Westminster Abbey is a well-known tourist location in London, England. The church has been around over a thousand years, and with that storied history comes a lot of burials. Have you ever wondered just who is buried at Westminster Abbey? More than 3,300 people! But we’re going to focus on 10 famous graves and memorials.
Westminster Abbey is known as “the royals church” and for good reason. According to the Abbey’s website, “It has been the coronation church since 1066 and is the final resting place of 17 monarchs.” It is also a place of worship, a “treasure house of artefacts,” and also has some of the most famous and important people in British history buried on its grounds. Sections of the Abbey are almost like a mausoleum.
The Abbey was founded by Benedictine monks in 960 AD as a Gothic-style church. Westminster Abbey is a work of art as well as a functioning place of worship. While the building itself is historical for many reasons, it’s additional feature as a final resting place makes it a popular tourist destination. Here are some of the more famous people buried at Westminster Abbey.
1. King Edward the Confessor
King Edward (1003-1065) was the first of the 30 kings and queens to eternally rest in the Abbey. He is also the one who had the church built after he returned from exile in Normandy. He was “officially canonized as Saint and Confessor (a type of saint) by Pope Alexander III in February 1161,” according to the Westminster Abbey website.
The area where King Edward is buried is known as St. Edward’s Chapel. A shrine was built in his honor behind the high altar. It is considered as the central area of the Abbey. In his Chapel are the graves of five fellow kings and four queens.
2. Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 and was originally buried in Westminster Abbey in her grandfather’s vault. Three years later, she was moved from the vault of Henry VII to her final resting place in the Lady Chapel. She shares this vault with her half-sister Mary I, whose coffin is directly below hers. On top of the vault is a white marble effigy of the Queen.
3. Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens, who died in 1870, is interred in Poets’ Corner, the resting place and remembrance location for writers of all kinds. Immediately next to him are the graves of other famous writers such as Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy.
Dickens is known for many of his works, but A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities are two of his most widely known works. It was popular opinion among the people and his fellow writers that Dickens should be buried in Westminster Abbey. Even The Times newspaper in London “demanded that Westminster Abbey was the only place for the burial of someone of his distinction.” He was buried there following a “strictly private” funeral, which was his express wish, according to the Abbey’s website.
4. George Friederic Handel
George Friederic Handel was one of Britain’s greatest Baroque composers. Before he died in 1759 at the age of 74, he wrote for many patrons and for a variety of events.
He wrote the music, specifically four anthems, for King George II’s coronation in 1721. One of them, Zadok the Priest, has been used in every coronation since.
Handel had planned ahead for his interment in Westminster Abbey. Aside from leaving “bequests to his servants, the Foundling Hospital and a number of charities,” he also provided for the cost of his funeral and monument in the Abbey, according to the Handel and Hendrix museum website. Approximately 3,000 people attended his funeral.
There was once a coat of arms clearly represented on his gravestone, but it’s so worn down now it’s harder to make out. People thought his birth year was a mistake on his stone, but it actually isn’t. At that time in England, the new year did not begin on 1 January but on 25 March (Lady Day). So his birthday in February 1864 is correct.
5. Stephen Hawking
Here’s a contemporary name for our notables list: Stephen Hawking, who died in 2018. Hawking was a scientist, physicist, and author.
Carved onto his stone is “a series of rings, surrounding a darker central ellipse. The ten characters of Hawkins’ equation express his idea that black holes in the universe are not entirely black but emit a glow that would become known as Hawking radiation.”
His epitaph reads: “HERE LIES WHAT WAS MORTAL OF STEPHEN HAWKING”
This epitaph appears on someone else’s in the Abbey, too. It’s Isaac Newton’s epitaph, only his is in Latin. Both men are interred not far from each other in the Nave, as is Charles Darwin.
6. Laurence Olivier
Acclaimed actor Laurence Olivier is also buried in Westminster Abbey. Born in 1907, his career began on the stage in England, and he eventually became a film legend until his death in 1989.
He was a producer and director as well as an actor for both stage and screen, including two famous movie adaptations of fellow Abbey burial member William Shakespeare. Olivier acted in more than 120 plays, nearly 60 movies, and more than a dozen television roles.
