Westminster Abbey

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Westminster Abbey

The Collegiate Church of St Peter
at Westminster


Status: Collegiate church
Western façade
Church of England
(Royal Peculiar)
Grid reference: TQ300794
Location: 51°29’56"N, 0°7’40"W
Address: 20 Dean's Yard, Westminster
Built 1065
1517 (rebuilt)
18th century (towers)
Website: http://www.westminster-abbey.org

Westminster Abbey, the formal name for which is The Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, stands in the heart of the City of Westminster in Middlesex, forming the south side of Parliament Square. It is a vast, ancient, mainly Gothic church which serves an important role in the religious, royal, parliamentary and judicial ceremonial of the nation.

The Abbey stands just to the west of the Palace of Westminster, whose own Gothic style consciously imitates it. It is the oldest and grandest of the masterpieces around Parliament Square: The Abbey (1065/1245) on the south side, with St Margaret's Church (1486-1523) beside it in the Abbey grounds, the Palace of Westminster (1840-1870) on the east, the Middlesex Guildhall (1913) to the west and the buildings of Victorian Whitehall stretching away to the north.

Westminster Abbey is one of the most notable churches in the United Kingdom. It has been the traditional place of coronation for English and British monarchs since 1066, and the burial site for many since 1065. Much state ceremonial is carried out here, and it has been called "the National Valhalla" as many of the great names of state, naval and military heroes, poets and artists are buried or memorialised in Westminster Abbey,.

The abbey was dissolved under Hery VIII in 1540. Between 1540 and 1556 the abbey church had the status of a cathedral. Since 1560, the building has been a "Royal Peculiar" of the Church of England; a church belonging to and responsible directly to the sovereign, governed by a college of canons.

According to a tradition first reported by Sulcard in about 1080, a church was founded on the site in the 7th century, at the time of Mellitus, Bishop of London. King Edward the Confessor order a new foundation at Westmynster (west minster), built in the Norman style and consecrated in 1065, just before the king's death. Reconstruction to the Abbey's current form began in 1245, on the orders of King Henry III.[1]

Since 1066, when Harold Godwinson and then William the Conqueror were crowned, the coronations of English and British monarchs have been held at Westminster Abbey.[2][3] There have been at least 16 royal weddings at the abbey since 1100. Two were of reigning monarchs (Henry I and Richard II), although, before 1919, there had been none for some 500 years.[4]


The first reports of the abbey are based on a late tradition claiming that a young fisherman called Aldrich on the River Thames saw a vision of Saint Peter near the site. This seems to be quoted to justify the gifts of salmon from Thames fishermen that the abbey received in later years. In the present era, the Fishmonger's Company still gives a salmon every year. The proven origins are that in the 960s or early 970s, Dunstan Archbishop of Canterbury, assisted by King Edgar, installed a community of Benedictine monks here. The name "Westminster" is the Old English west mynster, meaning "west monastery", as it stands to the west of London.

The site at the time was an island in the marsh known as Thorney (Þorn ieg), formed between two branches of the River Tyburn and the Thames.

1042: Edward the Confessor starts rebuilding St Peter's Abbey

The Bayeux Tapestry: King Edward's funeral at Westmynster

Between 1042 and 1052 King Edward the Confessor began rebuilding St Peter's Abbey to provide himself with a royal burial church. It was the first church in England built in the Romanesque style. The building was not completed until around 1090 but was consecrated on 28 December 1065, only a week before Edward's death on 5 January 1066.[5] A week later he was buried in the church (and nine years later his queen, Edith, was to be buried alongside him).[6] His successor, Harold II, was probably crowned in the abbey, although the first documented coronation is that of William the Conqueror later the same year.[7]

The only extant depiction of Edward's abbey, together with the adjacent Palace of Westminster, is in the Bayeux Tapestry. Some of the lower parts of the monastic dormitory, an extension of the South Transept, survive in the Norman undercroft of the Great School, including a door said to come from the previous Saxon abbey. Increased endowments supported a community increased from a dozen monks in Dunstan's original foundation, up to a maximum about eighty monks,[8] although there was also a large community of lay brothers who supported the monastery's extensive property and activities.

