Abbey History

An architectural masterpiece of the 13th to 16th centuries, Westminster Abbey also presents a unique pageant of British history – the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, the tombs of kings and queens, and countless memorials to the famous and the great. It has been the setting for every Coronation since 1066 and for numerous other royal occasions, including sixteen royal weddings. Today it is still a church dedicated to regular worship and to the celebration of great events in the life of the nation. Neither a cathedral nor a parish church, Westminster Abbey (or the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster to give it its correct title) is a “Royal Peculiar” under the jurisdiction of a Dean and Chapter, subject only to the Sovereign and not to any archbishop or bishop.

Westminster Abbey, a work of architectural genius, a place of daily worship, deploying the resources of high musical expertise, a burial place of kings, statesmen, poets, scientists, warriors and musicians, is the result of a process of development across the centuries, which represents the response of a monastery and later a post-Reformation church to the stimulus and challenge of its environment.

In the 1040s King Edward (later St Edward the Confessor) established his royal palace by the banks of the river Thames on land known as Thorney Island. Close by was a small Benedictine monastery founded under the patronage of King Edgar and St Dunstan around 960 A.D.  This monastery Edward chose to re-endow and greatly enlarge, building a large stone church in honour of St Peter the Apostle. This church became known as the “west minster” to distinguish it from St Paul’s Cathedral (the east minster) in the City of London.  Unfortunately, when the new church was consecrated on 28 December 1065 the King was too ill to attend and died a few days later. His mortal remains were entombed in front of the High Altar.

The only traces of Edward’s monastery to be seen today are in the round arches and massive supporting columns of the undercroft and the Pyx Chamber in the cloisters. The undercroft now houses the Abbey Museum but was originally part of the domestic quarters of the monks.  Among the most significant ceremonies that occurred in the Abbey at this period was the coronation of William the Conqueror on Christmas day 1066, and the “translation” or moving of King Edward’s body to a new tomb a few years after his canonisation in 1161.

Edward’s Abbey survived for two centuries until the middle of the 13th century when King Henry III decided to rebuild it in the new Gothic style of architecture. It was a great age for cathedrals: in France it saw the construction of Amiens, Evreux and Chartres and in England Canterbury, Winchester and Salisbury, to mention a few. Under the decree of the King of England, Westminster Abbey was designed to be not only a great monastery and place of worship, but also a place for the coronation and burial of monarchs. This church was consecrated on 13 October 1269. Unfortunately the king died before the nave could be completed so the older structure stood attached to the Gothic building for many years.

Every monarch since William the Conqueror has been crowned in the Abbey, with the exception of Edward V and Edward VIII who were never crowned. It was natural that Henry III should wish to translate the body of the saintly Edward the Confessor into a more magnificent tomb behind the High Altar. This shrine survives and around it are buried a cluster of medieval kings and their consorts including Henry III, Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, Richard II and Anne of Bohemia and Henry V.  The Abbey contains over 600 monuments and wall tablets – the most important collection of monumental sculpture anywhere in the country - and over three thousand people are buried here. Notable among these is the Unknown Warrior, whose grave, close to the west door, has become a place of pilgrimage. Heads of State who are visiting the country invariably come to lay a wreath at this grave.

A remarkable new addition to the Abbey was the glorious Lady chapel built by King Henry VII, first of the Tudor monarchs, which now bears his name. This has a spectacular fan-vaulted roof and the craftsmanship of Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano can be seen in Henry’s fine tomb. The chapel was consecrated on 19 February 1516. Since 1725 it has been associated with the Most Honourable Order of the Bath and the banners of the current Knights Grand Cross surround the walls. The Battle of Britain memorial window by Hugh Easton at the east end and a new stained glass window above by Alan Younger give colour to this chapel.

Two centuries later a further addition was made to the Abbey when the western towers (left unfinished from medieval times) were completed, to a design by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Little remains of the original medieval stained glass, once one of the Abbey’s chief glories. The great west window and the rose window in the north transept date from the early 18th century but the remainder of the glass dates from the 19th century onwards.

History did not cease with the dissolution of the medieval monastery on 16 January 1540. The same year Henry VIII erected Westminster into a cathedral church with a bishop (Thomas Thirlby), a dean and twelve prebendaries. The bishopric was surrendered on 29 March 1550 and the diocese was re-united with London, Westminster being made by Act of Parliament a cathedral church in the diocese of London. Mary I restored the Benedictine monastery in 1556 under Abbot John Feckenham. But on the accession of Elizabeth I the religious houses revived by Mary were given by Parliament to the Crown and the Abbot and monks were removed in July 1559. Queen Elizabeth I, buried in the north aisle of Henry VII’s chapel, refounded the Abbey by a charter dated 21 May 1560 as a Collegiate Church, a Royal Peculiar exempt from the jurisdiction of bishops and with the Sovereign as its Visitor.  In place of the monastic community a collegiate body of a dean and prebendaries, minor canons and a lay staff was established and charged with the task of continuing the tradition of daily worship (for which a musical foundation of choristers, singing men and organist was provided) and with the education of forty Scholars who formed the nucleus of what is now Westminster School (one of the country’s leading independent schools).  In addition the Dean and Chapter were responsible for much of the civil government of Westminster, a role which was only fully relinquished in the early 20th century.  Thus the Abbey was reshaped and newly patterned to discharge a distinctive yet worshipful role in a modern age.

Still today, a daily pattern of worship is offered to the Glory of God. Special services, representative of a wide spread of interest and social concern, are held regularly. Annual services include a thanksgiving for victory in the Battle of Britain, a service for Judges at the start of the legal year and an Observance on Commonwealth Day. In 1965-66 the Abbey celebrated the 900th anniversary of the consecration of King Edward’s abbey, taking as its theme ‘One People’. Such a theme seemed to be fitting for a church which, through a long history of involvement with the developing life of the British people, has become known throughout the world. In 2010 His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI became the first Pope to visit the Abbey.

©Dean and Chapter of Westminster 2011

Further reading:

“Treasures of Westminster Abbey” by Tony Trowles, 2008
“Westminster Abbey. 1000 years of music and pageant” by James Wilkinson, 2003
“Kingdom, Power and Glory. A historical guide to Westminster Abbey” by John Field, 1999
“A House of Kings. The history of Westminster Abbey” edited by Edward Carpenter, revised 1972
“History and Treasures of Westminster Abbey” by L.E.Tanner, 1953
“Westminster Abbey. The Church, Convent, Cathedral and College of St Peter Westminster” by H.F.Westlake, 2 vols, 1923
“A bibliography of Westminster Abbey” by Tony Trowles, 2005

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