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Westminster Abbey

View of Westminster Abbey towers

 

History

Westminster Abbey was a royal church from its first beginnings, it still has the shrine of its principal founder, the Anglo-Saxon king and saint, Edward the Confessor, at the heart of the building. Since Edward’s death in 1066 his successors have come to this church to be crowned, and seventeen of them lie buried within its walls. More than a million people now visit Westminster Abbey each year. Several thousand people are buried in Westminster Abbey, and the many tombs and memorials form an extraordinary collection of monumental sculpture. Though it is now well over four hundred years since it ceased to be a monastery, Benedictine influences are strong at Westminster, not just in the continued tradition of daily prayer but also in the commitment to hospitality.

No one can say with absolute certainty when Westminster Abbey was founded. A church dedicated to St Peter may have stood here by the eighth century. Around 960 Dunstan, bishop of London, sent a group of Benedictine monks to establish a monastery on the north bank of the Thames. Early documents describe the place as ‘Thorney Island’. King Edgar (reigned 959–75) supported Dunstan’s monks with a gift of land covering most of what is today London’s West End, and a century later King Edward (reigned 1043–66) established his palace on Thorney Island and became an even more enthusiastic patron of the monastery. He increased the number of monks, gave them money and land, and finally built an entirely new monastic church that also became his own burial place. The church was consecrated on 28th December 1065. King Edward’s body was buried in front of the high altar on 6th January 1066, the day after his death. Following Saint Edward the Confessor’s canonisation in 1161, his body was translated on 13th October 1163 to a new shrine in the church he had built.

Two centuries after the building of Edward’s church, King Henry III, out of personal devotion to his predecessor, began to rebuild his church as a fitting shrine for the Saint. The first phase of building began in 1245 with the demolition of the eastern part of Edward the Confessor’s church. Space was restricted: to the east by the very new Lady Chapel; to the west by the eleventh century nave; and to the south by the cloisters and other buildings. Nevertheless by 1259 the eastern arm of the new church, including the ambulatory and its chapels, the transepts and the chapter house, was complete. Henry de Reyns was succeeded first by Master John of Gloucester in 1253, and then by Master Robert of Beverley in 1260. As the masons erected the main fabric of the church numerous craftsmen worked to decorate its interior with stained-glass, paintings and sculpture of the finest quality. On 13 October 1269 the body of St Edward was transferred to its shrine and the high altar of the new church was consecrated. When Henry III died three years later, the work had extended to one bay west of the quire, but work now ceased for over a century.

The great Gothic church at Westminster had been a royal project, instigated by Henry III and carried forward in the centuries after his death through the continuing interest and financial support of several of his successors. Within a few decades of its completion, however, King Henry VIII had resolved to close all the monasteries in the land and Westminster was no exception, though it was among the last wave of houses to be dissolved. All of the monastery’s wealth passed to the king and most of the liturgical furnishings were removed, but the Abbey’s role as the coronation church and a royal mausoleum probably protected it from more severe vandalism.

Soon after its dissolution Henry VIII established the Abbey as a cathedral church for a new diocese of Westminster, with a bishop, dean and twelve prebendaries, and after March 1550 it served instead as a second cathedral within the diocese of London. In 1556, under Queen Mary I, the Benedictine monastery was restored, but following her death in 1558 the monastic community was dissolved for a second time, and Queen Elizabeth I established the Abbey by Royal Charter as ‘the Collegiate Church of St Peter’.

From the 13th century at least, Westminster was one of four exempt Abbeys in England, answerable not to the diocesan Bishop but direct to the Pope. Like its monastic predecessor the collegiate church was exempt from episcopal jurisdiction, but it was now a ‘Royal Peculiar’, with the Sovereign as its Visitor. The new foundation, consisting of a Dean and Prebendaries (later known as Canons) with assistant clergy and lay officers, had two main duties: to continue daily worship (for which an organist, choristers and singing men were provided) and to educate forty scholars. Both activities continue today, though Westminster School is now greatly enlarged and independently governed.

In monastic times burials in the church had been limited almost exclusively to kings and their immediate families, a few highly favoured nobles, and the abbots of Westminster. In the later sixteenth century the apsidal chapels, which had been stripped of their medieval altars and furnishings at the Reformation, began to be filled instead with tombs. Edmund Spenser’s burial close to Geoffrey Chaucer’s tomb in the south transept initiated Poets’ Corner. Over time large numbers of monuments were erected in the transepts and the nave too, and a tradition developed of placing memorials to people who were actually buried elsewhere.

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