Westminster Abbey:
Return

 

Royal Peculiar:

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 this day.

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 years.

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!


The Abbey's history did not cease with the dissolution of the medieval monastery on the 16th January 1540; in the same year Henry VIII erected Westminster into a cathedral church with a bishop, Thomas Thirlby, a dean and twelve prebendaries; the bishopric was surrendered on the 29th March 1550 and the diocese was re-united with London, Westminster being made by Act of Parliament a cathedral church in the diocese of London.

Mary I restored the Benedictine monastery in 1556 under Abbot John Feckenham, but on the accession of Elizabeth I the religious houses revived by Mary were given by Parliament to the Crown and the Abbot and monks were removed in July 1559.

Queen Elizabeth I, buried in the north aisle of Henry VII's chapel, refounded the Abbey by a charter dated the 21st May 1560 as a Collegiate Church, a Royal Peculiar exempt from the jurisdiction of bishops and with the Sovereign as its Visitor; in place of the monastic community a collegiate body of a dean and prebendaries, minor canons and a lay staff was established and charged with the task of continuing the tradition of daily worship, for which a musical foundation of choristers, singing men and organist was provided and with the education of forty Scholars who formed the nucleus of what is now Westminster School, one of the country's leading independent schools.

In addition the Dean and Chapter were responsible for much of the civil government of Westminster Abbey, a role which was only fully relinquished in the early 20th century; thus the Abbey was reshaped and newly patterned to discharge a distinctive yet worshipful role in a modern age.

Today, a daily pattern of worship is offered to the Glory of God; special services, representative of a wide spread of interest and social concern, are held regularly; annual services include a thanksgiving for victory in the Battle of Britain, a service for Judges at the start of the legal year and an Observance on Commonwealth Day.

In 1965 to 1966 the Abbey celebrated the 900th anniversary of the consecration of King Edward's abbey, taking as its theme 'One People'; such a theme seemed to be fitting for a church which, through a long history of involvement with the developing life of the British people, has become known throughout the world and in 2010 His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI became the first Pope to ever visit the Abbey.


 Go back.