Henry III to Henry VIII

Construction of the present church was begun in 1245 by Henry III[1] who selected the site for his burial.[9]

Layout plan dated 1894
North entrance of Westminster Abbey

The abbot and monks, in proximity to the royal Palace of Westminster, the seat of government from the later 12th century, became a powerful force in the centuries after the Norman Conquest. The abbot often was employed on royal service and in due course took his place in the House of Lords as of right. Released from the burdens of spiritual leadership, which passed to the reformed Cluniac movement after the mid-10th century, and occupied with the administration of great landed properties, some of which lay far from Westminster, "the Benedictines achieved a remarkable degree of identification with the secular life of their times, and particularly with upper-class life", Barbara Harvey concludes, to the extent that her depiction of daily life[10] provides a wider view of the concerns of the English gentry in the High and Late Middle Ages.

The proximity of the Palace of Westminster did not extend to providing monks or abbots with high royal connections; in social origin the Benedictines of Westminster were as modest as most of the order. The abbot remained Lord of the Manor of Westminster as a town of two to three thousand persons grew around it: as a consumer and employer on a grand scale the monastery helped fuel the town economy, and relations with the town remained unusually cordial, but no enfranchising charter was issued during the Middle Ages.[11] The abbey built shops and dwellings on the west side, encroaching upon the sanctuary.

The abbey became the coronation site of Norman kings. None was buried there until Henry III, intensely devoted to the cult of the Confessor, rebuilt the abbey in the Gothic style as a shrine to venerate King Edward the Confessor and as a suitably regal setting for Henry's own tomb, under the highest Gothic nave in England. The Confessor's shrine subsequently played a great part in his canonisation. The work continued between 1245 and 1517 and was largely finished by the architect Henry Yevele in the reign of Richard II. Henry III also commissioned unique Cosmati pavement in front of the High Altar (the pavement has recently undergone a major cleaning and conservation program and was re-dedicated by the Dean at a service on 21 May 2010).[12]

Henry VII added a Perpendicular style chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1503 (known as the Henry VII Chapel or the "Lady Chapel"). Much of the stone came from Caen, in France (Caen stone), the Isle of Portland (Portland stone) and the Loire Valley region of France (tuffeau limestone).

In 1535, the abbey's annual income was assessed at a remarkable £2,400–£2,800; it second in wealth only to Glastonbury Abbey.

Cathedral, 1540-1556

The Abbey was dissolved in 1540 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. King Henry VIII assumed direct royal control and granted the abbey the status of a cathedral by charter in 1540, simultaneously issuing letters patent establishing the Diocese of Westminster. By granting the abbey cathedral status Henry VIII gained an excuse to spare it from the destruction which was inflicted on most dissolved abbeys during this period.

Westminster diocese was dissolved in 1550, but the abbey was recognised (in 1552, retroactively to 1550) as a second cathedral of the Diocese of London until 1556.[13] The already-old expression "robbing Peter to pay Paul" may have been given a new lease of life when money meant for the abbey, which is dedicated to Saint Peter, was diverted to the treasury of St Paul's Cathedral.

The Nave of Westminster Abbey.

In 1556, Queen Mary I restored the abbey to the Benedictine Order, but they were again ejected under the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I in 1559. In 1560, Elizabeth re-established Westminster as a "Royal Peculiar" – a church of the Church of England responsible directly to the Sovereign, rather than to a diocesan bishop – and made it the Collegiate Church of St Peter (that is to say a church with an attached chapter of canons, headed by a dean.) Mary's abbot was made the first dean.

The Abbey suffered damage during the turbulent 1640s, when it was attacked by Puritan iconoclasts, but was again protected by its close ties to the state during the Commonwealth period. Oliver Cromwell was given an elaborate funeral there in 1658, only to be disinterred in January 1661 and posthumously hanged from a gibbet at Tyburn.

