The Little Cloister

Posted on January 31, 2014 by Richard Hoptroff

The Little Cloister, Westminster Abbey, London, 31st January 2014
(Chinese Lunar New Year of the Horse)

Thorney Island, 7th century London.  200 years after the Romans abandoned the City; 200 years before Alfred rebuilds it.  Control of the river crossing point passes back and forth between Danes and Wessex kings.  In those throes, somehow a church called Saint Peter's gets built, here on this island in a broad reach of Thames.  By the 11th century, King Canute has failed to turn the tide back here; it is no longer an island, but embanked to the mainland; the church is now a Benedictine abbey; Harald is crowned King here.  After him, Guillaume le Conquérant is crowned here too, thus setting a tradition that English and British monarchs continue to this day.  (Except for a few who didn't last long enough to get around to it.) 

Elizabeth II, who my mother and my aunt slept out on steps in Whitehall overnight to see at her coronation procession, will one day pass on the baton to Charles, then William, then George, proceeding up Saint Peter's aisle, to the unconquerable, inevitable beat of Zadok the Priest.  King Farouk of Egypt once said, "Soon there will be only five Kings left - King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts and the King of Diamonds."

Westminster Abbey has its dead Kings, too.  Lots of them - nearly a thousand years' worth, from Edward the Confessor onward. 

In contrast to La Basilique de Saint-Denis, Westminster also houses non-aristocratic dead pioneers who moulded our culture over the last millennium.  Poets and writers, including Samuel "If you're tired of London, you're tired of life" Johnson, creator of the first dictionary, but more well known for hanging around the whorehouses of Clink Street.  Scientists and engineers, too - here Newton; there Darwin; over there Watt.  (In the Abbey, that is, not Clink Street.)

Explorers and inventors, too.  Centrally, in the western aisle, shoulder to shoulder, lie African explorer David Livingstone and Thomas Tompion.  Tompion, father of English watchmaking.  Mentor to George Graham.  One of the pioneers of the balance spring.  Between David and Thomas, nothing but a few inches of earth and 175 years age difference.  I wonder what they find to talk about on quiet nights when the nightwatchman is dozing by the fire.

Then, to my delight, there she is!  Just lying there.  Elizabeth I. Next to her, her half-sister Mary, Queen of England before her, and also queen consort to Felipe II of Spain.  Their cousin, Mary, Queen of France and later Queen of Scots, buried in the opposing alcove, a good twenty meters away.  If the nightwatchman hears ghostly screams in the night, it will be salvos between those alcoves.

But back to Elizabeth.  The last monarch to personally lead soldiers into battle. ("I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too".)  And the first person in England to have worn a wristwatch,  given to her by her closest supporter, Robert Leicester.

Funny to think that for most of their history, wristwatches were viewed as a 'bit of a girlie thing'.  It dates back to Elizabeth.  A man would always have had a pocket watch, right up to the start of World War I.  Only then did 'campaign watches' begin to appear, and timekeeping finally migrated to a man's wrist.

Along to the chapter house.  A meeting room for monks at first, but then, after the Magna Carta, for "parliament" - a place for barons to meet, then followed political administration, then lawmaking and judicial process.  Modern democracy was born here.  Who knows who or why, two millennia ago, someone called this place the Island of Thorns.  Maybe they could foresee the greasy pole that was to come.

And so on, finally, to my personal delight - the Little Cloister.  Not many know about it.

Back in the nineties, I was running my first start-up, Right Information Systems, around the corner in Artillery Row.  Like any start-up, especially your first, it was an emotional roller-coaster.  Good days, bad days.  Sometimes gut-wrenching days so full of worry I couldn't keep my food down.

On those days, I would walk out of the office and come to the Little Cloister for an hour's meditation.  Those moments worked wonders, and without them I would not have had the courage to build businesses such as our watchmaking enterprise today. 

It's pictured below, with the Victoria tower of the Palace of Westminster in the background.  I hope one day you discover it, but if you see me there, please do not disturb.


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