Westminster Abbey – a symbol of power, of the Church and of London itself. It is where all English monarchs have been anointed since 1066, the location of royal weddings and has over 3,300 people buried within its walls. This week I want to tell you more about this beautiful building and its role.
To begin Westminster Abbey is not an abbey or even a cathedral. Technically Westminster Abbey is just a very large church and is designated as a royal peculiar, meaning it is under the control of the Monarch since 1560. There are a number of other royal peculiars within Britain, with five in London, including the Queens Chapel at St James Palace.
Westminster Abbey was built at the request of Edward the Confessor on the site on what is believed to have already been a religious house. The current abbey was completed in 1090 although it has had many alterations and additions over time. It was one of the richest religious houses of its day and one of the grandest. This was probably why Edward the Confessor built his new Palace of Westminster alongside it and why Harold Godwinson, his successor, and all monarchs since (bar two) was crowned within the Abbey.
The Royal Coronation has followed the same order of service laid down since this time. It is listed in the manuscript Liver Regalis Cosmati. The Coronation service is organised by the Earl Marshall (officer of State) who has authority over all matters regarding the ceremony and holds the Abbey keys while it is made ready. The essential elemennts of the Coronation – the procession, oath, anointing, and investiture can be traced back to AD973.
The night before a coronation the royal regalia is brought from the Tower of London and kept in the Jerusalem Chamber overnight. On the day of the ceremony it is then moved and placed onto the High Alter and the Imperial State Crown is taken to the altar in St Edwards Chapel.
Out of the 3,300 tombs within the Abbey, one tomb stands out amongst them all. A tomb of one, who represents many. It is the Grave of the Unknown Warrior – A haunting tribute to those fallen soldiers of the First World War.
Along with coronations and burials, the Abbey is also the site for a number of English royal wedding ceremonies. A tradition, which began from the royal weddings, was the leaving of the Royal Wedding bouquet on the Grave of the Unknown Soldier. It was begun by the Queens mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon when she married Albert Windsor, (King George IV) in 1923 as she made her way to the ceremony.
Elizabeth’s brother Fergus had died fighting in 1915 and she wanted to pay her respects to him, and to all of the individuals who died in the conflict. Most royal weddings since have followed this tradition including Catherine Middleton to Prince William, Meghan Markle to Prince Harry and most recently Princess Eugenie to Jack Brooksbank.
In the grave, is a body of an unknown soldier brought over from France and buried at the Abbey on 11th November 1920. Within the tomb also lies soil from France and it is topped with a slab of black marble from Nasmur. It is the only grave or memorial which is never walked on in the Abbey.
The Abbey is also home to what is believed to be England’s oldest door. Dated in August 2005, the door dates back to the time of Edward the Confessor, which makes it over 1000 years old. Made from oak it leads into Chapter House from the Abbey Cloisters.
As well as the main oak, one of the original iron straps still survives which also have skin trapped beneath it. The skin would have been used to cover the door. The specialist has also been able to identify other lost elements of the door by studying the fixing holes and other scars from the door. This enables the specialist to gain an idea o the doors original appearance, minus the paint (which no trace remains)
The abbey is built in the Romanesque style and was later adapted to Gothic. Romanesque churches usually have semi-circular arches, barrel vaults with few windows to provide support; they have side aisles and galleries with a large tower over the nave and thick walls. The later Gothic style, which was adopted by Henry III, would have the characteristics of pointed arches with ribbed vaulting, rose windows and flying buttresses and a geometric pattern. He commissioned three master masons to oversee the redesign of the new abbey – Henry of Reyns, John of Gloucester and Robert of Beverly. The new design was heavily influenced by the new cathedrals being built such as Reims and Amiens in France. The Abbey has the highest Gothic vault in England, which is nearly 102 feet.
Included in the new design was a spacious area near the high altar and the quire where coronations could take place. It gives the feeling of a ‘theatre’ like space. The walls were originally covered in fine paintings of religious scenes including two depicting St Thomas and St Christopher (only discovered in the 1930s)
St Margaret’s Church
Within the Abbey’s shadow lies another smaller church but still beautiful in design and nearly as old as Westminster itself. St Margaret’s church was originally built so that the monks of the Benedictine Westminster Abbey could worship in private. Those who came to hear mass would usually disturb the Monks. The church was then used by the local people to receive the sacraments leaving the monks uninterrupted.
Built around the 11th century, the Church and the Abbey have had a partnership. The first church on the site was Romanesque in style, similar to the first abbey. It was later redesigned on the orders of Edward III in the style of perpendicular. At the end of the 15th century, it was completely rebuilt as it got into a state of disrepair. The new church was built by Robert Stowell and consecrated in 1523, and has essentially stayed the same ever since.
The Church was exempt from the control of the Bishop of London and outside the diocese of Canterbury until 1840. Today it is under the ecclesiastical authority of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, bringing it full circle to its beginnings.
Although living under the shadow of the Abbey, St Margaret’s has had a small number of notable burials under its roof. William Caxton who was England’s first printer was buried at the church in 1491 and is commemorated in a window, so too is Sir Walter Rayleigh who was buried there after his execution at Old Palace Yard in 1491. There is also a window in the east of the church from 1509 commemorating the betrothal of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.
Both St Margaret’s and the Abbey are open to visitors today. Please check their website for opening times and admission charges. They are both places I recommend visiting and both have histories intertwined with one another.
The Abbey has many beautiful artefacts’ and tombs to see from some of the Tudors in the Ladies Chapel, memorials to famous writers in poets corner, the RAF chapel, the Cosmatic Floor in front of the altar laid down in 1268 and the Coronation chair made in 1300.
Strong, R (2005) Coronation Italy: Harper Collins Publishing
Perring, R (2018) Eugenie follows royal tradition by leaving Royal Wedding bouquet on Westminster Abbey tomb. Available from: https://www.express.co.uk/news/royal/1031089/royal-wedding-princess-eugenie-wedding-bouquet-westminster-abbey-graveAccessed 01/11/2018
Anon (nd) Coronation service guide. www.westminster0abbey.org/media/7103/coronation.pdf
Anon (nd) Westminster Abbey – History. Available from: https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/ Accessed 28/10/2018
Anon (2005) The Oldest Door Available from: https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-news/the-oldest-door/ Accessed 01/11/2018
Anon (2018) Royal Bouquet to rest on warriors grave https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-news/royal-wedding-bouquet-to-rest-on-warrior-s-grave/