A Contested Space (September 2023)

Good Morning. Welcome to Westminster Abbey – I am Mr Handscombe and it is my honour and joy to share with you this remarkable building – it is a place that requires taking a moment to recognise just where you are, to look around and drink it in.

I take as my theme this morning a word from Ms Scott’s assembly last week – Reformation. You will recall that she placed the blame for this at the feet of Henry VIII and his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon as we sat looking at their betrothal window in St Margaret’s – and that’s not entirely wrong, but it also doesn’t quite capture the complexity of the history. Capturing complexity is something that lies at the heart of scholarship – the desire to know in more detail rather than accepting simplifications – and so it lies at the heart of our life here at Harris Westminster. I’m afraid that I’m going to fail to capture the complexity of everything I have to talk about today – I’m going to run out of time before I get close – but scholarship is not a destination, it’s a journey, and perhaps I’ll capture more complexity than you have come across before. Maybe, though, even that’s too much of a boast and I won’t capture so much as release complexity and leave you with more questions than answers – but that, too, is scholarship for questions mark the start of learning and learning is, as we all know, amazing.

The protestant reformation in England, then, had begun before Henry cast his eye over Anne Boleyn. John Wycliffe had translated the Bible into English in the 14th Century and a proto-protestant movement, the Lollards, had been built on its use, replacing the Latin version. Meanwhile, in 1517, in Germany, a monk called Martin Luther had sent 95 theses or criticisms of the church to his bishop. There was already, then, a contested space in English theology before 1533 when Henry’s need for an annulment became urgent due to the imminent arrival of the baby who would become Queen Elizabeth the first. He set himself up as Supreme Head of the Church of England, waved his hands over his marital affairs and settled down to producing a male heir. Meanwhile the country was broke – he’d spent all the money he’d inherited from his father, Henry VII who is, by the way, buried with his wife in the Lady Chapel of the Abbey a little way behind me. Following the example of Mr Grant, I should tell you that the Lady Chapel is the epitome of perpendicular gothic architecture, a light, airy space whose ceiling high above the heads of tourists is remarkably only eight centimetres thick. You can’t do that in Romanesque.

Back to Henry VIII and his money problems, to solve which he dissolved the monasteries, taking land away from the church and selling it to nobles, thus solving several of his problems. He couldn’t sell Westminster Abbey, though, even though it had been a monastery, because it contains dear old dad – so he turned it into a cathedral with a bishop. The fortunes of Westminster Abbey are therefore tightly bound to the fortunes of the reformation – it’s not just a magnificent church – which it is, let’s take a moment to look round the lantern at the centre, built to display coronations from Harold Godwinson to Charles 3rd; the north transept honouring nineteenth century politicians; the quire with seats allocated in Latin to post holders within the Abbey (one of them is labelled Principalis – that’s our seat. I’m not a vicar, but as your principal I am a sort-of post-holder in the Abbey). Moving round the building we have the south transept containing poet’s corner and then, out of sight, the lady chapel behind me with Henry VII’s tomb and the great nave beyond the organ loft with the grave of the unknown warrior. It is a truly magnificent church, but it’s more than that – it’s a royal memorial, a location of affairs of state, a contested space. And so under Henry’s son Edward, the diocese of Westminster was merged back into London, the Bishop sent off to Norwich and then when Edward died young and his Catholic sister came to the throne it was one of a handful of abbeys that were turned back into monasteries using royal funds to pay the bills. Mary died in 1558 and Elizabeth inherited the problem of what to do with a magnificent catholic abbey in what was now a protestant nation. With, I might argue, typical Elizabethan pragmatism, she adopted the place as a royal peculiar, refounding it as the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster with a responsibility for the education of the young to add to its portfolio. We are here because of how that responsibility has played out over the last five centuries – you are, in some ways a continuation of Elizabeth I’s power move in that contested space.

