As one of the most recognized buildings in Europe, and one of the most recognized religious buildings in the world, (BBC) Westminster Abbey sees great amounts of attention. However, to the country of England, and to its peoples, it is far more than a finely crafted building – even more than a house of worship. For the United Kingdom, Westminster Abbey is a landmark that symbolizes nearly one thousand years of royal history, great human achievement and a testimony to the lasting presence of the British crown. Westminster Abbey is the home of:
[…] the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, the tombs of kings and queens, and countless memorials to the famous and the great. It has been the setting for every Coronation since 1066 and for numerous other royal occasions. Today it is still a church dedicated to regular worship and to the celebration of great events in the life of the nation. Neither a cathedral nor a parish church, Westminster Abbey is a “Royal Peculiar” under the jurisdiction of a Dean and Chapter, subject only to the Sovereign. (Dean and Chapter of Westminster) The religious history of the area that is now home to the Westminster Abbey predates the abbey itself.
Before the abbey was built, the site was home to one of the first Christian churches in England. According to the New Advent, the Catholic encyclopedia, as early as 616 AD, there was a church on the same grounds as the current abbey. Previous to the building of the abbey, the sit was home to a Benedictine monastery for several hundred years. Even though Christianity itself, only landed on England’s shores in 596 AD, there has been some religious service performed on the land which would become Westminster since 604. (Britain Express)
The first historical mention of Westminster came during the reign of King Ofa, in 785 AD (Alston) and was “miraculously consecrated by St. Peter”. (Encyclopedia Britannica) However it would be nearly three hundred years later that the abbey would finally begin construction. In 1055, King Edward the Confessor called for the building of an official monastery. Meant to house seventy monks, the order never grew over fifty. (Alston) Up to and beyond the death of Edward the Confessor, there were several additions made to his early monastery. A choir hall and lady’s chapel were added between 1110 and 1220, to meet the growing needs of the community.
The changes that the abbey saw continued over the centuries. In the thirteenth century, King Henry III demolished most of the original monastery in favor of rebuilding it is a more contemporary style – Gothic. One of his successors, King Henry VII further improved upon the abbey by building the addition of a new Lady Chapel – which still bears his name. In 1539, the monastery “was suppressed”. (Alston) The monks who had been living there were forced to disperse. The monastery then took the role of a cathedral church, the following year. In 1560, Queen Elizabeth I reformed the monastery as a collegiate church.
The functionality of Westminster Abbey has not ceased since its reformation under Queen Elizabeth I. The daily pattern or worship has been maintained throughout the past four hundred years – and continues today. There are many aspects of Westminster Abbey that give the building such a high place in the world stage. The Abbey itself has been the site of more than one thousand years of religious history, tumult and change. Its ties to the spread of Christianity throughout the British Isles cannot be underplayed. However, the Abbey has grown to serve many other purposes throughout its long history.
It has been the site of political upheaval, and restoration. It has seen the birth of one of the most power nations on Earth, and it’s near collapse. The Westminster Abbey has served as the location for the crowning of kings and queens for over nine hundred years. The British monarchy is the longest surviving society of its time in the modern age – and Westminster Abbey has stood through nearly all of it. Perhaps even more so that the houses of Parliament and the palace of Windsor, Westminster Abbey have stood in reverence and importance.
While the families which rule over England have changed and the strength of the nation itself has risen and tapered off, Westminster Abbey has remained a strong and important visage of the English culture.
Alston, G. Cyprian. “Westminster Abbey”. New Advent. The Catholic Encyclopedia. 2005. Date of Access: June 16, 2006. URL: http://www. newadvent. org/cathen/15598a. htm Barry, Rosemary. “Pre-war and Wartime Westminster”. BBC Archive. BBC News. 2006. Date of Access: June 1, 2006. URL: http://www. bbc. co. uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/07/a5200507. shtm