The Garden Guide

Book: London and Its Environs, 1927
Chapter: 5 Westminster Abbey

Cloisters and Conventual Buildings

Previous - Next

The Norman monastic buildings of the Confessor were practically destroyed by a fire in 1298, and little of them now remains except the Chamber of the Pyx, the Undercroft, and the adjacent passages. The earliest parts of the present CLOISTERS date from the 13th century, the remainder from the 14th. The cloisters are connected with the church by two doors in the south nave aisle, affording convenient entrance and exit for the monkish processions. Visitors should quit the church by the more east of these and enter the cloisters at their north-east angle, the earliest and finest part (13th century). The external Carving on the doorway should be noticed. The East Walk, immediately in front of us, was reserved for the abbot, and here, on Maundy Thursday, he used to wash the feet of 13 old men. In this walk are buried Aphra Behn (1640-89), novelist and dramatic writer, and the actors Mrs. Bracegirdle (1663 ?-1748), Thomas Betterton (1635-1710), and Mrs. Betterton (died 1712). A tablet on the wall in the second bay bears the touching inscription 'Jane Lister, dear Childe,' with the date 1688. In the third pier on the right is the door of the staircase to the Muniment Room, situated above the first three bays, and to the Triforium (admission by special permission only). Opposite is the entrance to the Chapter House (see below), to the right of which is the door of the day-stairs from the monks' Dormitory, now occupied partly by the Library of the Abbey (no admission) and partly by the great schoolroom of Westminster School. Adjacent is the entrance to the Chamber of the Pyx. The South Walk (14th century) was the burial-place of the abbots nearly 200 years after the Conquest. The recesses in the wall beside the old entrance to the Refectory served as towel cupboards. The West Walk (14th century) was used as the monastery school. The recess here, sometimes pointed out as the 'monks' lavatory,' dates only from the 18th century. The vaulting of this and of the South Walk is flatter than that of the earlier walks. From the North Walk, the monks' study, we have a view of the wall of the ancient Refectory, above the South Walk. Here are buried Mrs. Cibber (1714-66), the actress, and General Burgoyne (1722-92), who capitulated to General Gates at Saratoga in 1777. The CHAPTER HOUSE is entered from the east Walk by a low passage with a double doorway and a flight of steps. James Russell Lowell (1819-91), the American writer, and Walter Hints Page (1855-1918), American ambassador and' the friend of Britain in her sorest need,' are commemorated by medallions in this approach. The beautiful octagonal room 58 feet in diameter, was built circa 1245-53 above the crypt of the Confessor's chapter-house. Visitors are provided with felt overshoes to avoid injury to the original tiled Pavement. The inscription 'ut rosa flos florum sic est domus ista domorum,' long supposed to be the unique boast of York Chapter House (circa 1324), has recently been deciphered by Professor Lethaby in the south-east sector of the pavement. The lofty roof is supported by a single central shaft, 35 feet high and it is lit by six magnificent windows, recalling those of the Sainte-Chapelle at Paris. These are filled with stained glass in memory of Dean Stanley; the tracery, like the roof is modern, though copied from the blank window, which escaped mutiliation. The arcading on the walls was adorned with frescoes (now almost obliterated) of the Last Judgment and the Apocalypse (14-l5th century). Beneath is the bench for the monks, with the abbot's raised seat facing the door. The figures of the Virgin and the Angel above the door are ancient (circa 1260), but the figure of Christ is modern. The Chapter House is for ever especially memorable as the' cradle of representative and constitutional government throughout the world,' for here the early House of Commons, separated from the House of Lords in the reign of Edward III., held its meetings down to 1547, when it migrated to St. Stephen's Chapel. At the Dissolution this chamber, with the royal treasury in the crypt, and the Chamber of the Pyx (the abbots' treasury) were retained under the jurisdiction of the Crown; to this day both are shown in the charge of policemen, not of the Abbey vergers, while the Dean and Chapter hold their meetings in the Jerusalem Chamber (see below). Soon after 1547 the Chapter House became a depository for state documents, but in 1865 these were removed and a thorough restoration under Sir Gilbert Scott was undertaken. In the Crypt below, the sixteen ribs, which support the floor of the Chapter House, radiate from a pillar, which is hollow, with recesses for treasure. The stair leading down to the crypt has several steps missing - perhaps as a booby-trap for thieves. The CHAMBER OF THE PYX (open on Tuesday and Friday only), entered by a Norman archway and a massive door with seven locks, is part of the Confessor's building. Originally a chapel, it was afterwards used as the abbots' treasury and contained many sacred relics. It subsequently became the depository of the 'pyx,' or chest containing the Exchequer trial-plates of gold and silver used as standards of reference at the periodical tests of the weight and fineness of the coins of the realm. These tests, known as 'trials of the pyx,' held at Westminster up to 1842, now take place at the hall of the Goldsmiths' Company; since 1870 they have been annual. [The chest in which sample coins are placed at the Mint to await the day of trial is likewise spoken of as the pyx, and must not be confused with the other pyx.] The massive central pillar and the original stone altar, the oldest in the Abbey, should be noticed. The shallow circular depression in the top of the altar was probably for the reception of a relic. The East Walk of the cloisters is continued to the south by the Dark Cloister (11th century), whence the NORMAN UNDERCROFT (admission) is entered. This, immediately adjoining the Chamber of the Pyx, occupies five Norman bays beneath the monks' dormitory. Traces of early painting and some primitive carving on some of the pillars may be observed. In low glass-cases are exhibited several effigies made to be carried at royal funerals, the most interesting being those of Henry VII. and his queen. Various architectural fragments and other relics also are shown here. A little farther on an arched passage, diverging on the left, leads to the Little Cloisters, on the site of the Monks' Infirmary, a retired and still picturesque spot though much modernized. A door in the corner admits to the private garden of the chapter. The Dark Cloister ends in the yard of Westminster School. From the junction of the west and south walks of the cloister a corridor leads to the west to Dean's Yard. Near its west end, on the right, is a passage admitting to the Abbot's Courtyard, lying between the Deanery, formerly the Abbot's House, on the right, and the College Hall, on the left. The steps at the end ascend to the Jericho Parlour, or panelled ante-room to the Jerusalem Chamber (14th century), the abbots' retiring room, now used as the chapter-room, and shown only by special permission of the Dean. This handsome room, now panelled in cedar, was perhaps at one time hung with tapestry representing the history of Jerusalem. The present tapestries shown here date from the early 17th century. In the windows are some fragments of ancient glass. In this chamber Henry IV. died in 1413 (see Shakespeare's. 'Henry IV.,' Pt. II.). The Westminster Assembly of Divines met here for a time in 1649, and here the revisers of the Old Testament assembled in the 19th century.