Westminster Abbey in London

Wednesday, 1 August 2018 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, London
Reading Time:  18 minutes

Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, seen from London Eye © Tebbetts

Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, seen from London Eye © Tebbetts

Westminster Abbey, formally titled the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, is a large, mainly Gothic abbey church in the City of Westminster, London, England, just to the west of the Palace of Westminster. It is one of the United Kingdom’s most notable religious buildings and the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English and, later, British monarchs. The building itself was a Benedictine monastic church until the monastery was dissolved in 1539. Between 1540 and 1556, the abbey had the status of a cathedral. Since 1560, the building is no longer an abbey or a cathedral, having instead the status of a Church of EnglandRoyal Peculiar“—a church responsible directly to the sovereign.

According to a tradition first reported by Sulcard in about 1080, a church was founded at the site (then known as Thorn Ey (Thorn Island)) in the seventh century, at the time of Mellitus, a Bishop of London. Construction of the present church began in 1245, on the orders of King Henry III. Since the coronation of William the Conqueror in 1066, all coronations of English and British monarchs have been in Westminster Abbey. 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 430 years. A late tradition claims that Aldrich, a young fisherman on the River Thames, has a vision of Saint Peter near the site. This seems to have been quoted as the origin of the salmon that Thames fishermen offered to the abbey in later years – a custom still observed annually by the Fishmongers’ Company. The recorded origins of the Abbey date to the 960s or early 970s, when Saint Dunstan and King Edgar installed a community of Benedictine monks on the site.

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 completed around 1060 and was consecrated on 28 December 1065, only a week before Edward’s death on 5 January 1066. A week later, he was buried in the church; and, nine years later, his wife Edith was buried alongside him. 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. 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, although there was also a large community of lay brothers who supported the monastery’s extensive property and activities.

Construction of the present church began in 1245 by Henry III who selected the site for his burial. 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 of Westminster 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 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. The abbey built shops and dwellings on the west side, encroaching upon the sanctuary. The abbey became the coronation site of Norman kings. None were buried there until Henry III, intensely devoted to the cult of the Confessor, rebuilt the abbey in Anglo-French 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 canonization. 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 the unique Cosmati pavement in front of the High Altar (the pavement has recently undergone a major cleaning and conservation programme and was re-dedicated by the Dean at a service on 21 May 2010). The building was consecrated on 13 October 1269. 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).

Relief of Christ © Fczarnowski/cc-by-sa-3.0 Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, seen from London Eye © Tebbetts 10 martyrs of the 20th-century © Dnalor 01/cc-by-sa-3.0-at Cloisters © geograph.org.uk - Christine Matthews/cc-by-sa-2.0 Nave © flickr.com - Herry Lawford/cc-by-2.0 North entrance - Telemaque MySon/cc-by-sa-3.0
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Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, seen from London Eye © Tebbetts
Since the coronations in 1066 of both King Harold and William the Conqueror, every English and British monarch (except Edward V and Edward VIII, who were never crowned) has been crowned in Westminster Abbey. In 1216, Henry III could not be crowned in London when he 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 Pope Honorius III to be improper, and a further coronation was held in Westminster Abbey on 17 May 1220. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the traditional cleric in the coronation ceremony. King Edward’s Chair (or St Edward’s Chair), the throne on which English and British sovereigns have been seated at the moment of crowning, is now housed within the Abbey in St George’s Chapel near the West Door, and has been used at every coronation since 1308. From 1301 to 1996 (except for a short time in 1950 when the stone was temporarily stolen by Scottish nationalists), the chair also housed the Stone of Scone upon which the kings of Scots are crowned. Although the Stone is now kept in Scotland, in Edinburgh Castle, it is intended that the Stone will be returned to St Edward’s Chair for use during future coronation ceremonies (Coronation of the British monarch and List of British coronations).

Westminster Abbey is a collegiate church governed by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, as established by Royal charter of Queen Elizabeth I dated 21 May 1560, which created it as the Collegiate Church of St Peter Westminster, a Royal Peculiar under the personal jurisdiction of the Sovereign. The members of the Chapter are the Dean and four canons residentiary; they are assisted by the Receiver General and Chapter Clerk. One of the canons is also Rector of St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, and often also holds the post of Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons. In addition to the Dean and canons, there are at present three full-time minor canons: the precentor, the sacrist and the chaplain. The office of Priest Vicar was created in the 1970s for those who assist the minor canons. Together with the clergy and Receiver General and Chapter Clerk, various lay officers constitute the college, including the Organist and Master of the Choristers, the Registrar, the Auditor, the Legal Secretary, the Surveyor of the Fabric, the Head Master of the choir school, the Keeper of the Muniments (archives) and the Clerk of the Works, as well as 12 lay vicars, 10 choristers and the High Steward and High Bailiff. The 40 Queen’s Scholars who are pupils at Westminster School (the School has its own Governing Body) are also members of the collegiate. The three minor canons as well as the organist and Master of the Choristers are most directly concerned with liturgical and ceremonial matters.

