Purcell Club : a Private Musical Tour of Westminster Abbey

From the Announcement in the Newsletter:

We are fortunate to have been granted one of only ten Tours taking place in each year, and will visit parts of the Abbey where public access is usually restricted.

A private tour of Westminster Abbey with musical interludes by the Purcell Club was a great success for our members in 1996 and in 2003. Notwithstanding their popularity, tours take place only ten times per year, by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster. This year the ANS are privileged to have been granted a tour.

The Purcell club, founded in 1927, is named after Henry Purcell, the famous composer, who was organist of Westminster Abbey from 1679 to 1695. It is a male voice choir formed by members of the Westminster Abbey Old Choristers’ Association. The singers give their services in order to put on these tours and all profits from ticket sales go to support the Abbey and a range of small charities.

We will assemble in the Cloisters for a welcome, then enter into the Abbey where we will take seats in the Nave for the commencement of the tour.
The speaker describes the history and architecture of the Abbey in some detail, moving from one location of interest to the next, including the Quire, Sacrarium, High Altar, the Cosmati Pavement (unique in this country), St. Edward the Confessor’s Shrine, Henry VII Chapel and Poets’ Corner. At various points there is a pause for the Purcell Club to sing suitable musical items ranging from the 16th to 21st centuries. On returning to the Nave for the final part of the tour, a short piece is played by one of the Abbey organists to demonstrate the Abbey’s magnificent organ. The tour ends with the choir singing a piece of suitable solemnity around the Unknown Warrior’s Grave as the lights dim.

From Tabitta and Scott’s Report on our special visit on Saturday 20 May:

On Saturday 20 May, a substantial delegation from the Anglo-Netherlands Society visited Westminster Abbey for a tour and performance by the Purcell Club.
The Purcell Club (named after the 17th-century composer and former organist of the Abbey, who, we learned, caught his death upon being locked out of his house by his wife after a night on the town and was buried at the foot of the ladder to the organ loft at her request) consists of former choristers of the Abbey choir and organizes musical tours of the building ten times a year. As we were guided round the church, the choir, in various locations including Poets’ Corner and the Musicians’ Aisle, performed a variety of short pieces ranging from Gregorian plainsong to a modern setting by R. Slade of “O Lord Hear My Prayer”. Perhaps the most successful was their rendition of the Agincourt Song (an early 15th -century folk song recounting the battle of Agincourt) , sung facing Henry V’s tomb. This was preceded by a rather splendid declamation, by one of the members of the Purcell Club, of the famous “We few, we happy few” speech from Shakespeare’s eponymous play.

The speaker, Howard Phillips (having warned us that several of the objects we would pass were fitted with an alarm system directly connected to Scotland Yard) provided us with a short history of the building mixed in with miscellaneous interesting anecdotes. Thus, we learned that the first abbey church, in Romanesque (Norman) style, was started in 1045 by Edward the Confessor on a site that had previously been built on by the Romans (during their first attempt to conquer Britain in 54 B.C.) and by St Dunstan, bishop of London, who founded a monastery here in 960 A.D. The popularity of the site was due to its being an area of firm land (Thorne Island) in an otherwise swampy region, close to a fordable stretch of the river Thames. It was also near the royal palace on the site of the current Houses of Parliament, to which Edward the Confessor wished to add a private church to serve as a coronation and royal burial place, modelled on similar churches in Normandy, where Edward had spent time in exile.

The current, gothic, structure was built on the orders of Henry III, who returned from his long stays in France with a predilection for gothic architecture and who wished to erect a fitting monument to Edward the Confessor, whom he revered. It was started in 1245, although the great West Towers were not completed until 500 years later. We were told that the carved patterns on the walls in the Choir probably used to be painted in bright colours, which would have been a splendid accompaniment to the beautiful Cosmati pavement that can still be seen in front of the altar (recently restored, having sustained damage not only from the two company of horse housed in the Abbey during the Civil War but also, and more seriously, from damp trapped under the rubber back of the carpet placed over the pavement in Victorian times). The stones of which is it composed were brought over from Italy in saddlebags on the orders of Richard de Ware, abbot of the monastery in the mid-13th century, after he had admired similar pavements on a visit to the Pope at Anagni. Its design has a complex symbolic meaning, about which more information can be found on the Abbey’s website at www.westminster-abbey.org/conservation, which also has interesting material on the restoration project.