According to his official website, he won two Academy Awards, was nominated twelve times, and received two special Oscars for his extensive career. Olivier’s grave is located in the South Transept in Poets’ Corner of the Abbey, in front of Shakespeare’s memorial.
7. Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton is considered one of the most important scientists of all time. He was a physicist, mathematician, and astronomer. Newton played a major role in the Scientific Revolution during the 16th and 17th centuries. He formulated the Law of Motion as well as Gravitation. He also developed theories regarding light and optics, which would lead to his invention of the first reflecting telescope, according to History.com.
Artist William Kent designed Newton’s complex funerary monument, and it was sculpted by Michael Rysbrack. It is located in the Nave in front of the choir screen.
8. Charles Darwin
Another famous scientist, Charles Darwin is buried at the Abbey. Darwin, born in 1809, was a “naturalist whose scientific theory of evolution by natural selection became the foundation of modern evolutionary studies,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. While it’s not surprising that his theory caused an uproar in religious Victorian society, it’s still controversial today due to how it contradicts interpretations of the Bible. He published his book Origin of the Species in 1859.
After his death in 1882, Darwin was originally going to be buried elsewhere. But the President of the Royal Society wrote to the Dean of Westminster suggesting that it would be appropriate for Darwin to be buried in the Abbey instead. There was no hesitation – Darwin would be laid to rest at Westminster.
His grave is located in the north aisle of the nave in the Abbey. Sir Isaac Newton’s grave is nearby. The President of the Royal Society, William Spottiswoode, was one of his pall-bearers.
9. Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer was the first poet to be buried in the Abbey. He’s considered the “Father of English Poetry” and is fittingly interred in Poets’ Corner. Oddly enough, he was interred there because of his role as Clerk of the King’s Works, not because he was a poet. His most well-known work is The Canterbury Tales.
10. William Shakespeare
Any historical place worth its salt has a few conspiracy theories, and Westminster Abbey is no different. One of these theories is about playwright and poet William Shakespeare, who died in 1616. Not all of the people memorialized in the Abbey were interred there. Memorials have been placed there to acknowledge their contributions to the world. Even if one’s remains are not physically in the Abbey, the person is still honored in this grand place.
Take William Shakespeare’s memorial, for example. Even though it refers to his final resting place as being in Stratford-on-Avon, some believe that he’s actually buried in the Abbey. A life-size statue of Shakespeare was erected in Poets’ Corner 124 years after his death. But that doesn’t mean he was interred there.
According to scholar Alexander Waugh, the Bard is indeed in the Abbey. He believes Shakespeare was really the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. Waugh has “deciphered encryptions” and has found “hidden geometries, grid patterns and other clues that reveal” the writer was put to rest under his statue, according to The Guardian.
While it was once considered that Shakespeare’s remains be exhumed and reinterred at Westminster Abbey, they still remain in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon.
A Majestic Cemetery within the Walls of an Abbey
If you haven’t seen it in person, Westminster Abbey should definitely be on your list of places to see before you die. The Abbey is one of the many reasons why London is such an important city filled with unique culture and history.
- Westminster Abbey, www.westminster-abbey.org/
- “10 Famous Figures Buried in Westminster Abbey.” HistoryHit, 10 October 2019, www.historyhit.com/famous-figures-buried-in-westminster-abbey/
- “Famous People Buried in Westminster.” Ranker, 14 June 2019, www.ranker.com/list/famous-people-buried-in-westminster-abbey/reference
- “Charles Darwin, British Naturalist.” Britannica, www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Darwin
- “About Handel.” Handel & Hendrix in London, handelhendrix.org/learn/about-handel/
- “I Can Prove That ‘William Shakespeare’ is Buried in Westminster Abbey – Scholar.” The Guardian, 28 October 2017, www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/oct/28/william-shakespeare-buried-westminster-abbey-alexander-waugh
- “Isaac Newton.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 19 December 2007, plato.stanford.edu/entries/newton/
- “Isaac Newton.” History.com, 10 October 2019, www.history.com/topics/inventions/isaac-newton
- “7 Things You Didn’t Know About Charles Dickens.” History.com, 22 August 2018, www.history.com/news/7-things-you-didnt-know-about-charles-dickens
- The Official Website of Sir Laurence Olivier, www.laurenceolivier.com