1722–1745: Western towers constructed

The abbey's two western towers were built between 1722 and 1745 by Nicholas Hawksmoor, constructed from Portland stone to an early example of a Gothic Revival design. Purbeck marble was used for the walls and the floors of Westminster Abbey, even though the various tombstones are made of different types of marble. Further rebuilding and restoration occurred in the 19th century under Sir George Gilbert Scott.

A narthex (a portico or entrance hall) for the west front was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the mid-20th century but was not built. Images of the abbey prior to the construction of the towers are scarce, though the abbey's official website states that the building was without towers following Yevele's renovation, with just the lower segments beneath the roof level of the Nave completed.

Until the 19th century, Westminster was the third seat of learning in England, after Oxford and Cambridge. It was here that the first third of the King James Bible Old Testament and the last half of the New Testament were translated. The New English Bible was also put together here in the 20th century. Westminster suffered minor damage during the Blitz on 15 November 1940.


King Edward's Chair

Since the coronations in 1066 of both Harold Godwinson and William the Conqueror, coronations of English and British monarchs were held in the abbey.[2][3] In 1216, Henry III was unable to be crowned in London when he first came to the throne, because the French prince Louis had taken control of the city, and so the king was crowned in Gloucester Cathedral. This coronation was deemed by the Pope to be improper, and a further coronation was held in the abbey on 17 May 1220.[14]

King Edward's Chair (or St Edward's Chair), the throne on which English and British sovereigns have been seated at the moment of coronation, is housed within the abbey and has been used at every coronation since 1308. From 1301 to 1996 the chair also housed the Stone of Scone upon which the kings of Scots are crowned. Although the Stone is now kept amongst the Scottish royal regalia in Edinburgh Castle, at future coronations it is intended that the Stone be returned to St Edward's Chair for use during the coronation ceremony.

Royal weddings


The 1382 wedding of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia
  1. 11 November 1100: King Henry I of England was married to Matilda of Scotland
  2. 4 January 1243: Richard, Earl of Cornwall (later King of Germany), brother of King Henry III of England, to Sanchia of Provence (his second wife). Sanchia was sister of Eleanor of Provence, Henry III's queen.
  3. 9 April 1269: Edmund of Crouchback, 1st Earl of Leicester and Lancaster, son of King Henry III was married to Lady Aveline de Forz
  4. 30 April 1290: Joan of Acre, daughter of King Edward I, was married to the 7th Earl of Gloucester
  5. 8 July 1290: Margaret of England, daughter of King Edward I, was married to John II, son of Duke of Brabant
  6. 20 January 1382: King Richard II of England was married to Anne of Bohemia
  7. 27 February 1919: Princess Patricia of Connaught was married to Capt the Hon Alexander Ramsay
  8. 28 February 1922: The Princess Mary, daughter of King George V, was married to Viscount Lascelles
  9. 26 April 1923: The Prince Albert, Duke of York (later King George VI), second son of King George V, was married to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon
  10. 29 November 1934: The Prince George, Duke of Kent, son of King George V, was married to Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark
  11. 20 November 1947: Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II), elder daughter of King George VI, was married to Lt Philip Mountbatten
  12. 6 May 1960: Princess Margaret, second daughter of King George VI, was married to Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Earl of Snowdon)
  13. 24 April 1963: Princess Alexandra of Kent was married to the Hon Angus Ogilvy
  14. 14 November 1973: Princess Anne, only daughter of Queen Elizabeth II, was married to Captain Mark Phillips
  15. 23 July 1986: Prince Andrew, Duke of York, second son of Queen Elizabeth II, was married to Miss Sarah Ferguson
  16. 29 April 2011: Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, grandson of Queen Elizabeth II, was married to Miss Catherine Middleton[15]

