A coronation church since 1066, Westminster Abbey encapsulates the best of our nation’s history yet remains a vibrant hub and ‘Royal Peculiar’
If Westminster Abbey were in almost any other place in the world, it would rightly be the focus of every tourist’s smartphone camera. It is, after all, one of the world’s greatest churches, a Gothic masterpiece with a history stretching back more than a millennia. Yet the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster (to give it its formal title) sits across Abingdon Street from the Houses of Parliament, so it finds itself both literally and metaphorically in the shadow of Big Ben.
In many ways, however, it deserves top billing, not least because it has been a significant site for British royalty for almost 1,000 years. The origins of the abbey can be traced back to a dozen Benedictine monks who established an order here in about AD960, before King Edward the Confessor consecrated the first abbey in 1065. William the Conqueror’s coronation took place on Christmas Day of the following year, sparking an unbroken tradition that has since seen every English and British monarch crowned at the abbey. King Edward I ordered a grand oak coronation chair to be made to house the Stone of Scone, a sacred, 152-kilogram relic brought from Scotland in 1296.
Queen Elizabeth I established a royal charter in 1560, making this an official ‘Royal Peculiar’ – a church under direct jurisdiction of the monarch – a title it has held until this day. In total, 38 reigning monarchs and 14 queen consorts have been crowned at the abbey, while a further 17 royal weddings also took place here, including those of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1947, and Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011.
The Abbey’s design
Much of the reason for such royal interest is the ornate and grandiose nature of the abbey’s design. King Henry III prepared the way for the current building when he laid the foundation stone for the Lady Chapel and ordered that the east wing of the original abbey be demolished in the early 13th century. Work continued into the 16th century, when the chapel was consecrated in 1516. Subsequent additions have been made by some of Britain’s greatest architects. Lauded London church designer Nicholas Hawksmoor brought his Baroque stylings to the 68-metre high West Towers, completed in 1745, nine years after he died, while Sir George Gilbert Scott was involved in the mid-19th century restoration of the Chapter House.
Every corner of the abbey reveals new details. For example, while the temptation is to step into the High Altar and gaze up at the vaulting roof, to do so is to miss the Cosmati pavement underfoot, an intricate mosaic laid down in 1268 that contains neat variations within its symmetrical design.
With such grand surrounds, it is little wonder that so many great Britons have wanted to spend eternity here. The Canterbury Tales author Geoffrey Chaucer, a former abbey resident while serving as clerk of the king’s works, was the first to be interred in an area of the south transept that has since become known as Poets’ Corner. Charles Dickens, Sir Laurence Olivier and Thomas Hardy are among those buried here, while memorials include those to William Shakespeare and the Brontë sisters.
Westminster Abbey today
Although many visitors to the abbey today come to pay respects to these and more than 3,000 other noteworthy figures buried or commemorated here, this remains a working church with an ongoing programme of worship, choral services and other events. Visitors from all faiths are welcome to attend the daily services, ranging from morning prayers to evensong.