The Dean is in charge of the Abbey, he doesn’t answer to any bishops because this remains a royal peculiar and his boss is the King. He delights in the idea of the Abbey as a contested space – it’s his phrase that I’ve stolen – but he doesn’t simply mean the historical contest between catholic and protestant, between state and church. He’s also thinking about the question of memorials and graves. Who gets to have their name on a stone in the Abbey, who gets to have their bones, or ashes, buried underneath it. For a long time, this was an easy question to answer – the monks who lived here got buried here: that is, in fact, the origin of Poet’s corner: Geoffrey Chaucer’s tomb, the oldest among that collection, is here because he was Clerk of the Works (one of you is sitting in the current Clerk of the Works’ seat – it’s marked Clericus Operus). For a while, during the reformation of the sixteenth century and the civil war of the seventeenth this became a more difficult question, the Abbey was again a contested space with both sides torn between wanting it for themselves and rejecting its association with their enemies. Later on the question became easier again, with the answer simply being that anyone who paid enough could have a memorial here – and this accounts for a staggering proportion of the memorials in the side aisles, people of whom you’ve never heard, about whom there really is little to say.

Now, though, we have a space full of memorials to white men – not entirely, there are exceptions, but in large part – and that makes me think of John Agard. Agard is a Guyanese poet, and he’s not memorialised in Poet’s corner for the very non-contested reason that he’s not yet dead. You may know his poem “Checking out me history” which rails against the content that he was taught in school (which may well still have been the curriculum in 2004 when he wrote the poem) and asks why we’re not taught about Touissant L’Ouverture, the hero of the Haitian revolution, or Nanny de Maroon, partially mythical heroine of Jamaica, or Shaka Zulu, South African warrior, or the Caribs and Arawaks – pre-European inhabitants of the Caribbean islands – or Mary Seacole, who, I think, you will at least have heard of in school even if the other names remain a mystery.

The last lines of the poem go like this in a voice that I struggle to render – I recommend listening to Agard read his own work. This is my best shot : “Dem tell me, dem tell me wha dem want to tell me. But now I checking out me own history. I carving out me identity.” Agard is conducting a reformation of his own story, engaging with a contested space, tackling some of that complexity – and I’d like to encourage you to do the same. History is a contested space – whose stories should we tell, and how should we tell them – but so is the future: what will your story be, how will it be told.

And so I’d like you to join me on a fanciful enterprise. Let’s look to the far future when we’re all dead and Harris Westminster Sixth Form enters its third century. The principal will stand up here to deliver an assembly and will take lessons from the wonders our alumni have achieved. What would you like to do that would put you on that list? What are your ambitions? What would future you do to make current you proud? Maybe your ambitions are to be poets, or scientists, or politicians and perhaps you look at the memorialised names and imagine yours among them. I can’t promise you that even if they come off perfectly you’ll find yourself here (you wouldn’t care anyway, being dead by that point), but I can promise you that finding resolve in your ambition will help you. This is one of the meanings we put to Remembrance – a moment, a resolution that you can look back on for motivation when you need it – so look around, look around and pick out a spot in the Abbey, an interesting feature to fix in your mind, and as you look at it think of your ambition and the path that will get you there. Make a remembrance of this moment – make a promise to yourself that whatever it is that changes and shifts and moves that ambition, it won’t be a lack of effort on your part. Carving out your identity, reforming your story isn’t easy – but we’re privileged to be part of this contested space, this house of kings, place of worship, political tool, public memorial – let’s use that to help us.

And I leave you with a strand from a song, not John Agard but another poet, and I leave you with the challenge of finding the author and correcting my deliberate misquotation: “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now. History is happening in London and we just happen to be in the greatest city in the world.”

Look around, and remember, and wonder.


1. The first assembly of a new school year inevitably circles round over familiar ground and so similar ideas can be found in Look Street.

2. The (mis)quotation at the end comes from The Schuyler Sisters, from the musical Hamilton.