Westminster Abbey



' A living Church that enshrines the history of a nation '


There has been a place of worship on this site for well over a thousand years, and every monarch since William the Conqueror in 1066, bar two, have been crowned under it's roof in an elaborate ceremony that is steeped in history and tradition. Westminster Abbey, or to call it by its correct name, The Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster, is unusual amongst churches in England in being a 'Royal Peculiar'. This means it is under the jurisdiction of the crown and not within any diocese. This was an extremely important privilege in the Middle Ages as it gave the Abbey full control over its finances and day to day running and it soon grew into one of the wealthiest religious houses in the country.

Westminster Abbey has survived them all. It's an architectural masterpiece of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries and contains countless memorials and effigies to the famous and great of this nation. Over three thousand people are either buried or memorialised in Westminster Abbey from Medieval Kings and their Queens, to the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, which in recent times has become a place of pilgrimage.

It is said that a church was founded on the site of Westminster Abbey by Serbert, King of the East Saxons who died in AD616, and this was overseen by Mellitus, the first Bishop of London, but there is no evidence of this building.

St Edward the Confessor

The earliest foundations that are known are those of St Dunstan, c. 909-88. He was Abbot of Glastonbury and archbishop of Canterbury and a leading player in the church. He was educated at Glastonbury abbey before entering the household of his uncle Athelm, archbishop of Canterbury and he later joined the court of King Athelstan, whom he was also related to. He set up a Benedictine abbey around AD 960 on an Island in the Thames, although very little is known about the building except it was sited not far from where the west door now stands.

Less than one hundred years later this abbey was succeeded by an even greater monastery created by Edward the Confessor, King of England 1042 -66. The focal point of the new abbey was the Church which was dedicated to St Peter and similar in area to the present building. It was built in the Norman-French style and would have been similar to Durham Cathedral, which is one of our finest surviving examples. Edward also built a new royal palace nearby.

The cloister at Westminster Abbey

Edward the Confessor was born in 1003, son of King Ethelred II, The Unready and Emma, daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy. He spent his youth in exile in Normandy and later married Edith, daughter of the Earl Godwin of Wessex. He was recalled to England in 1041, and suceeded his half brother Harthecnut to the throne in the following year. Edward had been accompanied back to England with several influential Normans who were later given important posts in office and he remained in close contact with the Duchy during his reign. This was a period of great political turbulence in England, although Edward kept his kingdom in relative peace. This was helped to a large extent by the military capacity of the Earl Godwin of Wessex and his Sons, most notably Harold, who later succeeded Edward to the throne.

Edward the Confessor died on 5th January 1066 and on his deathbed is said to have acknowledged Harold as his successor. At dawn on the next day he was buried in the new abbey at Westminster, which had been consecrated only eight days before. By the end of the morning Harold had been elected by the Witan and they celebrated with High Mass in the Abbey. Harold's reign was to be a short one and by the end of the year a new king was to be crowned at the Abbey.

The Burial of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey from the Bayeux Tapestry

One of the most important events in the history of Westminster Abbey took place on Christmas Day in 1066. This was the coronation of William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, who had on the 14th October of that year defeated King Harold on the field of Hastings. William had spent the previous 2 months consolidating his victory and stamping his authority on the south , but the rest of the country was still not entirely under his control.

It was a dramatic ceremony. When the shouts of acclamation rang out from the abbey, the Norman guards thought that their Duke was in danger inside and, being trained soldiers, they quickly started a diversion by setting fire to nearby buildings. The final rituals inside were hurriedly completed and the startled congregation fled into the chaos of the surrounding streets.

The Coronation ceremony used by William in 1066 was almost certainly very similar to the one still used today, although latin ceased to be used from 1603 onwards. It takes place in the sanctuary, before the high altar, with the sovereign seated on the ancient Coronation Chair. The ceremony has almost always been conducted by the archbishop of Canterbury.

The next Coronation at the Abbey was on 26th September 1087. This was conducted by Archbishop Lanfranc when he crowned the son of the Conqueror, William Rufus. This effectively meant that the elective monarchy of England had become hereditary, and the recognition of the king's chosen heir had passed from his council to his archbishop. After this, every monarch of England ( apart from Edward V, one of the princes in the Tower, and Edward VIII, who abdicated. ) has been crowned in Westminster Abbey.


The West Front of the Abbey church

By the 12th century the Abbey at Westminster was flourishing and would have held between thirty and sixty monks, with up to 300 other people also being involved in the running of the Benedictine Monastry. The Abbey was by now the wealthiest religious house in Britain, helped without doubt by its Royal Patronage and the Tomb of St Edward the Confessor, which was by now attracting large numbers of Pilgrims. The Monks lived a demanding life, attending services during the day and night with reading and writing taking place in between. They even had time to tend the Abbey garden, probably the oldest in England, which has been looked after continuously for over 900 years.

