Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey
Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster
Western façade
Location Dean's Yard, Westminster, London
Country England
Denomination Church of England
Previous denomination Roman Catholic
Website www.westminster-abbey.org
Founded 960; 1058 years ago (960)
Status Collegiate church
Functional status Active
Architect(s) Surveyor of the Fabric of Westminster Abbey
Architectural type Church
Style Gothic
Years built
  • 960
  • 1517 (rebuilt)
  • 18th century (towers)
Nave width 85 feet (26 m) [1]
Floor area 32,000 square feet (3,000 m2) [1]
Number of towers 2
Tower height 225 feet (69 m) [1]
Bells 10
Diocese Extra-diocesan ( royal peculiar)
Dean John Hall
Canon(s) see Dean and Chapter
Director of music James O'Donnell
( Organist and Master of the Choristers)
Organist(s) Peter Holder
Organ scholar Benjamin Cunningham
Westminster Abbey is located in Central London
Westminster Abbey
Location within Central London
Coordinates 51°29′58″N 00°07′39″W / 51°29′58″N 00°07′39″W / 51.49944; -0.12750
Founded 10th century [2]
Official name: Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret's Church
Type Cultural
Criteria i, ii, iv
Designated 1987 (11th session)
Reference no. 426
Country United Kingdom
Region Europe and North America
Listed Building – Grade I
Official name: Westminster Abbey (The Collegiate Church of St Peter)
Designated 24 February 1958
Reference no. 1291494 [3]

Westminster Abbey, formally titled the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, is a large, mainly Gothic abbey church in the City of Westminster, London, England, just to the west of the Palace of Westminster. It is one of the United Kingdom's most notable religious buildings and the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English and, later, British monarchs. The building itself was a Benedictine monastic church until the monastery was dissolved in 1539. Between 1540 and 1556, the abbey had the status of a cathedral. Since 1560, the building is no longer an abbey or a cathedral, having instead the status of a Church of England " Royal Peculiar"—a church responsible directly to the sovereign.

According to a tradition first reported by Sulcard in about 1080, a church was founded at the site (then known as Thorn Ey (Thorn Island)) in the seventh century, at the time of Mellitus, a Bishop of London. Construction of the present church began in 1245, on the orders of King Henry III. [4]

Since the coronation of William the Conqueror in 1066, all coronations of English and British monarchs have been in Westminster Abbey. [4] [5] There have been at least 16 royal weddings at the abbey since 1100. Two were of reigning monarchs ( Henry I and Richard II), although, before 1919, there had been none for some 500 years. [6]


A late tradition claims that Aldrich, a young fisherman on the River Thames, has 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. [7] A week later, he was buried in the church; and, nine years later, his wife Edith was buried alongside him. [8] 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. [9]

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, [10] 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 [11] who selected the site for his burial. [12]

Layout plan dated 1894
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 [13] provides a wider view of the concerns of the English gentry in the High and Late Middle Ages.[ citation needed]

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. [14] The abbey built shops and dwellings on the west side, encroaching upon the sanctuary.[ citation needed]

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). [15] The building was consecrated on 13 October 1269. [16]

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).[ citation needed]

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), [17] 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. [18] [19] [20] 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.

The Nave 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

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. [21] In 1997, the abbey, which was then receiving approximately 1.75 million visitors each year, began charging admission fees to visitors. [22]

Death of Princess Diana

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. [23]

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Westminster-abdy
Alemannisch: Westminster Abbey
العربية: دير وستمنستر
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Ўэстмінстэрскае абацтва
davvisámegiella: Westminster Abbey
Bahasa Indonesia: Westminster Abbey
Bahasa Melayu: Westminster Abbey
Nederlands: Westminster Abbey
norsk nynorsk: Westminster Abbey
Simple English: Westminster Abbey
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Westminsterska opatija
Tiếng Việt: Tu viện Westminster
粵語: 西敏寺
中文: 西敏寺