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Diana: A Nation Mourns

A millennium of royal history at Westminster

Abbey September 6, 1997
Web posted at: 9:16 a.m. EDT (1316 GMT)

LONDON (CNN) -- For a thousand years the British monarchy has traditionally crowned and buried its dead at Westminster Abbey, the central London church where a funeral for Princess Diana was held Saturday.

The abbey, a 13th century Gothic structure with some buildings that are even older, stands as a symbol of English culture and tradition, a living and breathing monument to great historical moments. The abbey's pageantry and possessions fill the pages of history books. Visitors cannot fail to sense the history behind the church.

"I think over hundreds of years, something has almost got into the stones," said the abbey's Rev. Richard Steele. "They can feel the spiritual nature of the place."

Nine hundred years ago, Westminster was a Benedictine monastery. Now, it is neither a cathedral nor a church, but a "royal peculiar," meaning it does not form part of the diocese of London but is directly under the queen's jurisdiction.

It has been the setting for every coronation since 1066: 39 sovereigns have been crowned here, including today's Queen Elizabeth II. The coronation chair is housed inside, a piece of ancient woodwork made famous by Edward the First. It was designed to hold the famous stone of Scone, seized from the Scots in 1296.

Among the estimated 3,500 people buried within Westminster Abbey are 17 kings and queens, including Elizabeth I and her half-sister, Mary Tudor. Henry VII is buried behind the altar of the Henry VII Chapel.

Eighteen years ago to the day, the abbey buried Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles' uncle, who was murdered by the Irish Republican Army in 1979. Not since then has the abbey or London seen such a funeral as Diana's, with all the trappings of state.

The church also has hosted royal weddings. Charles, the Prince of Wales chose not to marry Lady Diana Spencer at Westminster, choosing St. Paul's Cathedral instead. But Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew made their marriage vows at the abbey, as did Princess Anne before them.

Yet another page of the abbey's history is now in the making, as Diana's funeral reaches unparalleled heights of worldwide interest and attention.

Correspondent Brent Sadler contributed to this report.


The Death of Princess Diana

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