Henry III rebuilt the abbey in honour of a royal saint, Edward the Confessor, whose relics were placed in a shrine in the sanctuary. Henry III himself was interred nearby, as were many of the Plantagenet kings of England, their wives and other relatives. Until the death of George II of Great Britain in 1760, most kings and queens were buried in the abbey, some notable exceptions being Henry VI, Edward IV, Henry VIII and Charles I who are buried in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Other exceptions include Edward II buried at Gloucester Cathedral, John buried at Worcester Cathedral, Henry IV buried at Canterbury Cathedral and Richard III, now buried at Leicester Cathedral, and the de facto queen Lady Jane Grey, buried in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. Most monarchs and royals who died after 1760 are buried either in St George’s Chapel or at Frogmore to the east of Windsor Castle. From the Middle Ages, aristocrats were buried inside chapels, while monks and other people associated with the abbey were buried in the cloisters and other areas. One of these was Geoffrey Chaucer, who was buried here as he had apartments in the abbey where he was employed as master of the King’s Works. Other 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 in their place of work. Subsequently, it became one of Britain’s most significant honours to be buried or commemorated in the abbey. The practice of burying national figures in the abbey began under Oliver Cromwell with the burial of Admiral Robert Blake in 1657. The practice spread to include generals, admirals, politicians, doctors and scientists such as Isaac Newton, buried on 4 April 1727, Charles Darwin, buried 26 April 1882, and Stephen Hawking (pending). 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. 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. The majority of interments at the Abbey are of cremated remains, but some burials still take place – Frances Challen, wife of Sebastian Charles, Canon of Westminster, was buried alongside her husband in the south choir aisle in 2014. Members of the Percy family have a family vault, The Northumberland Vault, in St Nicholas’s chapel within the abbey. 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 Royal Air Force 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. On 6 September 1997 the formal, though not “state” funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, was held. It was a royal ceremonial funeral including royal pageantry and Anglican funeral liturgy. A second public service was held on Sunday at the demand of the people. The burial occurred privately later the same day. Diana’s former husband, sons, mother, siblings, a close friend, and a clergyman were present. Diana’s body was clothed in a black long-sleeved dress designed by Catherine Walker, which she had chosen some weeks before. A set of rosary beads was placed in her hands, a gift she had received from Mother Teresa, who died a day before Diana’s funeral. Her grave is on the grounds of her family estate, Althorp, on a private island. In 1998 ten vacant statue niches on the façade above the Great West Door were filled with representative 20th-century Christian martyrs of various denominations. Those commemorated are Maximilian Kolbe, Manche Masemola, Janani Luwum, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King Jr., Óscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Esther John, Lucian Tapiedi, and Wang Zhiming.

On 9 April 2002 the ceremonial funeral of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother was held in the abbey. She was interred later the same day in the George VI Memorial Chapel at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle next to her husband, King George VI, who had died 50 years previously. At the same time, the ashes of the Queen Mother‘s daughter, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, who had died on 9 February 2002, were also interred in a private family service (Burials and memorials in Westminster Abbey).

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. Westminster Abbey is renowned for its choral tradition, and the repertoire of Anglican church music is heard in daily worship, particularly at the service of Choral Evensong.

The Westminster Abbey Museum was located in the 11th-century vaulted undercroft beneath the former monks’ dormitory in Westminster Abbey. This is one of the oldest areas of the abbey, dating back almost to the foundation of the church by Edward the Confessor in 1065. This space had been used as a museum since 1908. The exhibits included a collection of royal and other funeral effigies (funeral saddle, helm and shield of Henry V), together with other treasures, including some panels of mediaeval glass, 12th-century sculpture fragments, Mary II‘s coronation chair and replicas of the coronation regalia, and historic effigies of Edward III, Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York, Charles II, William III, Mary II and Queen Anne. Later wax effigies included a likeness of Horatio, Viscount Nelson, wearing some of his own clothes and another of Prime Minister William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, modelled by the American-born sculptor Patience Wright. During recent conservation of Elizabeth I’s effigy, a unique corset dating from 1603 was found on the figure, which was displayed separately. A recent addition to the exhibition was the late 13th-century Westminster Retable, England’s oldest altarpiece, which was most probably designed for the high altar of the abbey. Although it has been damaged in past centuries, the panel has been expertly cleaned and conserved. This Museum has now closed, and will re-open in June 2018 in the Diamond Jubilee Galleries, high up in the main Abbey building.

Read more on Westminster Abbey, VisitLondon.com – Westminster Abbey and Wikipedia Westminster Abbey (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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