically known as the triforium, this galleried area sits above the arches of the nave, and below the topmost section known as the clerestory. They were a regular feature of Anglo-Saxon and Norman cathedrals, but had fallen out of fashion in cathedral design by the 13th century. Their inclusion at Westminster reflected the intention of King Henry III to model his precious new building on the soaring Gothic cathedrals of northern France.

Fast forward eight centuries, and the problem for the Abbey administrators in trying to facilitate public access to the triforium and the new Jubilee Galleries was that it would mean destroying some of the internal structure. According to the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, the Dean of Westminster, the triforium could only be reached by two spiralling staircases of medieval date, hardly acceptable for a 21st century tourist attraction. So a new entrance tower has been built, proudly described by its architect Ptolemy Dean as the first major architectural addition to the abbey church since Nicholas Hawksmoor’s magnificent west end towers were completed in 1745. The structure, inspired by the lantern tower of Ely Cathedral, is inconspicuous enough, and if you want to get a glimpse without actually visiting, it can be seen from that quiet area of lawn opposite the Palace of Westminster, known as Poets’ Corner Yard, nestling in amongst the older abbey masonry, beyond an enormous London plane tree.

You can ascend the tower via the lift, if you prefer, but I recommend the new staircase, giving the opportunity to do your best Quasimodo impression as you ascend amidst the ancient flying buttresses, gargoyles and decorative stonework, while enjoying ever more expansive views across to the Palace of Westminster.

For many people, the clincher for wanting to come up will be the even more spectacular views available from inside the galleries, looking down into the nave over 50 feet below. And if they find on arrival that those views seem strangely familiar, they will be right. Certainly the triforium was little visited, but it was in a special commentary box in this very spot that Richard Dimbleby sat – sixty-five years ago this summer – to deliver his commentary on the present monarch’s coronation. Cameras for live broadcasts of ceremonies at the Abbey have been situated here ever since, and now you can get your own dizzying view of the visitors below as they filter among the tombs of Poets’ Corner. Another bonus is that you can also get an aerial glimpse of the Shrine of Edward Confessor which, owing to the fragility of the floor, is generally only accessible via one of the Abbey’s guided tours.

It was Edward who founded the earliest building on the Abbey site, consecrated in 1065, shortly before the death of the monarch who, in recognition of the devout life he led, was canonised in 1161. Henry III, though not an especially effective king, was very much in the pious mould of his predecessor, and was devoted to his cult. It was in honour of the Confessor that he had the Abbey rebuilt, and it has been the royal church ever since.

One of the Abbey’s most treasured possessions in the Jubilee Galleries, the Westminster Retable, dates from Henry’s reign, making it England’s oldest surviving altarpiece. Admittedly, it is in a badly ravaged state, having been poorly treated over the years until it was finally rescued in 1827. A lengthy programme of conservation, undertaken in 1998, has at least allowed an appreciation of the exquisite detail with which the figures were painted, and something of the vibrancy of its original colour.

Also much valued is the Litlyngton Missal, a fourteenth century Latin manuscript decorated with coloured inks and gold leaf, which somehow survived the destruction of the Abbey’s service books during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Similarly spared was the Liber Regalis, from around the same period, the manual on how to stage coronations and royal funerals, whose guidance still forms the basis for the performance of these occasions today.

Other important objects on display include the saddle, shield, sword and helm carried at the funeral of Henry V, who was buried at the Abbey in 1422, and the coronation chair of Queen Mary II. When William III and Mary came to the throne in 1689, it was the only time in English history in which two monarchs were crowned as joint rulers. Though Mary’s claim to the throne, as the daughter of James II, was stronger than that of her husband, it was he who sat in the traditional coronation chair constructed in the reign of Edward I, and now on display in St George’s Chapel in the Abbey. This new, more modestly decorated chair was constructed for Mary, and it seems to have been a tradition for a time for visitors to the abbey, including Westminster schoolboys, to carve their names into the wood, which accounts for its immense amount of graffiti.

Probably the most eye-catching items on show are the life-size funeral effigies of various royals – of varying standards of likeness and likeability. William and Mary look like the most boring couple on earth, Elizabeth I a chilling cross between Margaret Thatcher and Edith Sitwell, while Queen Anne looks dumpy but sweet. The most amusing is one of that cheekie chappie Charles II, a merry monarch if ever there was one, with a devilish twinkle in the eye. The most sublime, though, is that of Henry VII, which is interesting, given that he was one of the most calculating of English kings. Modelled on his death mask, the effigy is considered more lifelike than any of its predecessors and most of those that came after. It is quite uncanny to stand before it and look into those eyes. It chimes with the overall effect of visiting these new galleries, which is to feel history’s breath stealing down the back of your neck.

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