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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Westminster Abbey: Royal Church in London

What is Westminster Abbey?

Westminster Abbey is an imposing Gothic church in London founded in the 11th century that commemorates the country’s great and good, and has been the site of coronations since 1066.

Westminster Abbey Side

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Westminster Abbey History

Westminster Abbey is not a cathedral; nor, strictly speaking, is it an abbey. According to tradition, a church was built here in the early 7th century. However, there’s no authentic record of any earlier church than that of the Benedictine abbey dedicated to St Peter, which stood here from the 10th century until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in the 1530s. To save it from complete destruction, the abbey was decreed a cathedral in 1540; but 16 years later the Catholic Mary I returned it to the Benedictines.

In 1560 its status changed again when Elizabeth I designated it as a Royal Peculiar. Consequently, the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster became an Anglican Church accountable directly to the sovereign. This was particularly apt, because every coronation of a British monarch has taken place here (bar Edward V and Edward VIII) since William the Conqueror in 1066. Known as the House of Kings until the 18th century, Westminster Abbey has also seen royal weddings and funerals.

It includes the graves of some of the nation’s heroes, from soldiers and politicians, to writers, actors, scientists and musicians. (The south transept is known as Poets’ Corner, a place of pilgrimage for literature lovers where more than 100 poets and writers are commemorated, including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and the Brontë sisters.) Westminster Abbey is Britain’s Valhalla, an architectural marvel dedicated to the country’s great and good.

Having entered through the north door, you’ll encounter a dizzying array of funerary and commemorative plaques, statues and monuments. The abbey first became a pilgrimage site in the 12th century, after reports of miraculous cures occurring at the tomb of King Edward the Confessor, the man who had given up funds for his own pilgrimage to Rome to help rebuild the church in 1065, and whose death brought about competing claims for the throne which culminated with William the Conqueror’s successful Norman invasion the following year.

We can thank Henry III in the 13th century and Henry VII in the 16th century for the awe-inspiring structure that endures today. The enormous height of the nave and radial chapels, completed under Henry III, were influenced by the glorious ‘Florid Gothic’ French cathedrals in Reims and Amiens.

Westminster Abbey Front

The Lady Chapel at the far eastern end, paid for by Henry VII between 1503 and 1519, excels in the perpendicular Gothic style which draws the eye higher and higher until it meets the breathtaking fan-vaulted ceiling with its carved pendants. The craftmanship, from the apse to the statues of saints and frieze of angels, represents some of the finest of the period. With the 18th-century addition of the two towers, also in Gothic style, on the western end, the building reached the form it retains today.

Still designated a Royal Peculiar, Westminster Abbey is a working church. It is where Queen Elizabeth II was coronated in 1953, where Princess Diana’s funeral took place in 1997, and where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate, were married in 2011.

Every year in October, in a medieval ceremony marking the opening of the Law Courts, bewigged judges dressed in red robes proceed from Temple Bar to Westminster Abbey for a service before breakfasting in Westminster Hall. Although the ceremony remains more or less unchanged, these days the judges make the three-kilometre journey by car rather than by foot.

In the centre of the nave at the west end lies a black Belgian marble slab: The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. It was laid on 11th November 1920 and is the resting place of the remains of an unidentified soldier from Flanders, as well as soil from First World War battlefields. The tomb – the only one in the abbey on which visitors may not walk – bears an inscription that reads: ‘They buried him among the Kings because he had done good toward God and toward his House’.

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