William Morris

Monuments in Westminster Abbey

May I be allowed a further word or two on the subject of monuments in Westminster Abbey and its precincts, since I see by your issue of the 11th April that it appears probable that the plan of carrying the plague of monuments into the cloisters and Chapter House will be approved of by the authorities? I think that, whatever scheme for the continuance of what is called, in the detestable slang of the day, our National Valhalla, may be second-worst, this surely must be called the worst. Here very briefly is the position. Incongruous monuments have been allowed to block up and disfigure the Abbey church; this is now allowed by every one who claims to know or care anything about art to have been a deplorable mistake; nevertheless, we are now preparing to carry on this mistake, which we deplore, by bringing these incongruous monuments into the Cloisters and the Chapter House, which have hitherto escaped the evil. Thus are we hag-ridden by a mere convention, which we have allowed to become our master; and we are inexcusable in the matter, for we are sinning against knowledge. Our forefathers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at least acted in good faith; they looked on Westminster Abbey as an ugly accident of barbarism, which they could not spoil but might improve by any work of theirs. We know that it is an exquisite work of art, which we can disfigure but cannot improve by our work. The alternative to this lazy, cowardly, and senseless piece of destructiveness I have suggested before in your columns. It is to transfer the `National Valhalla' to St Paul's, which no doubt was intended to perform this function amongst others, and which cries out for some incident, good, bad, or indifferent, to break its vast blank space. Westminster Abbeycan then be declared finally closed against monuments, and we can debate at our leisure any scheme for removing to the new home of `distinguished' dead men whatever can be removed from the Abbey without injury to its genuine character. I must say that I am writing to you in something like despair; for this is so obviously the common-sense solution of the difficulty that I fear it is not likely to prove attractive to Englishmen of the present generation, to whom the same common sense, with the almost exclusive possession of which they have been so long credited, appears such a precious treasure that it is rather to be hoarded than used, lest, like other market wares, it should be consumed in the using.

Letter to the Daily News, 17 April 1889.