The heart of the Abbey (and an area normally closed to visitors) is the tomb of Edward the Confessor, located beyond the altar screen at the east end of the building. Edward died in 1066 and was buried here, in the abbey church he had himself constructed. During the reign of Henry I at the beginning of the 12th century, his tomb was opened and (as is common with saints) it was found that his body looked “as if he had just fallen asleep”. The then Prior, Osbert de Clare, head of the Abbey writing school and a master forger, managed to have him canonised on the basis of forged documents. Henry III, who revered Edward, had a new and costly shrine erected between 1245 and 1269, decorated with Cosmati stonework (some of which can still be seen). The tomb was dismantled by the monks just prior to the dissolution of the monastery in 1540 but reassembled on the orders of Mary I in 1557. It is surrounded by the tombs of Henry III, Edward III, Richard II, Henry V and Edward I. The latter’s tomb is not only extraordinarily long, but also very plain – apparently the unfortunate result of its superstructure having been used by attendees at an 18th-century burial to fend off a group of drunken revellers who had broken into the church.
In and around Henry VII’s Chapel (the Lady Chapel) located at the extreme east end of the building, we were given 15 minutes in which to admire for ourselves the amazing perpendicular-style ceiling as well as the tombs of Henry VII, Elizabeth I and Mary I, and Mary Queen of Scots. The speaker provided reassurance (if any were needed) that although Oliver Cromwell was buried near here, his grave was in fact just outside the Abbey’s walls. Some of our group remarked that the two blue and white stained glass windows in this chapel (the colours of the Virgin Mary) were faintly reminiscent of Delfts Blauw.
We then moved on to Poets’ Corner in the South Transept, where we stood in awe of the sheer number of famous figures from literature, scholarship and the dramatic arts who are commemorated here. The tradition of erecting monuments to literary figures started with the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer, called the “father of English literature” due to the fact that the first substantial book printed in England, by William Caxton, was a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Writers commemorated here include Charles Dickens, W.H. Auden, Lewis Carroll, D.H. Lawrence and Lord Byron, but also more recent names such as Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. On the opposite wall are memorials to other figures from the world of scholarship and music, such as Handel, Isaac Barrow and David Garrick.
After a glance into the North Transept, where politicians and statesmen are commemorated, the choir sang part of Purcell’s Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary II (married to the “Dutch King” William III, who graciously allowed the same music to be performed at Purcell’s own funeral only eight months later, in November 1695) from the Musicians’ Aisle. It is remarkable that, although William and Mary are both buried in Henry VII’s chapel, no funeral monument was erected for them. The Abbey does own their wax commemorative effigies, which will go on display when the new Queen’s Galleries open in the Triforium in 2018.
The tour ended, back in the nave, with a brief organ recital and performances of “The Long Day Closes” by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) and the Russian “Kontakion for the Faithful Departed”, performed by the choir surrounding the tomb of the unknown soldier, who was buried here in November 1920. Almost as an afterthought, the speaker recommended that we should take a look at the Coronation Chair, which stands in a recess to the immediate right of the west entrance and must surely be one of the Abbey’s star exhibits, having been used in the coronation ceremonies of 38 monarchs since Edward I (who had the chair made in 1300).
We are confident we can speak for all attendees in declaring this a particularly enjoyable way to spend a Saturday evening. The visit was well-organised and informative, and there was something very special and festive about being able to roam about the great church after hours, without the relentless stream of visitors it receives during the daytime. Many thanks to Connie Sangster for organising the event (which included an enjoyable pre-tour dinner at the Cellarium Café, fortunately not quite as rich as the 6,200 calories per day allegedly consumed by monks at Westminster Abbey during the Middle Ages).

On Saturday 20 May, a substantial delegation from the Anglo-Netherlands Society visited Westminster Abbey for a tour and performance by the Purcell Club.

The Purcell Club (named after the 17th-century composer and former organist of the Abbey, who, we learned, caught his death upon being locked out of his house by his wife after a night on the town and was buried at the foot of the ladder to the organ loft at her request) consists of former choristers of the Abbey choir and organizes musical tours of the building ten times a year. As we were guided round the church, the choir, in various locations including Poets’ Corner and the Musicians’ Aisle, performed a variety of short pieces ranging from Gregorian plainsong to a modern setting by R. Slade of “O Lord Hear My Prayer”. Perhaps the most successful was their rendition of the Agincourt Song (an early 15th -century folk song recounting the battle of Agincourt) , sung facing Henry V’s tomb. This was preceded by a rather splendid declamation, by one of the members of the Purcell Club, of the famous “We few, we happy few” speech from Shakespeare’s eponymous play.

The speaker, Howard Phillips (having warned us that several of the objects we would pass were fitted with an alarm system directly connected to Scotland Yard) provided us with a short history of the building mixed in with miscellaneous interesting anecdotes. Thus, we learned that the first abbey church, in Romanesque (Norman) style, was started in 1045 by Edward the Confessor on a site that had previously been built on by the Romans (during their first attempt to conquer Britain in 54 B.C.) and by St Dunstan, bishop of London, who founded a monastery here in 960 A.D. The popularity of the site was due to its being an area of firm land (Thorne Island) in an otherwise swampy region, close to a fordable stretch of the river Thames. It was also near the royal palace on the site of the current Houses of Parliament, to which Edward the Confessor wished to add a private church to serve as a coronation and royal burial place, modelled on similar churches in Normandy, where Edward had spent time in exile.

