Westminster Abbey, formally known as the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, is one of the principal religious places in the United Kingdom. It has been the place of coronation for monarchs since the Norman conquest of 1066, and has been used for royal burial and royal weddings.
The Abbey’s early history
Benedictine monks occupied the site from the late 10th century and a stone church was added in the mid-11th century, during the reign of King Edward the Confessor, who became the first monarch to be buried in the abbey. It became known as the “west-minster” as opposed to the “east-minster”, that was St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Figure 1 – Edward the Confessor’s funeral procession in 1066, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry
Source: The Bayeux Tapestry. Credit: Historystack, Flickr
On Christmas day in 1066 William the Conqueror was crowned King in the abbey. Ever since this time it has seen the coronation of every monarch of England, except Edward V and Edward VIII, who were never crowned. The Coronation Chair, also known as St. Edward’s Chair, is housed in the abbey and has been used at every coronation since 1308.
Narrative and footage of the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vawWBui4_kM
In 1245, under King Henry III, the building of the present church began, built in the new Anglo- French Gothic style. Traces of the original monastery, however, can still be found in the undercroft, which had served as the monk’s dormitory.
Figure 2 – The Gothic-style North facade
Source – Zachi Evenor, Wikicommons
What happened to Westminster Abbey during the Dissolution of the Monastries?
There was a Benedictine monastery on site until the reign of Henry VIII, who dissolved the monasteries when he formed the Church of England. In 1560 the building relinquished its status as an abbey or cathedral and became a “Royal Peculiar”, meaning that the church was not under the jurisdiction of bishops and answered only to the sovereign. Under Mary I (1556-1559), a Catholic Queen, the monastery was restored. This was short-lived, as on the succession of her Protestant sister, Elizabeth I, the Abbot and the monks were once again removed. The abbey was made a Collegiate Church, presided over by a dean and a chapter.
Memorial and burials
The abbey is also the burial place of aristocrats, and persons associated with the church. Geoffrey Chaucer was buried in the cloisters, having been employed as master of the King’s Works. Since then an area known as Poets’ Corner has been the burial place of other literary and musical figures associated with the abbey. The practice of burying significant persons in the abbey later widened to include prominent national, political, literary and scientific figures; with the likes of Isaac Newton (1727), George Frederick Handel (1759), William Wilberforce (1833), Charles Dickens (1870), Charles Darwin (1882), and Stephen Hawking (2018). The tomb of the Unknown Warrior, an unidentified British soldier killed in the First World War, is also within the abbey.
Figure 3 – View of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the nave
Westminster Abbey today
A daily pattern of worship and choral services are still observed today.
Find out more:
E. Carpenter, A House of Kings. The history of Westminster Abbey (London, 1972)
J. Field, Kingdom, Power and Glory. A historical guide to Westminster Abbey (London, 1999)
Opening times/ access:
Westminster Abbey is open Monday to Saturday. Special services and events can affect the opening times. There is a charge to visit the abbey, but it is free to attend for daily services and private prayer.