The Abbey also owned another 216 manors in England and much time would have been spent by the Abbot and Monks travelling to and from, to ensure they were being correctly managed and supervising any work which needed to be carried out. The Monks also spent time in other places of learning and some of the younger ones would have travelled to Oxford to study. The Abbot of Westminster would also have been responsible for holding courts and hearing the cases of local wrong-doers, and would even, on occasion, travel overseas on diplomatic missions for the King. A copy of the Domesday Book is almost certain to have been held in the Abbey for safe keeping by the King along with other important relics.

The flying buttresses supporting the nave from the cloister

The Abbey was gaining importance in the affairs of the crown and in the reign of King Henry II, the whole of the royal treasury moved to London. This was at first held in the Temple and then the Tower, before being moved again, towards the end of his reign, to Westminster Abbey. The treasury was held along with other royal regalia in the Chapel of the Pyx until at least the 15th century, guarded securely by six locks and a huge door, which still stand today. The Exchequer also gained a more permanent home in Westminster. The future of the abbey looked very secure, as well it may, for the royals continued to pour money into the Abbey. This reached a height in the reign of King Henry III, whose excessive expenditure on Westminster Abbey became, in his own time, notorious.

Henry III was determined to place the Abbey on a much grander scale, the old abbey of Edward the confessor was slowly replaced from the east end, bit by bit and nothing of Edward's Church remains apart from some of the Monastic buildings around the cloister. The new abbey although covering a similar area to that of Edward's was to be taller, lighter and more spacious. The Master mason chosen for this task was Henry de Reyns and his new gothic style owed much to the design of the French cathedrals. The soaring height of the roof and the narrowness of the nave are typical features from France, but the long nave and broad trancepts are thoroughly English, as are the mouldings of the arches and sculptured stone of polished Purbeck stone.

The cloister

From 1245, when his work on the abbey started, until his death in 1272, Henry III spent well in excess of £40.000 on the Abbey rebuilding. This was the approximate equivalent of the state's annual income for two full years of his reign. It was very much a personal exercise and Henry added a lot of personal touches to the building, such as the new magnificent shrine for Edward the Confessor, covered in gold and precious jewels and a new lecturn for the Chapter House, the like of which had never been seen before.

Henry was in a hurry to see the work completed and encouraged work throughout the winter months. In 1252 he directed his master of works at Westminster to;

' Have all the marble work raised this winter that can be done without danger and the works of the Church be greatly speeded up '

In the event, the completion of the nave at Westminster, which came to a halt on his death, was to take a further 250 years. This was a prime case of a son of a founder taking no interest in his fathers works, and the same happened to this very son, Edward I whose own pious foundation at Vale Royal Abbey in Cheshire suffered when his attentions turned to castle building in North Wales. His son, Edward II turned his attention away from Vale Royal and built his own friary church at King's Langley.


The magnificent Chapter House and original tiles on the Chapter House floor

The Chapter House at Westminster is the second largest in the country after Lincoln, but Westminster's was by far the most important. After its completion in 1253 until 1547 it was one of the regular meeting places of Parliament. It was also positioned next to the vaults of the Pyx Chamber which held all the Kings important documents, and the King himself would often hold council in the Chapter House.

After Henry III died, rebuilding continued at a very erratic rate, and work slowly continued westwards on the nave. This work was also slowed by the ravages of the Black death and the Monks at Westminster suffered greatly. They lost half their numbers in two years and it took a long time for them to get back to their pre-plague numbers. The Hundred years War between England and France also took it's toll with money being diverted by the Kings of England towards military matters, although they all contributed towards their own personal Chapels in the Abbey to house their bodies after death.

The reconstructed vaulted roof in the Chapter House

The Nave was completed in 1517 and in 1540 the Abbot of Westminster surrendered the monastery to dissolution. The Confessors Shrine was torn down and it's valuables stolen. Tombs were robbed and relics destroyed. From 1540 to 1550 the Abbey became a Cathedral in the newly created diocese of Westminster and the Chapter House passed into possession of the Crown. When Queen Mary was crowned in 1556 the Abbey saw a community of Monks re-established, but this wasn't to last for long. In 1560 their brief existence was disbanded by Elizabeth I's Royal Charter which designated the Abbey as a collegiate church with a Dean and chapter of twelve canons.

Reconstruction of Westminster in 1585 by Peter Jackson

Westminster Abbey was to retain its unfinished look for a further 200 years. In 1745 the building as we know it today was finished when the west towers were completed to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Wren died in 1723, and Hawksmoor became Surveyor of the Abbey in Wren's place and oversaw the completion of the Towers.

The Abbey today still plays an important role to the people of this Nation as well as remaining a place of worship. Our Kings and Queens continue to be Crowned here and have their funerals here, although they are now buried at St Georges Chapel in Windsor.

