Westminster Abbey is a national shrine unrivaled as a symbol of England’s history and identity. For almost 1,000 years, it has been the site of coronations and the mausoleum of kings, queens, and eminent citizens. Constructed and renovated over many centuries, the abbey has served as a church, meeting place of the English Parliament, monastery, and royal treasury; as the ceremonial center of the nation, it has been directly involved in great events of British history. A Gothic cathedral in the heart of London, the abbey is currently an Anglican church as well as an architectural and historic landmark.
According to legend, a shrine stood on the abbey’s site, at that time on Thorney Island, as early as the seventh century CE and was dedicated to Saint Peter after he miraculously appeared at the church’s consecration. Under Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury, a small monastery for Benedictines was added around 960. At some point in its early history, the abbey acquired the name Westminster, or western monastery, in distinction from the east minster of St. Paul’s in London.
Beginning in the 1040s, the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor began to improve the existing abbey. While inspired by piety, he was also under some compulsion. Unable to fulfill his vow of a pilgrimage to Rome, Edward followed Pope Leo IX’s suggestion to improve the abbey instead. Edward’s generous endowment of the project played a large part in his 1161 canonization, and he became one of the principal English medieval saints. Edward’s church was consecrated on December 28, 1065. During his reign, the royal palace was moved nearer the abbey, solidifying the bond between church and state
New Architectural Forms
In 1245, Henry III tore down much of the abbey and began construction of a cathedral incorporating both English and French Gothic architectural features. The Chapter House, an octagonal room famous for its stained glass windows, was built in 1250. While most medieval cathedrals rose through community effort, Westminster Abbey was mostly the result of Henry III’s own zeal and funding. It is said that the king was motivated by veneration for Edward the Confessor, for whom he wanted to provide a more magnificent resting place; moreover, he wished to express royal authority in Church affairs and to emulate the great French cathedrals. It is largely Henry III’s building that stands today.
Construction continued fitfully after his death in 1272, interrupted by the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War. The nave, for example, took nearly 150 years to complete. Henry VII added the Lady Chapel, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in 1503. The completion of two towers on the western façade in 1745 by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor marked the end of the abbey’s major construction, although restorative work and the dedication of many monuments and other features have continued since that time.
Coronations at Westminster AbbeyWestminster Abbey’s role as a coronation church is perhaps its most significant. Although it is undocumented, Harold II may have been the first king to be crowned in Westminster Abbey on January 6, 1066, the day after Edward the Confessor’s death. Harold II’s short reign ended with his death at the Battle of Hastings, and on December 25, 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned in the abbey, despite a distracting riot outside between his Norman and Saxon subjects. Nearly every English monarch since that time has been crowned in Westminster Abbey. The only exceptions are two kings who were never crowned at all: Edward V, one of the princes who disappeared from the Tower of London in 1483, and Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936.
Coronations at the abbey have traditionally been grand spectacles, attended by the public, religious officials, nobles, and international statesmen. The coronation theater, a vast space in the sanctuary in front of the high altar, was created by Henry III for that purpose. Although the ceremony has changed over time, its main structure has changed little. The archbishop of Canterbury usually presides as the new sovereign takes an oath, is anointed and invested with the royal robes and insignia, and finally is crowned on King Edward I’s Coronation Chair, a 13th-century oak throne. The monarch then receives homage from bishops and lords for the first time as king or queen.
The most recent coronation took place in 1953, when Elizabeth II became queen; it was the first televised coronation of an English monarch. Other celebratory events at the abbey have included Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, commemorating the longest rule of a British monarch, and many royal weddings.
The daily functions of the abbey have varied during its long history, but it has always been a house of worship. During its tenure as a Catholic church, monastery, and pilgrimage destination, the political power of its abbots was considerable. They oversaw estates owned by the abbey, acted as judges in local trials, and were entrusted with a copy of the Domesday Book.
Throughout the 14th century until 1547, the House of Commons often met in the Chapter House, where formerly monks had daily gathered to read a chapter from the Rule of St. Benedict. The Chapter House was also used for the king’s council meetings.
The abbey’s status changed with the rule of Henry VIII, who dissolved the monastery and converted the Catholic cathedral to a Protestant church in 1540. The diversion of abbey funds around that time to St. Paul’s may have inspired the expression “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Under Elizabeth I in 1560, the abbey became the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster (still its proper title), and a royal peculiar, meaning that it is under the sole authority of the monarch.
