Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Westminster and the Unknown Warrior

August 26th, 2009 · No Comments

I won’t beat around the bush, Westminster Abbey is gorgeous. Stunning. Spectacular. The fact that it was built by mere human hands and some scaffolding is astounding. While the architecture and decor are breathtaking, it is the symbolism represented on the walls outside the church as well as the shrines within that truly captivated me throughout my visit.

Amongst the first aspects of the cathedral discussed by our cheerful, humorous, and incredibly informative tour guide, John, was the sculptures adorning the front exterior wall. There are statues standing imposingly on the ledge above and around the entrance. The sculptures are martyrs of contemporary times, both Christian and secular. The Christian figures represent those who died in the name of their faith from places such as Nazi Germany and Apartheid-era South Africa.

What really stunned me were the representations of what I’ve always believed the church would find oxymoronic: secular martyrs. Saint Elizabeth of Russia was killed by the Bolsheviks for helping the poor. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was murdered by the Nazis in a concentration camp for his prolific works of poetry and music. Most famously, Dr. Martin Luther King was the voice of the American civil rights movement in the 60s. He was assassinated as well. These people are not known for their contributions to the church or for their faith in Jesus. They were faithful to their noble causes, and they died for them. For Westminster to honor these heroes by placing their visages on the entryway to one of the most famous and important churches in the world is marvelous.modern martyrs

St. Elizabeth, Dr. King, Bonhoeffer

Luwum, Elizabeth, King, Romero, Bonhoeffer

Once we got inside, the cavernous space was overwhelming. Unfortunately, photography was strictly verboten, so I will post whatever pictures of the interior the Internet has to offer.

After the initial shock from being in the structure wore off, I listened carefully to what John had to say. The tomb of the Unknown Warrior really stirred me. After World War I, parliament was considering placing a memorial dedicated to the memory of British lives lost during the war inside the abbey.  There was major debate as to how to accomplish this, however. In 1920, Rev. David Railton, chaplain on the western front suggested that a few bodies be disinterred from battlefront graves and placed in a tomb dedicated to the “unknown warrior,” the common British soldier not commemorated for his service to the Queen. After much debate, this idea was decided on and action began. Four to six bodies were exhumed and brought to France where they were covered with a Union Jack. Brigadier General LJ Wyatt was blindfolded and picked one soldier. The body was placed in a coffin and transferred back to England where it was buried in Westminster and covered with a commemorative slate. The other bodies were placed back in their original resting places. The tomb is an emotional reminder of the value of life, regardless of social class or heroism. Every life is sacred. War destroys lives and throws families into despair. Overall, my experience in Westminster was extremely powerful, especially because of this memorial.

Of all the hundreds of graves in Westminster, this is the only one not allowed to be stepped upon

Of all the hundreds of graves in Westminster, this is the only one not allowed to be stepped upon

Tags: Andrew B