Burials and memorials

The cloister and garth

When King Henry III rebuilt the abbey, it was in honour of a royal saint, Edward the Confessor, whose relics were placed in a shrine in the sanctuary, and so that he could be buried in the saint's presence. The burial of Henry III, near the shrine, began a tradition and many of the Plantagenet kings of England, their queens and other family were laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. This continued into the modern era: until the death of George II in 1760, most kings and queens were buried in the abbey, some notable exceptions being the rival kings Henry VI and Edward IV, Henry VIII and Charles I who are buried in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. Richard III was swiftly buried at Blackfriars Prior in Leicester after his death in battle (and was recently reinterred at Leicester Cathedral), while the de facto queen Lady Jane Grey, buried in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. Since 1760, most monarchs have been buried either in St George's Chapel or at Frogmore to the east of Windsor Castle.

Many lords and commoners have been buried in the abbey, if deemed to be of sufficient eminence. From the Middle Ages, aristocrats were buried inside chapels, while monks and others associated with the abbey were buried in the cloisters and other areas, among them Geoffrey Chaucer, who was buried here as he had apartments in the abbey where he was employed as master of the King's Works.

Poets, writers and musicians were buried or memorialised around Chaucer in what became known as Poets' Corner. Abbey musicians such as Henry Purcell were also buried here, in their place of work.

Subsequently, it became one of Britain's most significant honours to be buried or commemorated in the abbey.[16] The practice of burying national figures in the abbey began under Oliver Cromwell with the burial of Admiral Robert Blake in 1657.[17] Cromwell himself was buried in the Abbey after his death the next year (though he was dug up at the Restoration). The practice spread to include generals, admirals, politicians, doctors and scientists such as Isaac Newton, buried on 4 April 1727, and Charles Darwin, buried 26 April 1882. Another was William Wilberforce who led the movement to abolish slavery in the United Kingdom and the Plantations, buried on 3 August 1833. Wilberforce was buried in the north transept, close to his friend, the former Prime Minister, William Pitt.

The practice of honouring the worthy in this place has earned Westminster Abbey the nickname "the National Valhalla".[18]

During the early 20th century it became increasingly common to bury cremated remains rather than coffins in the abbey. In 1905 the actor Sir Henry Irving was cremated and his ashes buried in Westminster Abbey, thereby becoming the first person ever to be cremated prior to interment at the abbey.[19] The majority of interments at the Abbey are of cremated remains, but some burials still take place - Frances Challen, wife of the Rev Sebastian Charles, Canon of Westminster, was buried alongside her husband in the south choir aisle in 2014.[20] Members of the Percy Family have a family vault, The Northumberland Vault, in St Nicholas's chapel within the abbey.[21]

In the floor, just inside the great west door, in the centre of the nave, is the tomb of The Unknown Warrior, an unidentified British soldier killed on a European battlefield during the First World War. He was buried in the abbey on 11 November 1920. This grave is the only one in the abbey on which it is forbidden to walk.

At the east end of the Lady Chapel is a memorial chapel to the airmen of the RAF who were killed in the Second World War. It incorporates a memorial window to the Battle of Britain, which replaces an earlier Tudor stained glass window destroyed in the war.[22]


Westminster School and Westminster Abbey Choir School are also in the precincts of the abbey. It was natural for the learned and literate monks to be entrusted with education, and Benedictine monks were required by the Pope to maintain a charity school in 1179. The Choir School educates and trains the choirboys who sing for services in the Abbey.


The organ was built by Harrison & Harrison in 1937, then with four manuals and 84 speaking stops, and was used for the first time at the coronation of King George VI. Some pipework from the previous Hill organ of 1848 was revoiced and incorporated in the new scheme. The two organ cases, designed in the late 19th century by John Loughborough Pearson, were re-instated and coloured in 1959.[23]

In 1982 and 1987, Harrison and Harrison enlarged the organ under the direction of the then abbey organist Simon Preston to include an additional Lower Choir Organ and a Bombarde Organ: the current instrument now has five manuals and 109 speaking stops. In 2006, the console of the organ was refurbished by Harrison and Harrison, and space was prepared for two additional 16 ft stops on the Lower Choir Organ and the Bombarde Organ.[23] One part of the instrument, the Celestial Organ, is currently not connected or playable.


