An exclusive look inside Westminster Abbey's spectacular new Diamond Jubilee Galleries

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When Westminster Abbey began clearing out its first-floor storeroom in 2015, in preparation for the space to be turned into a museum, the team charged with levering up the floorboards was astounded to discover that the debris beneath contained historical finds akin to an archaeological dig.

Nestled among the 10ft of dust and soot clogging the upper side of the vaulted ceiling below were a 15th-century wooden overshoe, a medieval knife case, the wrapper for a 17th-century pack of tobacco that had been bought in a shop just outside the abbey walls, torn tickets from the coronation of Queen Anne in 1702, a playing card from the 1600s and more than 30,000 glinting fragments of decorated glass featuring tiny griffins, flowers and faces, which in some cases dated back to windows installed by Henry III in the 13th century, when the abbey was founded. 

Many of these objects will be displayed in the new Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, which open to the public in a fortnight’s time, following a seven-year, £23 million redevelopment initiated by the current Dean, Dr John Hall. Even the glass shards will be on show, painstakingly sandwiched between modern, clear panes and installed on a walkway between the new Weston tower and the museum entrance.

Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries in Westminster Abbey Credit:  Paul Grover

The star-shaped, 80ft tower, which is the first major architectural addition to the abbey since 1745, when the iconic west towers were installed, adjoins Poet’s Corner, where a marble bust of Ben Jonson (the only person to be buried upright among the abbey’s 3,300 corpses) has, until now, played sentry to a tiny doorway providing the only means of access to the first floor space.

Indeed, the Triforium – as the Jubilee gallery area is properly known – has never been open to the public before. Only a few fortunate souls have climbed the 76 spiral stone steps to the top, (one of whom was Richard Dimbleby, who used it to commentate on the coronation of Elizabeth II, in 1953). It’s a tragedy, really, because the view the space provides across the abbey below is, as Sir John Betjeman once recognised, “the best in Europe,” of soaring Gothic vaults, gargoyles and buttresses and out towards Parliament.

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More than 300 objects from the abbey’s precious collection of around 5,000 artefacts (that figure doesn’t include its millions of muniments, or paper records) will be exhibited in the new gallery. Of these, about a third formed part of a previous, much smaller museum in the Abbey Undercroft, but the rest are out in the open for the first time. They include illuminated manuscripts, funeral effigies, clothing, armour, architectural models, drawings, a Roman sarcophagus, and early guidebooks, one of which was made especially for children in 1742.  

A funeral effigy of The Duchess of Richmond and her Stuffed Parrot

The exhibition leads you fluently through the architectural history of the abbey (from monastery to Edward the Confessor’s church to Sir Christopher Wren and so on), explores the unique relationship it has with the monarchy, and considers its significance as a place of remembrance. Its layout has also played to the strengths of the building itself. “The Triforium is amazingly atmospheric,” says Dr Susan Jenkins, the abbey curator. “Visitors might come up here for the view, but they’ll be beguiled by the sunbeam and the shadows, the corbels, glass, 13th-century carvings, buttressing, the floor. The objects have been placed carefully in context with their surroundings, so that it all interrelates.” Indeed, look carefully around the Triforium windows and you’ll see where Wren’s workmen marked the bays with numbers, to indicate where coronation guests should sit. Look at the lift shaft on your way up and you’ll see bands of the different stone used for the construction of the Abbey: Caen, Reigate, Portland, Bath, Purbeck. These traces of the thousands – millions – of lives that have been involved in creating the abbey, are legion.

Carvings and Altarpiece panels from Whitehall Palace (1686) Credit: Leon Neal

There’s even a ghost. The spirit of the regicide John Bradshaw, chief judge at the trial of Charles I and the man who pronounced his death sentence, one cold day in January 1649, is said to haunt the Triforium. Granted a lease of the medieval Deanery at Westminster, according to the pamphleteers he also used a small room in Triforium as a study, and it is from here that his ghost walks on the anniversary of the king’s execution.

Which is not entirely surprising, given that when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the bodies of all regicides were ordered to be disinterred. Bradshaw, who had been buried in the abbey and whose corpse had not been embalmed (it was “green and stank”, said one commentator) was dug up and  hanged at Tyburn, alongside Oliver Cromwell. The heads of both were displayed on spikes at Westminster Hall, their bodies re-buried beneath the gallows.

The marriage certificate of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge Credit: Frank Augstein

Dr Jenkins, though, has never seen him. “I’ve often been in there, late at night, by myself, and people always ask, ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ But this is hallowed ground. I must assume any spirits here are at peace. Working in the quiet, when no one else is there, the peace and calm and sense of history can be quite overwhelming.”