On Tuesday, 24th April 2018 20 members of the Society met at the Westminster School war memorial, close to Parliament Square, where they were greeted by Council members Roger Whitworth and David Broomfield.
The memorial commemorates those educated at Westminster School who died in the Russian and Indian Wars of 1854-59. It is an outstanding memorial of its kind and displays several personal coats of arms that we later saw repeated during our visit to the School.
At 10.30am members moved through the Dean’s Yard and entered the Westminster Abbey cloisters where we made our way through a large wooden doorway and up a stairway to the Abbey Library. Here we were warmly greeted by Dr Tony Trowles (Head of Abbey Collection and Librarian) and Mathew Payne (Keeper of the Muniments). A brief introduction by Tony followed, during which he explained the evolution of the Library and its role today as a resource for researchers.
The present Library, begun after the foundation of the Abbey as a collegiate church in 1560, has been housed in part of the former monastic dormitory since 1591. In 1623 Dean John Williams furnished the Library with book presses (at his own expense) and some 2,000 volumes. Thereafter the collections grew by gift, bequest and purchase throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Dean Zachary Pearce gave a bequest of all his books in 1774. The Library now holds around 14,000 pre-1801 printed books, and about 60 manuscripts (mostly medieval), plus a collection of printed and manuscript music.
We then divided into two groups. The first remained in the Library while the second ascended a spiral staircase to access the elevated gallery that contains the Abbey Muniments collection. Those remaining in the Library were able to browse the many permanent exhibits on display, which included the Litlyngton Missal, the Liber Regalis, a 13th-century Bestiary, and the prayer book of Lady Margaret Beaufort. Matthew had also arranged for us to see several printed books and manuscripts of interest including a German printed text (in English) dating to 1599 of genealogies and heraldry, the Marriage Licence of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and the 1966 Reconfirmation of Arms to Westminster Abbey.
The ascent of the spiral staircase was tricky but worthwhile. On entering the elevated open gallery space that houses the Muniments, we were privileged to have a rare interior view of the Abbey church from on high. Immediately over the gallery rail to our right was Poet’s Corner; a short distance further on was the Cosmati Pavements – the site of almost all English and later British coronations – and from the end of the gallery we had a spectacular view over the choir stalls. Many deeds and other documents are stored in this area in large and ancient oak chests that rest on a medieval tiled floor. Above is a fascinating mural painting of Richard II’s White Hart badge (1390s?), strategically placed here so that it could be seen from specific points at floor level in the Abbey. The archive is one of the oldest in England comprising the records of Westminster Abbey from the 10th century to the present day. The core of the collection consists of the court records of the Abbey's very large landed estate which was scattered widely across southern and midland England, together with the account rolls of the various administrative officials of the monastery up to 1540, such as the Almoner and Cellarer (around 6000 rolls), and the Steward and Treasurer from 1560. The Muniments also include many other records, such as royal charters, minutes of Chapter meetings, leases of Abbey property, coronation and funeral records, letters (including a large collection of Dean Pearce's correspondence), tradesmen’s bills, Hebrew documents, and coroners' inquests for the City of Westminster 1760-1880.
We are very grateful to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey and to both Tony and Matthew for allowing us to make this memorable visit.
We emerged from the Abbey to make our way down Whitehall to Great Scotland Yard, where we enjoyed a hearty lunch in the Trafalgar Room of the Civil Service Club. Our arrival here was somewhat delayed by the unveiling in Parliament Square of a statue to Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), a leading member of Suffragette movement.
On our return we assembled at 17 Dean’s Yard, the entrance to Westminster School, where we were greeted by history masters Dr Richard Huscroft and Tom Edlin, who were to be our guides for the afternoon and whom we thank for allowing us to visit the School. We would also like to thank Elizabeth Wells who provided an opportunity for the White Lion Society to carry out a full documentation of the present-day heraldry of the School, the research for which is being undertaken by our Treasurer David Broomfield.