The bells at the abbey were overhauled in 1971. The ring is now made up of ten bells, hung for change ringing, cast in 1971, by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, tuned to the notes: F#, E, D, C#, B, A, G, F#, E and D. The Tenor bell in D (588.5 Hz) has a weight of 30 cwt, 1 qtr, 15 lb (3403 lb or 1544 kg).[24]

In addition there are two service bells, cast by Robert Mot, in 1585 and 1598 respectively, a Sanctus bell cast in 1738 by Richard Phelps and Thomas Lester and two unused bells—one cast about 1320, by the successor to R de Wymbish, and a second cast in 1742, by Thomas Lester.[24] The two service bells and the 1320 bell, along with a fourth small silver "dish bell", kept in the refectory, have been noted as being of historical importance by the Church Buildings Council of the Church of England.[25]

Chapter house

Main article: Chapter House of Westminster Abbey

The Chapter House

The chapter house was built concurrently with the east parts of the abbey under Henry III, between about 1245 and 1253.[26] It was restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1872. The entrance is approached from the east cloister walk and includes a double doorway with a large tympanum above.[26]

The Chapter house was originally used in the 13th century by Benedictine monks for daily meetings. It later became a meeting place of the King's Great Council and the Commons, predecessors of Parliament.

Inner and outer vestibules lead to the octagonal chapter house, which is of exceptional architectural purity. It is built in a Geometrical Gothic style with an octagonal crypt below. A pier of eight shafts carries the vaulted ceiling. To the sides are blind arcading, remains of 14th-century paintings and numerous stone benches above which are innovatory large 4-light quatre-foiled windows.[26] These are virtually contemporary with the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris.[26]

The chapter house has an original mid-13th-century tiled pavement. The exterior includes flying buttresses added in the 14th century and a leaded tent-lantern roof on an iron frame designed by Scott.

The Pyx Chamber formed the undercroft of the monks' dormitory. It dates to the late 11th century and was used as a monastic and royal treasury. The outer walls and circular piers are of 11th-century date, several of the capitals were enriched in the 12th century and the stone altar added in the 13th century. The term pyx refers to the boxwood chest in which coins were held and presented to a jury during the Trial of the Pyx, in which newly minted coins were presented to ensure they conformed to the required standards.

The chapter house and Pyx Chamber at Westminster Abbey are in the guardianship of English Heritage, but under the care and management of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster. English Heritage have funded a major programme of work on the chapter house, comprising repairs to the roof, gutters, stonework on the elevations and flying buttresses as well as repairs to the lead light.


Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Westminster Abbey)


