Westminster Abbey is neither a cathedral, nor a parish church, it is a
Royal Peculiar, a place of worship that falls directly under the jurisdiction
of the British monarch, rather than under a bishop; the concept dates
from Anglo-Saxon times, when a church could ally itself with the monarch
and therefore not be subject to the bishop of the area; it is currently
under the jurisdiction of a Dean and Chapter, subject only to the Sovereign
and not to any archbishop or bishop and the Abbey's proper name is 'The
Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster'.
Westminster Abbey has been the setting for every Coronation since 1066
and 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 has also been used for numerous other royal occasions, including sixteen
royal weddings and is the shrine of St Edward the Confessor and a burial
place of kings, statesmen, poets, scientists, warriors and musicians.
Westminster Abbey is a treasure house of paintings, stained glass, pavements,
textiles and other artefacts; it contains over 600 monuments and wall
tablets, which is the most important collection of monumental sculpture
anywhere in the country; the Abbey is also the place where some of the
most significant people in the nation's history are buried or commemorated
and over three thousand people are buried there; 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.
The Library and Muniment Room houses a growing and important collection
of archives, printed books and manuscripts belonging to the Dean and Chapter
of Westminster, providing a centre for their study and for research into
all aspects of the Abbey's long and varied history; today, the Abbey is
dedicated to regular worship and to the celebration of great events in
the life of the nation.
Westminster Abbey History:
In the 1040s King Edward, 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 AD; it was run by Benedictine
monks that first came to this site in the middle of the tenth century
and established a tradition of daily worship which still continues to
Edward chose to re-endow and greatly enlarge this monastery, building
a large stone church in honour of St Peter the Apostle; this new church
became known as the 'west minster', to distinguish it from St Paul's Cathedral,
the 'east minster', in the City of London; unfortunately, by the time
the new church was consecrated on the 28th 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 Westminster 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; this was a great age for cathedrals and saw the construction
of Canterbury, Winchester and Salisbury.
Under the decree of the Henry III, 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 and is one of the most important
Gothic buildings in the country; the church was consecrated on the 13th
October 1269; unfortunately, the king died before the nave could be completed
so the older structure stood attached to the Gothic building for many
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.
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 the 19th 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; unfortunately, 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.
To examine the Current Design, click on the drawing and drag it around!