Royal weddings held at the Abbey are are recent introduction. The wedding of Princess Mary to Viscount lascelles in 1922 set the trend and was followed the next year by Albert, Duke of York, later King George VI, when he married the Queen Mother, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. It was the Queen Mother who began the tradition of laying a bridal bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, all royal brides since have followed this act and it has become something of a tradition.

Westminster Abbey is also closely associated with the Order of the Bath, which uses Henry VII's Chapel as its own. The Dean of the Abbey is a member of the Order and the Banners of the Prince of Wales, the Great Master of the Order and the Sovereign, the Queen, hang in the Chapel. The Queen is the only member to have an embroidered banner.

© MWC1999

Westminster Abbey additional information

Westminster Abbey is owned by Her Majesty The Queen.

Hours of opening and details of admission http://www.westminster-abbey.org/other/westmins_entry_charges.htm

I send visitors here as they have the most up to date information on opening and charges.

Telephone - 0171-222-5152 The Chapter Office, for times of services.

Map - Any tourist map of London.

Tube Station - Westminster.

Tourist Information - There are many centres throughout the centre of London.

**There is no Photography or Video allowed inside of the Abbey Church.**

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey is famous throughout the world as one of the greatest churches in Christendom, and draws visitors from all corners of the globe. For over a thousand years the people of this nation have seen their monarchs crowned in settings of pomp, tradition and splendour, unsurpassed in todays modern age. The interior is an absolute delight, the gothic arcitechture draws the eye repeatedly and one wonders how such an emense structure of beauty could have been built hundreds of years ago. The roof of the nave is one of the finest of any building in the world., it soars above you as you crane your neck to view its immense design and great height.

One could spend hours wandering around this marvelous building, chapels and other memorials drawing you time and time again as one looks in complete awe at your sourroundings, steeped in history. Just to witness some of the tombs of those famous Kings and Queens who's names conjure stories of great feats performed in battle, treachery, intrigue, and murder is something not to be missed on trip to London. Oh yes, they are all here, each having tried to outdo the other even at their deaths, sourrounding themselves in splendour, although all of the gold and jewels have long been stolen.

A visit to the Abbey while in London could not be more simple, there is excellent transport via tube and Bus from most parts of central London, although with a bit of planning, some of the other sites could well be taken in at the same time on a walking mini-tour.

The Chapter House is separate from the Abbey and it is possible to visit this on its own, via the Dean's Yard and the Cloister. This I would throughly recommend as the Chapter House is worth seeing in its own right and is managed by English Heritage. ( That membership coming in handy again ) Next to the Chapter House is the ancient treasury and next to that is the Pyx Chamber, all included in the entrance fee and well worth the visit. The Pyx Chamber contains some of the funeral relics of the Medieval Kings including the death mask of Edward III and the saddle, helm and sword of Henry V, which for many years hung above his Chapel.

The Abbey used to have a policy of asking for donations from visitors as a way of admittance, but they now charge for admission. I have a big problem with being asked to pay an admission fee to Westminster Abbey or any other church for that matter. It is a house of God, a place of worship and access should not be denied to anyone whatever race, creed, or colour. A church should always remain a place of refuge, one where any visitor should be made welcome. Despite these charges, and rather steep at that, the Abbey seems to be flooded with visitors, too many, far too many. The whole building gets completly full with people and the Abbey has now lost its feel of reverance, it now feels more like a museum and a side show than a place of worship, which I think is very sad.

In short, the Abbey is a victim of its own fame and success and one should expect to stand in line to visit some of the Chapels and other parts.

The best time to visit is one of the services, or better still one of the special events organised with a Choir or Orchestra. Sunday is a good time and the Cloister can be deserted, as my pictures bare as my witness. Time this right and you may attend a service and enter for free. Otherwise, expect to pay and join the swarms of people.

© MWC1999

Information on Westminster Abbey was obtained from;

Westminster Abbey - John McIIwain.

The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England - Colin Platt.

The Monastic Grange in Medieval England - Colin Platt.

Anglo-Saxon England - Sir Frank Stenton.

Oxford History of Medieval England - Nigel Saul.

England and its Rulers 1066 - 1272 - M.T. Clanchy.

The Normans and their Myth - R.H.C. Davis.

The Norman Kings - James Chambers.

William I - Maurice Ashley.

Medieval England - Colin Platt.

Domesday Book - Elizabeth Hallam.

In Search of the Dark Ages - Michael Wood.

The Bayeux Tapestry - Norman Denny & Josephine Filmer-Sankey.

The Plantaginet Encyclopedia - Elizabeth Hallam.

The Middle Ages Concise Encyclopedia - L.R. Loyn.

The English Heritage Handbook 1999.

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