  1. 1.0 1.1 History – Westminster Abbey. Retrieved 29 April 2011
  2. 2.0 2.1 "History". Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey. http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history. Retrieved 19 April 2008. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Coronations". Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey. http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/royals/coronations. Retrieved 19 April 2008. Westminster-abbey.org
  4. "Royal Weddings at Westminster Abbey". Westminster Abbey. http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/royals/weddings. Retrieved 29 April 2011. 
  5. Eric Fernie, in Mortimer ed., Edward the Confessor, pp. 139–143
  6. Pauline Stafford, 'Edith, Edward's Wife and Queen', in Mortimer ed., Edward the Confessor, p. 137
  7. Imogen Levy and Duck Soup http://ducksoupdev.co.uk+(2 June 1953). "Westminster Abbey, Coronations". Westminster-abbey.org. http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/royals/coronations. Retrieved 31 July 2012. 
  8. Harvey 1993, p. 2
  9. "Westminster Abbey » Henry III". http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/royals/henry-iii. 
  10. Harvey 1993
  11. Harvey 1993, p. 6 ff.
  12. "Cosmati pavement". Westminster Abbey. http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/art/cosmati-pavement. Retrieved 16 June 2013. 
  13. Westminster Abbey – Abbey History. Retrieved 24 July 2014
  14. "Henry III, Archonotology.org". http://www.archontology.org/nations/england/king_england/henry3.php. Retrieved 21 April 2008. 
  15. "Newsbeat – Royal wedding: Prince William and Kate Middleton marry". BBC. 29 April 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/13015642. Retrieved 8 January 2012. 
  16. Dunton, Larkin (1896). The World and Its People. Silver, Burdett. p. 26. 
  17. Westminster Abbey Mrs. A. Murray Smith, published 30 August 1904.
  18. Thomas A Prendergast: Poetical Dust: Poets' Corner and the Making of Britain, page 117
  19. "Woking Crematorium". Internet. The Cremation Society of Great Britain. http://www.srgw.demon.co.uk/CremSoc/History/HistSocy.html. Retrieved 28 November 2010. 
  20. "Sebastian Charles". Internet. The Dean and Chapter of Westminster. http://westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/sebastian-charles. Retrieved 19 September 2015. 
  21. "Westminster Abbey » Elizabeth, Duchess of Northumberland & Percy family". http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/elizabeth,-duchess-of-northumberland. 
  22. "The Royal Air Force Chapel". Official website. http://www.westminster-abbey.org/visit-us/abbey-treasures/the-royal-air-force-chapel. Retrieved 8 August 2015. 
  23. 23.0 23.1 "N00646". Npor.org.uk. http://www.npor.org.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch.cgi?Fn=Rsearch&rec_index=N00646. Retrieved 31 July 2012. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 Westminster—Collegiate Church of S Peter (Westminster Abbey), Dove's Guide for Church Bell Ringers, 25 October 2006. Retrieved 16 October 2008.
  25. "Database of Historically Significant Bells and Bell Frames". Churchcare website. Church of England. 1 April 2008. http://www.churchcare.co.uk/bells.php. Retrieved 16 October 2008. "search on "Westminster Abbey" for bell details" 
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 Scott, Sir George Gilbert (1863). Gleanings from Westminster abbey. pp. 41–43, 56–58. https://books.google.com/books?id=LPQDAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA57. 
  • Nikolaus Pevsner: The Buildings of England: London 6: Westminster, 2003 Penguin Books ISBN 978-0-300-09595-1
  • Mortimer, Richard ed., Edward the Confessor: The Man and the Legend, The Boydell Press, 2009. Eric Fernie, 'Edward the Confessor's Westminster Abbey', pp. 139–150. Warwick Rodwell, 'New Glimpses of Edward the Confessor's Abbey at Westminster', pp. 151–167. Richard Gem, Craftsmen and Administrators in the Building of the Confessor's Abbey', pp. 168–172. ISBN 978-1-84383-436-6
  • Harvey, B. (1993) Living and Dying in England 1100–1540: The Monastic Experience, Ford Lecture series, Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-820161-3
  • Morton, H. V. [1951] (1988) In Search of London, London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-18470-6
  • Trowles, T. (2008) Treasures of Westminster Abbey, London: Scala. ISBN 978-1-85759-454-6

World Heritage Sites in the United Kingdom

BathBlaenavon Industrial LandscapeBlenheim PalaceCanterbury Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey & St. Martin's ChurchCastles and Town Walls of King Edward ICornwall and West Devon Mining LandscapeDerwent Valley MillsDurham Castle & CathedralEdinburgh Old Town & New TownForth Bridge • Frontiers of the Roman Empire: Antonine Wall & Hadrian's WallGiant's CausewayIronbridge GorgeJurassic CoastKew GardensLiverpool Maritime Mercantile CityMaritime GreenwichNew LanarkHeart of Neolithic OrkneyPontcysyllte AqueductSt KildaSaltaireStonehenge, Avebury & Associated Sites • Studley Royal Park & Fountains AbbeyTower of LondonPalace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey & St Margaret's Church