A late tradition claims that Aldrich, a young fisherman on the River Thames, had 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.
1042: Edward the Confessor starts rebuilding St Peter's Abbey
St Peter's Abbey at the time of Edward's funeral, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry
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
Construction of the present church began in 1245 by Henry III who selected the site for his burial.
North entrance of Westminster Abbey
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).
16th and 17th centuries: dissolution and restoration
In 1535, the abbey's annual income of £2400–2800 (equivalent to £1,340,000 to £1,570,000 as of 2016), during the assessment attendant on the Dissolution of the Monasteries rendered it second in wealth only to Glastonbury Abbey.
1540–1550: 10 years as a cathedral
Henry VIII assumed direct royal control in 1539 and granted the abbey the status of a cathedral by charter in 1540, simultaneously issuing letters patent establishing the Diocese of Westminster. By granting the abbey cathedral status, Henry VIII gained an excuse to spare it from the destruction or dissolution which he inflicted on most English abbeys during this period.
After 1550: turbulent times
Westminster diocese was dissolved in 1550, but the abbey was recognised (in 1552, retroactively to 1550) as a second cathedral of the Diocese of London until 1556. The already-old expression "robbing Peter to pay Paul" may have been given a new lease of life when money meant for the abbey, which is dedicated to Saint Peter, was diverted to the treasury of St Paul's Cathedral.
of Westminster Abbey
The abbey was restored to the Benedictines under the Catholic Mary I of England, but they were again ejected under Elizabeth I in 1559. In 1560, Elizabeth re-established Westminster as a "Royal Peculiar" – a church of the Church of England responsible directly to the Sovereign, rather than to a diocesan bishop – and made it the Collegiate Church of St Peter (that is, a non-cathedral church with an attached chapter of canons, headed by a dean.) The last of Mary's abbots was made the first dean.
It suffered damage during the turbulent 1640s, when it was attacked by Puritan iconoclasts, but was again protected by its close ties to the state during the Commonwealth period. Oliver Cromwell was given an elaborate funeral there in 1658, only to be disinterred in January 1661 and posthumously hanged from a gibbet at Tyburn.
1722–1745: Western towers constructed
The abbey's two western towers were built between 1722 and 1745 by Nicholas Hawksmoor, constructed from Portland stone to an early example of a Gothic Revival design. Purbeck marble was used for the walls and the floors of Westminster Abbey, even though the various tombstones are made of different types of marble. Further rebuilding and restoration occurred in the 19th century under Sir George Gilbert Scott.
A narthex (a portico or entrance hall) for the west front was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the mid-20th century but was not built. Images of the abbey prior to the construction of the towers are scarce, though the abbey's official website states that the building was without towers following Yevele's renovation, with just the lower segments beneath the roof level of the Nave completed.
World War II
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Until the 19th century, Westminster was the third seat of learning in England, after Oxford and Cambridge. It was here that the first third of the King James Bible Old Testament and the last half of the New Testament were translated. The New English Bible was also put together here in the 20th century. Westminster suffered minor damage during the Blitz on 15 November 1940. Then on May 10/11 1941, the Westminster Abbey precincts and roof were hit by incendiary bombs.
All the bombs were extinguished by ARP wardens, except for one bomb which ignited out of reach among the wooden beams and plaster vault of the lantern roof (of 1802) over the North Transept. Flames rapidly spread and burning beams and molten lead began to fall on the wooden stalls, pews and other ecclesiastical fixtures 130 feet below. Despite the falling debris, the staff dragged away as much furniture as possible before withdrawing. Finally the Lantern roof crashed down into the crossing, preventing the fires from spreading further.
In the 1990s, two icons by the Russian icon painter Sergei Fyodorov were hung in the abbey. In 1997, the abbey, which was then receiving approximately 1.75 million visitors each year, began charging admission fees to visitors.
On 6 September 1997, the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales was held at the abbey. On 17 September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope to set foot in the abbey.
In May 2018, a new tower was added to the abbey: the Weston Tower, designed by architect Ptolemy Dean and containing the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries.