THE ABBEY AND ME
Watching the Academy Award winning film “ The King’s Speech” this March stirred memories of an afternoon at Westminster Abbey. Televised coverage of the royal wedding that followed in April further revived these images. Its grandeur may have been obscured by the glamour of the young couple pronouncing their wedded vows. The Abbey, however, has its own mystique more enduring than the passing style of a bridal gown. One sensed that the celebratory air of the Will-Kat wedding was in marked contrast with the somber funeral of the groom’s mother- Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. But one figures that’s what the Abbey is about- a venue for solemn and symbolic occasions significant to monarchy. Every English monarch from William the Conqueror in 1066 has been crowned in this majestic Gothic church.
I had my own peculiar affection for the Abbey making it a must-see when I visited theUnited Kingdomin 2006. I was intrigued by quizzing trivia associated with the Abbey’s history, like the Stone of Scone (former seat of Irish and Scottish kings, linked by legend to Greek myth and the Old Testament) ) fitted into ‘King Edward’s Chair’ that served as a coronation seat for English/ British monarchs right up to the present Queen. Likewise, the final resting places of history’s famous individuals was a question often answered in my youthful quizzing days. With notable exceptions, like the Duke of Wellington inSt. Paul’s or Queen Victoria in Frogmore Chapel, an inspired guess for Westminster Abbey sufficed for most prominent British personalities. Quite the opposite of the obscure country churchyard that inspired the poet Thomas Gray’s famous Elegy, the Abbey is where monarchs, militarists and men of letters earned their illustrious repose. (Ironically, Gray himself is buried here)
The historical novels that I avidly read in early teenage came alive as I wandered amidst the sculptured tombs and epitaphs that celebrate departed kings, queens, princes, princesses, dukes, duchesses, generals, prime ministers… A particularly poignant one commemorates two tragic little boys – Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York who met mysterious and untimely deaths in captivity in the TowerofLondon, known to us as The Princes in the Tower. A day before I had myself photographed with a waxwork of Mary, Queen of Scots at Madame Tussaud’s. It completed things for me to view the monument of this bewitching queen, beheaded by her cousin Queen Elizabeth I. I remember having furnished the introduction for a film being screened on her life in my first few days of college. From weeping at her heartbreaking end in books and cinema, I rejoiced to find her remains in the Abbey, subsequently entombed in grandeur.
The Poet’s Corner is a place of mandatory pilgrimage for anyone with a passion for the written word, celebrating distinguished penmanship from the time of Geoffrey Chaucer. Unusually, even the American-born T.S. Eliot finds a place here. It was a heady and inspiring moment to be in the proximity of famous literary bones. But I acutely felt the absence of my mother, Dr. Mme Louella Lobo Prabhu, who had passed away a year earlier in 2005. So many of the writers enshrined here, notably Shelley and Keats, the Bronte Sisters, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were part of her literary essence.
The Abbey significantly contains the tomb of the Unknown Soldier- the anonymous fighter of World War I who symbolizes the sacrifice of life that preserved the country’s frontiers and freedom. Barack and Michelle Obama placed a wreath at this spot on their recent visit toEngland.
The Abbey is likewise generous in acknowledging the collective contributions of those who perished in the crucial battles of British history, and all those whose valor stretched the frontiers of theBritish Empire. A simple tablet stopped me in my tracks. I drew the attention of my husband and children to this memorial appreciating contributions of the erstwhile Indian Civil Service; my late father, J.M. Lobo Prabhu was one of that distinguished body of men. My throat choked up with emotion and my eyes misted over at this symbolic recognition in the famous venue of a foreign land. I knew of no similar memorial in India; I don’t think my father himself was aware of this particular commemoration. This unexpected discovery was a particularly meaningful and personal connection with the Abbey.
The Abbey has been a place of worship ever since Benedictine monks came here in the 10th century, with regular services that have continued even in its shift to the Anglican faith. But it did strike me forcefully as being more of a shrine to human glories. I had a similar feeling while visiting The Church of Des Invalides inParis, which houses the military trophies of France, and very especially exalts the persona of Napoleon Bonaparte. Worthy achievements are extolled here; the pageantry of history and tradition evoked. A nation’s values and identity are thus affirmed. To substantiate this perception, I overheard a gentleman in a clerical collar explain that the monarch’s pew is grander than that of the Prince of Wales to symbolically re-inforce hierarchy.
An attractive woman in priestly vestments pronounced a prayer, which reminded the noisy tourists that the Abbey might indeed be a church with spiritual intent. She prayed that the world’s powerful people be divinely guided to do all that was good. While the idea of goodness espoused from a venue like th Abbey might be politically relative, in general it seemed a relevant enough invocation for reducing the conflict and corruption that flows from the use and misuse of power.
– Giselle Mehta