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The History of Iconic Westminster Abbey

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Westminster Abbey or the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster.

Westminster Abbey or the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster.

Westminster Abbey's Other Name

UNESCO world heritage site Westminster Abbey has been the setting for every English and British monarch's coronation since William the Conqueror’s on Christmas Day 1066. There have been seventeen royal weddings at the abbey, most recently William and Catherine's in 2011 and thirty monarchs are buried within its consecrated walls.

Royals, authors, poets, musicians, actors, statesmen and women, scientists and priests have been laid to rest or have a memorial in the abbey and it is a place of pilgrimage as much for the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior as it is for its religious, royal and cultural heritage.

Since 1560 and Elizabeth I's reign the abbey has formally had the name of the Collegiate Church of St. Peter in Westminster but it is commonly known as Westminster Abbey because the area took the name Westminster from the abbey's role as the west minster.

Contrary to its name this religious site is a "royal peculiar" and is not classified as an abbey. It falls under the monarch of the day's power and it is not governed by an archbishop but by an appointed dean and chapter. David Hoyle is the current Dean of Westminster.

London panorama: Westminster Abbey lies adjacent to the Houses of Parliament (Palace of Westminster).

London panorama: Westminster Abbey lies adjacent to the Houses of Parliament (Palace of Westminster).

Westminster's location within London.

Westminster's location within London.

St. Peter's Abbey and Monastery

The first religious buildings on this land were called St. Peter's. Legend has it that a fisherman named Aldrich was working on the River Thames when he saw a vision of St. Peter close to the site where the monastery and abbey came to sit.

Approximately 1050-1060 years ago King Edgar and Saint Dunstan opened the monastery with a dozen monks as its inhabitants. This number rose to over eighty monks over the centuries. After 500 years the monastery was dissolved as a result of Tudor Henry VIII's break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England.

Saint Edward the Confessor

King Edward the Confessor had his London palace adjacent to the monastery. The Palace of Westminster later became the seat of government, commonly known as the Houses of Parliament.

Edward wished to be buried at St. Peter's but he felt that the abbey was not grand enough for him to rest there for eternity. After over 20 years of building work, the new abbey was consecrated on 28th December 1065. This was not a moment too soon. One week later Edward died and he was buried in the abbey according to his wishes. Nine years later his widow Edith joined him.

The Bayeux Tapestry has the only surviving representation of St. Peter's Abbey from that time. The building work continued into the 1090s, during William II's reign.

King Edward was venerated as Saint Edward the Confessor in the 12th century.

Edward the Confessor's funeral depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. St. Peter's Abbey is shown as his final resting place.

Edward the Confessor's funeral depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. St. Peter's Abbey is shown as his final resting place.

Henry III's Westminster Abbey

The power struggle that followed Edward the Confessor's demise brought an end to Anglo-Saxon rule in England and signalled the start of the Norman era. After triumphing at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066 William I, the Conqueror chose to have his coronation at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. He was the first of almost a millennium's worth of monarchs to be crowned there with pomp and splendour.

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In the 13th century, Henry III replaced Edward the Confessor's holy building with an imposing gothic French-inspired abbey. Only part of the undercroft and Pyx Chamber remain from Edward's construction. Henry's abbey was consecrated in 1269 and St. Edward the Confessor's body was interred behind the high altar where it remains today as a focal point. Like St. Edward Henry did not live to see the finished project.

The two Western Towers were added in the 18th century by the Georgians to complete the building as we know it.

The Coronation Chair dates from the closing years of the 13th century and Edward I's reign. It is housed in St. George's Chapel in the abbey. For coronations, it is placed in front of the high altar.

A Westminster Abbey floor plan dated 1894.

A Westminster Abbey floor plan dated 1894.

Westminster Abbey: London's Gothic Place of Worship

House of Kings and Luminaries

Westminster Abbey earned the name “House of Kings” as the scene of all coronations and then the burials of thirty monarchs. The last to be laid to rest there was King George II in 1760. Fifteen kings and queens lie in Henry VII's Lady Chapel which was constructed on Henry's orders from 1503 and was consecrated on 19th February 1516 during Henry VIII's reign. Its vaulted ceiling is a wonderful sight to behold.

The Royal Air Force Chapel was created at the eastern end of Henry VII's Lady Chapel after the abbey was damaged by the Blitz of World War Two. Its memorial window commemorates the fallen from the 1940 Battle of Britain.

Since 1725 the Lady Chapel has been associated with the chivalric Order of the Bath; membership is a gift from the monarch.

More than one hundred authors and poets have been buried or have memorials in Poet's Corner in the abbey. These include Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens.

The exterior of Henry VII's Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey.

The exterior of Henry VII's Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey.

Home to the Oldest Door in Britain

An oak door situated in the corridor that leads from the abbey to the chapter house was tested and dated in 2005. It was identified as the oldest door in Britain and is the only known surviving Anglo-Saxon door.

It dates from the 1050s and Edward the Confessor's rebuilding of St. Peter's. The door's original position is unknown and its five planks were cut down from 9 feet to 6 feet tall at some point to allow it to fit in its current position.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey.

Bomb Blast and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

In summer 1914, suffragettes placed a bomb in the abbey during their campaign to win women's rights and the vote. There were 80-100 people in the abbey when the bomb containing nuts and bolts exploded. Mercifully no one was seriously injured by the flying shrapnel.

The abbey was one of over thirty churches targeted by suffragettes. Two days after the Westminster Abbey blast a bomb was discovered in St. Paul's Cathedral, London. Luckily it was made safe before it could detonate.

Near the west door of the nave of Westminster Abbey is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. This houses the body of an unknown soldier, selected at random from the French battlefields after World War I. He was laid to rest on 11th November 1920. His grave symbolises the nation's loss. Royal brides who marry in the abbey traditionally place their bouquet or flowers from it on the tomb in an act of remembrance.

Sunday 18th September 2022 will see an invitation-only Thanksgiving service for the victory over Germany during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and it will remember the 544 lost in the fight.

Westminster Abbey is a working church that welcomes worshippers and tourists every day and it is regarded as the nation's church. An ongoing programme of events and exhibitions adds to its religious and historical appeal.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle

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