Burial PlaceAnother great role of Westminster Abbey has been as a burial place, beginning with the entombment of Edward the Confessor on January 6, 1066. Henry III built a gilded shrine behind the high altar for Edward the Confessor’s tomb, along with a relief representing scenes from Edward’s life. The remains of Henry III himself lie near the saint.
Following Henry III’s precedent, many British monarchs, royal consorts, and other aristocrats were buried in the abbey. In fact, excepting only four kings (Henry VIII, Charles I, James II, and George I), every monarch from Henry VII to George II has been interred in the Lady Chapel at the abbey’s east end. Such royal tombs as those of Henry VII and his granddaughters Elizabeth I and Mary I are large, ornate monuments with portrait effigies in repose. This practice ended in 1820 with George III’s burial at Windsor Castle, where all British kings and queens have instead been interred ever since.
The abbey contains the graves of more than 3,000 people, including Benedictine monks and others associated with the abbey’s construction and maintenance. Most notably, burial at Westminster Abbey has acquired the status of a national honor earned by those deemed to have performed outstanding service to the Crown through eminence in such fields as art, science, or statesmanship. Sections of the abbey are reserved for the dead according to their fields of interest.
One such area is in the abbey’s south transept, called Poets’ Corner. The Canterbury Tales author Geoffrey Chaucer, who held the clerk of works post at Westminster, was the first poet to be buried in Poets’ Corner in 1400. Although he was awarded that honor because of his public service rather than for his literary achievement, it became the tradition to entomb other writers in the same section. The graves of Charles Dickens, John Dryden, Thomas Hardy, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, for example, can all be found in Poets’ Corner. Many authors buried elsewhere are honored in Poets’ Corner by such monuments as inscriptions, plaques, or sculptures; one of the most notable memorials is the statue of William Shakespeare.
Entombed in the nave are distinguished scientists, including Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton. Many military officers and statesmen are buried throughout the abbey, but a few have been removed for political reasons. The most dramatic such incident occurred in 1661, when Charles II ordered the exhumation of the body of Oliver Cromwell, the former leader of the English Commonwealth who was responsible for Charles I’s death. The body was hanged from a gibbet and reburied elsewhere. Perhaps the most revered tomb, on the other hand, is that of the Unknown Warrior; dedicated in 1920, it honors all unidentified British war dead and is the only gravestone in the abbey that no one is allowed to step on.
Events and Discoveries: 1940s-2011
Westminster Abbey remains at the symbolic center of the nation. Like the nearby houses of Parliament, it was damaged during World War II air raids. It became a focus of intrigue in 1950, when the Stone of Scone, a Scottish relic lodged within the Coronation Chair, was stolen by Scottish nationalists. The stone was recovered but returned to Scotland in 1996, on condition that it will be lent to the abbey for the next coronation. Two 20th-century events of great pageantry, the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, and the 1997 funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, took place at the abbey. Most recently, in 2011, Prince William—second in line as heir to the throne—married Catherine (Kate) Middleton at Westminster Abbey.
The abbey has been a World Heritage site since 1987, and it still fulfills its original function as a working church. Westminster Abbey preserves an artistic heritage as well as a religious one: one of Europe’s finest sculpture galleries, it houses statues of angels, gargoyles, and saints, as well as memorial portraits of monarchs and famous citizens. Ten niches above the Great West Door, empty since the Middle Ages, were filled in 1998 with statues of modern Christian martyrs.
Recent discoveries at the abbey have further enhanced its history. The Chapter House door has been dated to the time of Edward the Confessor, and is likely a remnant of Edward’s original abbey. Further, in 2005, along with other vaults and royal crypts, the original tomb of Edward the Confessor was discovered beneath the mosaic floor in front of the high altar. The find occurred 1,000 years after Edward’s birth, prompting a renewed sense of connection with the abbey’s past.
About the Author:
Jennifer Hutchinson is a senior writer/editor for ABC-CLIO’s World History and Religion team. She received her MA in Classics from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Hutchinson, Jennifer. “Westminster Abbey.” World Geography: Understanding a Changing World, ABC-CLIO, 2018, worldgeography.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1453640. Accessed 11 May 2018.