The current, gothic structure was built on the orders of Henry III, who returned from his long stays in France with a predilection for gothic architecture and who wished to erect a fitting monument to Edward the Confessor, whom he revered. It was started in 1245, although the great West Towers were not completed until 500 years later. We were told that the carved patterns on the walls in the Choir probably used to be painted in bright colours, which would have been a splendid accompaniment to the beautiful Cosmati pavement that can still be seen in front of the altar (recently restored, having sustained damage not only from the two company of horse housed in the Abbey during the Civil War but also, and more seriously, from damp trapped under the rubber back of the carpet placed over the pavement in Victorian times). The stones of which is it composed were brought over from Italy in saddlebags on the orders of Richard de Ware, abbot of the monastery in the mid-13th century, after he had admired similar pavements on a visit to the Pope at Anagni. Its design has a complex symbolic meaning, about which more information can be found on the Abbey’s website at www.westminster-abbey.org/conservation, which also has interesting material on the restoration project.

The heart of the Abbey (and an area normally closed to visitors) is the tomb of Edward the Confessor, located beyond the altar screen at the east end of the building. Edward died in 1066 and was buried here, in the abbey church he had himself constructed. During the reign of Henry I at the beginning of the 12th century, his tomb was opened and (as is common with saints) it was found that his body looked “as if he had just fallen asleep”. The then Prior, Osbert de Clare, head of the Abbey writing school and a master forger, managed to have him canonised on the basis of forged documents. Henry III, who revered Edward, had a new and costly shrine erected between 1245 and 1269, decorated with Cosmati stonework (some of which can still be seen). The tomb was dismantled by the monks just prior to the dissolution of the monastery in 1540 but reassembled on the orders of Mary I in 1557. It is surrounded by the tombs of Henry III, Edward III, Richard II, Henry V and Edward I. The latter’s tomb is not only extraordinarily long, but also very plain – apparently the unfortunate result of its superstructure having been used by attendees at an 18th-century burial to fend off a group of drunken revellers who had broken into the church.

In and around Henry VII’s Chapel (the Lady Chapel) located at the extreme east end of the building, we were given 15 minutes in which to admire for ourselves the amazing perpendicular-style ceiling as well as the tombs of Henry VII, Elizabeth I and Mary I, and Mary Queen of Scots. The speaker provided reassurance (if any were needed) that although Oliver Cromwell was buried near here, his grave was in fact just outside the Abbey’s walls. Some of our group remarked that the two blue and white stained glass windows in this chapel (the colours of the Virgin Mary) were faintly reminiscent of Delfts Blauw.

We then moved on to Poets’ Corner in the South Transept, where we stood in awe of the sheer number of famous figures from literature, scholarship and the dramatic arts who are commemorated here. The tradition of erecting monuments to literary figures started with the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer, called the “father of English literature” due to the fact that the first substantial book printed in England, by William Caxton, was a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Writers commemorated here include Charles Dickens, W.H. Auden, Lewis Carroll, D.H. Lawrence and Lord Byron, but also more recent names such as Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. On the opposite wall are memorials to other figures from the world of scholarship and music, such as Handel, Isaac Barrow and David Garrick.

After a glance into the North Transept, where politicians and statesmen are commemorated, the choir sang part of Purcell’s Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary II (married to the “Dutch King” William III, who graciously allowed the same music to be performed at Purcell’s own funeral only eight months later, in November 1695) from the Musicians’ Aisle. It is remarkable that, although William and Mary are both buried in Henry VII’s chapel, no funeral monument was erected for them. The Abbey does own their wax commemorative effigies, which will go on display when the new Queen’s Galleries open in the Triforium in 2018.

The tour ended, back in the nave, with a brief organ recital and performances of “The Long Day Closes” by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) and the Russian “Kontakion for the Faithful Departed”, performed by the choir surrounding the tomb of the unknown soldier, who was buried here in November 1920. Almost as an afterthought, the speaker recommended that we should take a look at the Coronation Chair, which stands in a recess to the immediate right of the west entrance and must surely be one of the Abbey’s star exhibits, having been used in the coronation ceremonies of 38 monarchs since Edward I (who had the chair made in 1300).

We are confident we can speak for all attendees in declaring this a particularly enjoyable way to spend a Saturday evening. The visit was well-organised and informative, and there was something very special and festive about being able to roam about the great church after hours, without the relentless stream of visitors it receives during the daytime. Many thanks to Connie Sangster for organising the event (which included an enjoyable pre-tour dinner at the Cellarium Café, fortunately not quite as rich as the 6,200 calories per day allegedly consumed by monks at Westminster Abbey during the Middle Ages).