Extracts from Daniel Defoe’s Account of London

Selected by Pat Rogers
Introduction and Contents

Westminster Hall and the Abbey

But I return to the description of things which really exist, and are not imaginary: As the court is now stated, all the offices and places for business are scattered about.

The Parliament meets, as they ever did, while the Court was at Westminster, in the king’s old palace, and there are the courts of justice also, and the officers of the Exchequer, nor can it be said, however convenient the place is made for them; but that it has a little an air of venerable, tho’ ruin’d antiquity: What is the Court of Requests, the Court of Wards, and the Painted Chamber, tho’ lately repair’d, but the corps of the old English Grandeur laid in state?

The whole, it is true, was anciently the king’s palace or royal house, and it takes up full as much ground as the new palace, which I have given a scheme of, would do, except only the gardens and parks, the space before it, which is still called Palace-yard, is much greater than that which would be at the north gate of the palace of White-hall, as proposed. The gardens, indeed, were not large, but not despicable neither, being the same where my Lord Halifax’s house and gardens now are, and took up all the ground which we see now built upon between the river and the old palace, where the tellers of the Exchequer, as well as the auditor, have handsome dwellings and gardens also.

But, alas! as I say, tho’ they seem now even in their ruins, great; yet compared to the beauty and elegancy of modern living, and of royal buildings in this age, what are they!

The royal apartments, the prince’s lodgings, the great officers apartments, what are they now, but little offices for clerks, rooms for coffee-houses, auctions of pictures, pamphlet and toy-shops?

Even St. Stephen’s Chapel, formerly the royal chapel of the palace, but till lately beautify’d for the convenience of the House of Commons, was a very indifferent place, old and decay’d: The House of Lords is a venerable old place, indeed; but how mean, how incoherent, and how straitned are the several avenues to it, and rooms about it? the matted gallery, the lobby, the back ways the king goes to it, how short are they all of the dignity of the place, and the glory of a King of Great Britain, with the Lords and Commons, that so often meet there?

Some attempts were made lately, to have restored the decrepid circumstances of this part of the building, and orders were given to Mr. Benson, then surveyor of the king’s buildings, to do his part towards it; but it was directed so ill, or understood so little, that some thought he was more likely to throw the old fabrick down, than to set it to rights, for which ignorance and vanity, ’tis said, some have not fared as they deserv’d.

It is true, the sitting of the Parliament is by the order of the Houses themselves, accommodated as well as the place will admit; but how much more beautiful it would be in such a building, as is above contrived, I leave to the contriver to describe and to other people to judge.

Come we next to Westminster-Hall; ’tis true, it is a very noble Gothick building, ancient, vastly large, and the finest roof of its kind in England, being one hundred feet wide; but what a wretched figure does it make without doors; the front, a vast pinacle or pedement, after the most ancient and almost forgotten part of the Gothick way of working; the building itself, resembles nothing so much as a great barn of three hundred feet long, and really looks like a barn at a distance.

Nay, if we view the whole building from without doors, ’tis like a great pile of something, but a stranger would be much at a loss to know what; and whether it was a house, or a church, or, indeed, a heap of churches; being huddled all together, with differing and distant roofs, some higher, some lower, some standing east and west, some north and south, and some one way, and some another.

The Abbey, or Collegiate Church of Westminster, stands next to this; a venerable old pile of building, it is indeed, but so old and weak, that had it not been taken in hand some years ago, and great cost bestowed in upholding and repairing it, we might, by this time, have called it a heap, not a pile, and not a church, but the ruins of a church.

But it begins to stand upon new legs now, and as they continue to work upon the repairs of it, the face of the whole building will, in a short while, be intirely new.

This is the repository of the British kings and nobility, and very fine monuments are here seen over the graves of our ancient monarchs; the particulars are too long to enter into here, and are so many times described by several authors, that it would be a vain repetition to enter upon it here; besides, we have by no means any room for it.

The monarchs of Great Britain are always crown’d here, even King James II. submitted to it, and to have it perform’d by a Protestant bishop. It is observable, that our kings and queens make always two solemn visits to this church, and very rarely, if ever, come here any more, viz. to be crown’d and to be buried.

Two things I must observe here, and with that I close the account of it. 1. ’tis very remarkable, that the royal vault, in which the English royal family was laid, was filled up with Queen Ann; so that just as the family was extinct above, there was no room to have buried any more below. 2. It is become such a piece of honour to be buried in Westminster-Abbey, that the body of the church begins to be crowded with the bodies of citizens, poets, seamen, and parsons, nay, even with very mean persons, if they have but any way made themselves known in the world; so that in time, the royal ashes will be thus mingled with common dust, that it will leave no room either for king or common people, or at least not for their monuments, some of which also are rather pompously foolish, than solid and to the purpose.

Near to this church is the Royal Free-School, the best of its kind in England, not out-done either by Winchester or Eaton, for a number of eminent scholars.

The antiquities of this church, for it is very ancient, are published by two or three several authors; but are particularly to be seen in Dugdale’s Monasticon. The revenues of it were very great, and the abbot sat as a spiritual peer in the House of Lords. The revenues are still very large, and the dean is generally Bishop of Rochester; the fate of the late bishop I desire to bury with him, who is gone to oblivion. The Dean and Chapter have still great privileges as well as revenues, and particularly the civil government, or temporal jurisdiction of the city of Westminster, is so far in them, that the High-Steward and the High-Bailiff are named by them absolutely, without any reserve either to king or people. Their present High-Steward is the Earl of Arran, brother to the late Duke of Ormond, and their High-Bailiff, is William Norris, Esq.

Being got into this part of Westminster, I shall finish it as I go, that I may not return; ’tis remarkable, that the whole city, called properly, Westminster, and standing on the S. side of the park, is but one parish, and is the only city of one parish in England. There is now another great church erected, or rather erecting, by the commissioners for building fifty new churches; but they have been strangely mistaken in the situation, which is a fenny marshy ground, and it is not found so able to support the weight as, perhaps, they were told it would; I say no more. The building was very curious, especially the roof; but the towers are not so beautiful as it is thought was intended, the foundation not being to be trusted.

The Earl of Peterborough’s house stands at the extremity of the buildings, and is the point of measurement for the length of London, which from that house to Lime-house, is reckoned seven miles and a quarter, and some rods: This house might have been a monitor for the builders of the new church, for they tell us it has sunk several yards, since it was first built, tho’ this I do not affirm.

There are three chapels of ease to St. Margaret’s in this part of Westminster; besides that, great numbers of people go to the Abbey, so that there is no want of churches. There is but one meeting-house in this whole part, which is called Calamy’s Meeting [house in Long Ditch], and was formerly supplied by Mr. Stephen Lobb, who, tho’ a Dissenter, lived and died a Jacobite.

The Cottonian Library is kept here in an ancient building [Ashburnham House in Little Dean's Yard], near Westminster-Hall gate; we were told it would be removed to the royal library, and then, that it would be removed to a house to be built on purpose; but we see neither yet in hand. This is one of the most valuable collections in Britain, and, the Bodleian Library excepted, is, perhaps, the best: It has in it some books and manuscripts invaluable for their antiquity; but I have not room so much as to enter upon giving an account of the particulars.

This part of Westminster has but one street, which gives it a communication with London, and this is called King-street, a long, dark, dirty and very inconvenient passage; but there seems to be no remedy for it, for most passengers get out of it through the Privy Garden, and some by private passages into the park, as at Locket’s, at the Cock-Pit, and the new gate from Queen’s-Square; but these are all upon sufferance.