Tom guided our party through the main entrance, Liddell’s Arch, and into the School grounds. Here we heard about the development of the School and its buildings from the original Abbey School, which probably dates back to 960, to its Elizabethan re-foundation (1560) and its present-day usage by the 750 pupils as an independent day and boarding school.
The earliest records of a school at Westminster date back to the 1370s and are held in Westminster Abbey's Muniment Room. With parts of the buildings now used by the School dating back to the 10th century Anglo-Saxon Abbey at Westminster. In 1540, Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in England, including that of the powerful Abbots of Westminster, but personally ensured the School's survival by his Royal Charter.
Unfortunately, the bombing raids of World War II were not kind to the School’s fabric and one raid in 1940 resulted in major damage to its many buildings. The loss of the rooves of these buildings and the subsequent fire resulted in little more than the outer shell of many buildings remaining. Needless to say, the buildings were re-built and re-furbished and today we see a thriving school.
We then entered the School by the ‘Burlington’ Archway, which was erected in 1734 and whose construction is often attributed to Lord Burlington. As well as the royal arms that are displayed on the portal, the Archway carries many names of students who dared to leave their mark as carved graffiti by way of a more permanent record of their stay at the School. We passed a bronze bust of Elizabeth I, the founder, and were greeted at the Busby Library by Elizabeth Wells, the School Archivist, who had organised a display of items of interest to our assembled members that included an heraldic ordinary by William Camden (1551-1623), a headmaster of the school (1593-97). He was later appointed by Elizabeth I as Clarenceux King of Arms (1597-1623). Camden was an eminent antiquarian, an historian and topographer of note, and the author of the great historical survey of Britain and Ireland, Britannia (1586).
Richard Busby (1606-95) was for 55 years headmaster of Westminster School (1638-93), having been a former pupil. He was a notorious disciplinarian. During his tenure a number of later famous men of the seventeenth century were pupils there: Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Robert South, John Dryden, John Locke, Matthew Prior, Thomas Millington and Francis Atterbury. The Library that carries his name was once a fitting epitaph to the books he contributed to the School.
On leaving the Library we entered the main School Hall, originally built the 1090s as a monks’ dormitory. From 1599 it was used to teach all the pupils, the Upper and Lower Schools being separated by a curtain hung from a 16th-century pig iron bar, which remains the largest piece of pig iron in the world and still figures in the pancake tossing celebration at the School. Essentially this space remains much as it was before the night of dreadful bombing in 1940. It was then part panelled and covered with brass plates containing arms of past pupils at the School; the blitz destroyed all of these. The list of the original arms on display is very impressive.
David Broomfield then expertly guided us round the extensive scheme of fascinating heraldry that now decorates the Hall. Following major wartime damage to the School, John Dudley Carleton (1908-74), headmaster (1957-70), undertook an extensive rebuilding programme. He decided that the School Hall (Up School) should have many of its heraldic achievements restored. Somewhat dismayed at the cost that might be charged by an heraldic painter from the College of Arms who (he thought) might also be rather pernickety when it came to accuracy he employed an artist whose knowledge of heraldry was limited. She was tasked to replace the arms, but to avoid the repetition evident in the earlier Hall, she used plaster cartouches of varying sizes for noble families, with the arms of commoners painted on the new wooden panelling that once again covered the walls. Arms of well-known headmasters were painted on the ceiling, with the royal arms and those of several Cambridge colleges set over the stage. The results are very impressive and the artist deserves credit for her considerable work. However, there are inevitable errors such as the swords or daggers for Camden’s cross-crosslets fitchy.
As a fitting end to our day we returned to Dean’s Yard and from there entered College Hall, the 14th-century Abbot's state dining hall, which is one of the oldest and finest examples of a medieval refectory in existence and in term time is still used every day for its original purpose. The heraldry displayed there is somewhat questionable. Despite David’s very interesting analysis of the heraldry we will not debate it here but please draw your own conclusions as to the painted corbels illustrated below.
We ended our visit and left the School to the sound of bells from Westminster Abbey, that could have been an acknowledgement of our very successful day but were clearly a greater acknowledgement of the happy birth of the third child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
(c) The White Lion Society 2018