“A veritable museum of the history of the United Kingdom”

The 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II is to be celebrated by a service at Westminster Abbey tomorrow, 4 June 2013. The Abbey has been the place of coronation of the monarchs of England and the United Kingdom since 1066, when the Norman conqueror William was anointed king.

View of the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Hall and Westminster Abbey from the River Thames, 1647. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

View of the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Hall and Westminster Abbey from the River Thames, 1647. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

The Abbey and its precincts, together with the Palace of Westminster and the church of St Margaret, forms the Westminster World Heritage Site – so designated by UNESCO in 1987. Explaining its importance to world cultural heritage UNESCO noted that the site:

“illustrates in a concrete way the specificities of parliamentary monarchy over as long a period of time as nine centuries. Whether one looks at the royal tombs of the chapter house, the remarkable vastness of Westminster Hall, of the House of Lords or of the House of Commons, art is everywhere present and harmonious, making a veritable museum of the history of the United Kingdom”.

UNESCO’S own guide The World’s Heritage includes information on each of the 962 cultural and natural sites currently considered to have “outstanding universal value”.  The UNESCO website also provides photos, maps and information on all the listed sites.  Twenty-eight of the sites are found in the UK; four are in London: Westminster, the Tower of London, Maritime Greenwich, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Admission to the Word Heritage list is keenly sought and governments may submit proposed sites to UNESCO for scrutiny and assessment. If elevated to the list, management plans and policies which secure the site’s protection, conservation, and transmission to future generations are required of the national and local bodies who are custodians of the site.

A Cosmoramic View of London [section], 1843. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Section of A Cosmoramic View of London, 1843; the dwellings to the south-west of the Victoria Tower were demolished in the 1870s when the Thames was embanked and Victoria Tower Gardens created. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Preservation was not always the great imperative: over the centuries Westminster’s monumental historic core has been much re-shaped.  The Abbey and Palace of Westminster have been subject to frequent episodes of rebuilding, remodelling and restoration – sometimes producing startling new architectural forms. For example, Barry and Pugin’s soaring neo-Gothic Palace of Westminster, built following the great fire of 1834, boldly brought in the new whilst complementing the old. The changing character and topography of the Westminster World Heritage can be found portrayed in detail in the comprehensive collection of prints, drawings and photographs of historic Westminster held at the City of Westminster Archives Centre.

[Rory]

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