Westminster Abbey’s new Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries – CBA London visit 9th February

Places booked up for this visit within just a couple of days, filled by CBA London members and resulting in an overspill waiting list. It was good to see some members who hadn’t been along to visits before, and, as interest was so high, we intend to run the event again later in the year.

We were able to put the new galleries in context as we proceeded around Westminster Abbey’s cloisters – first looking at some of the oldest surviving bits of the original Benedictine monastery, dating back to Edward the Confessor in 1065. The Abbey’s museum used to be housed in cramped conditions in the undercroft along the dark passage leading from the south east corner of the cloisters. The undercroft was the area under the dorter – the dormitory accommodation for the monks – and the only place where they had heating. The Pyx Chamber, a section of the undercroft which has served many purposes over its lifetime, retains the medieval vaulting and floor tiles. Next, along the east side of the cloisters, a vestibule contains the oldest door in Britain, dendrochronologically dated to c. 1050, and leads up some stairs to the Chapter House. Part of the second major building programme for the Abbey, it is the work of Henry III, who added a Lady Chapel to the Confessor’s church, and began rebuilding the Abbey in the style of the new gothic cathedrals in France, at Chartres, Amiens and Rouen. The Chapter House, built to serve as the daily gathering place for the 30 to 60 monks of Westminster for almost 500 years, eventually had a variety of other functions over its lifetime: as the Parliamentary chamber, for instance, and as the national archives. It was cleared of documents in the Victorian period and restored and refurbished by George Gilbert Scott. Fortunately, Scott retained the original medieval wall paintings and floor tiles, although he did replace windows and some stonework.

Leaving the cloisters at the north east corner, we crossed Poets’ Corner in the Abbey’s south transept to reach the new Weston Tower – the first new structure to be added to the Abbey since Hawksmoor’s west front in 1745. Here Peter Moore, Director of Pre-Construct Archaeology described the archaeological works that had preceded the new building works. A section of the excavation has been left exposed in the foyer of the tower, showing the construction of the south transept of Henry III’s rebuilding of the church in the 13th century, using a vast stone raft to stabilise the foundation. Outside, in Poets’ Corner Yard, Peter described the archaeological discoveries, from prehistoric flints, through Roman building materials, to various medieval phases of construction of the Henry III ambulatory and Lady Chapel, and the Henry VII Lady Chapel that replaced it. At the edges of the monastic burial ground, the site also yielded a number of medieval and slightly later burials, including rare examples of decorated lead coffins in anthropomorphic form, with a rounded extension to contain the head. One stone coffin had been reused as part of the foundations of the Lady Chapel: this was excavated as part of the archaeological works and retained on display in the tower foyer. Also seen during excavations were brick foundations of some of the commercial properties that had been constructed against the south wall of the Henry VII Lady Chapel. Lessees of shops and houses along that wall had included Geoffrey Chaucer and William Caxton.

Peter also described the most unexpected and spectacular finds from the project: those discovered under the floorboards of the triforium itself. As the space had been used only for storage and occasional seating for coronations and royal funerals, the amount of material found between vaults of chapels below and floorboards installed by Christopher Wren was a complete surprise. Some 3,500 building material bags of dust and other materials was extracted, to be sifted and sorted by PCA’s conservators. The items retained included pottery, glass, clay pipes, animal bones, human bones, shoes, tools and – most surprising perhaps – paper and parchment fragments ranging from 17th century tobacco wrappers and [possibly] 16th century playing cards, to medieval letters and handwritten coronation tickets, all preserved thanks to the dry conditions. In addition, three lancet windows, retaining most of their glass panels were extracted, along with some 30,000 fragments of coloured and/or painted glass. Two composite windows containing a selection of these fragments had been inserted into the walls of the bridge between the new access tower and the triforium galleries. CBA London’s visitors, it’s fair to say, were enchanted by these eclectic and very beautiful new creations.

The Weston Tower, which provides access to the new triforium galleries is a work of art in its own right. Designed by the Abbey’s Surveyor of the Fabric (ie Architect) Ptolemy Dean, the standard of finish is exceptional, and it is designed so that each of the 108 steps offers a new perspective. In addition, the lift shaft around which the stairs wind, is faced with bands of stone representing all 17 varieties used in the past 1000 years in the construction of Westminster Abbey. The ascent provides previously rare views of the construction of both the 13th century Chapter House to the south and ambulatory chapels to the north.

The first impression of most seeing the triforium space for the first time seemed to be overwhelming delight. The layout is spacious, and the medieval construction and 17th century re-roofing features are very much part of the experience. Displays in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries are set out in four thematic sections, but it is very much a space to explore, to circle round and rediscover. Distinctive views from the galleries over other parts of the Abbey – such as the Confessor’s shrine, the Cosmati pavement in front of the High Altar, Poets’ Corner and the Muniment [ie records] Room – provide glimpses of yet more history, architecture and archaeological heritage. And externally, surprising perspectives appear – of Parliament, St Margaret’s Church, Parliament Square, the rooftops of the Henry VII Lady Chapel and beyond.

There are so many ‘oldest’, ‘earliest’, ‘best preserved’, ‘only’, ‘largest’ or ‘finest’ artefacts displayed it is almost unthinkable to single any out, but these four objects give something of a flavour: The Westminster Retable – oldest surviving altarpiece in Britain; the Litlyington Missal – containing the earliest known coronation services; the little medieval tapestry seal bag embroidered with three lions – the only known example; the funeral effigy of Henry VII – carved from his death mask and said to reflect the character of the creator of the new Tudor dynasty.

Those of us who retired to the Westminster Arms afterwards had much to talk about…