Fun facts about Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey – and the writers buried there
Although Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to be buried in Poets’ Corner, his interment in that part of the Abbey only took place in 1556, over a century and a half after his death. He had originally been buried elsewhere in Westminster Abbey, following his death in 1400. And he earned his original place in the Abbey not for his poetry but for his other work: he was Clerk of Works of the Palace of Westminster. This was probably the reason for his burial in the Abbey in the first place. ‘Poets’ Corner’ would only come into being many years after Chaucer’s death.
This accounts for the fact that not everyone buried in Poets’ Corner was a poet, or even a writer. However, this has continued since: many illustrious people who are not poets have earned a place among the poets. In amongst the poets and playwrights, there is an architect (Robert Adam), a mathematician (Isaac Barrow), and even a headmaster (Richard Busby, who was head of Westminster School during the seventeenth century). George Frederic Handel is also buried in Poets’ Corner, as are Henry Irving (the first actor to be knighted) and Laurence Olivier. Thomas Parr (known as ‘Old Parr’) got himself buried there in 1635 purely because he had, so it is claimed, lived to the extraordinary age of 152. Dancer (and another long-lived person) Eva Marie Veigel (1724-1822) is also buried in Poets’ Corner.
Thomas Hardy is buried in Poets’ Corner, too – or, at least, nearly all of him is. Hardy had left instructions that he wished to be buried in Dorset, the county that had borne and raised him, and in which he had spent the majority of his life. But the state had other ideas: a writer of such importance to English literature had to be honoured with a place in the Abbey. Eventually, a compromise was reached: Hardy would be buried with full honours in Poets’ Corner (with some famous pallbearers among those carrying his coffin to its final resting-place). His heart, meanwhile, would be interred in the graveyard of his local parish church in Stinsford, Dorset.
Some writers – such as Aphra Behn, Charles Kingsley, and Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton – are buried in Westminster Abbey but not in Poets’ Corner itself.
Contrary to popular belief, Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson is not buried in Poets’ Corner, but nearby in the Abbey. He was buried standing up to save on the cost of the monument (land being a costly commodity in death as in life). His tomb misspells his name as ‘Johnson’.
If you enjoyed these facts, check out our short history of English poetry – told through 8 short poems.
Image: Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, 1941, by Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer; Wikimedia Commons; public domain.