Why are British monarchs traditionally crowned in Westminster Abbey?
There is no way to tell the story of the English monarchy without Westminster Abbey, the site of royal coronations, weddings, funerals and burials for the last 1,000 years. Professor David Carpenter answers the key questions about the abbey’s long history
What is Westminster Abbey, and how old is it?
A marvel of gothic architecture, it stands on one side of Parliament Square in London, adjoining Big Ben, Victoria Tower and the Houses of Parliament. It is the place of coronations (including that of Charles III) and has many famous (and infamous) people buried and commemorated within it, including monarchs, prime ministers, scientists and poets.
Legend has it that it was founded in the reign of an Anglo-Saxon king called Saberht in the early seventh century, after a miraculous appearance by Saint Peter. There’s some reason to think that the site of the abbey was originally an island in the Thames, the island of Thorney, so we have to think of the river as much wider than it was before it was embanked.
Until the reformation, the abbey was the home of a community of Benedictine monks ruled by an abbot. Since then, although keeping the name 'abbey', it has been an Anglican church governed by a dean and small group of clergymen called 'canons'. They form the dean and chapter. The abbey is a 'royal peculiar' meaning it is subject only to the monarch. The bishop of London has no jurisdiction over it.
When was the Westminster Abbey that we see today constructed?
There was an abbey at Westminster in the late-Anglo Saxon period, but the real start came with Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-66), who had a palace essentially on the site of the Houses of Parliament and completely rebuilt the church. The Confessor also richly endowed the abbey.
- Read more | Edward the Confessor: England’s holy hardman
The building of today, however, comes not from the 11th century, but mostly from the 13th during the reign of Henry III (r1216-72). He built all the church we have today save for the nave, Henry VII's chapel and the western towers.
That said, the foundations of Edward the Confessor’s abbey and cloisters have been uncovered in excavations, as well as the remains of an even older door. His building was completed a week before his death on 5 January 1066, and since he died in Westminster he was buried on the site. There’s an extraordinarily vivid depiction of his body being borne to his tomb on the Bayeux Tapestry, as well as a depiction of the new church itself.
Why is it called Westminster? Was there an Eastminster?
The reason for that is to contrast the abbey with the great minster of St Paul’s, which is, if you like, Eastminster. While that name was never used to refer to St Paul’s Cathedral, the name Westminster caught on and came to describe the whole area, including the royal palace.
Why did Henry III rebuild Westminster Abbey?
In 1161, Edward the Confessor had been canonised and two years later his body was translated to a shrine in the abbey, but if the monks and abbots who had campaigned for his veneration hoped this would boost the image of Westminster they were initially mistaken. There is little evidence of an increase in visits by pilgrims or donations. Kings of England didn’t seem to be hugely interested, and the same was true of Henry III in the early stages of his life.
But when we come to the 1230s, everything changed and Henry adopted Edward the Confessor as his patron saint. He had gone through a difficult time politically: his ministers had let him down, plunged him into a civil war, and he had even been threatened with deposition.
- On the podcast | Henry III: inside the mind of a medieval king
At this point, 1233-35, monks of Westminster came to Henry and convinced him to place his faith in a saint that would bring him success in this life and safe passage to the next. Henry came to believe it profoundly. His decision seemed to be immediately rewarded: a monk travelled to Provence and returned with Eleanor to be Henry’s much-desired wife.
To secure the Confessor's ongoing support, however, it was vital for Henry to prove his continuing devotion, and this is where the abbey comes in. Henry thought there could be no more convincing proof than pulling down the Confessor's church and building a magnificent new one in its place, while at the same time translating the Confessor's body to a dazzling new shrine.
That’s what Henry did, so the great heart of the abbey we see today was built between 1245 and 1269 at the king’s expense – or, in a way, at his subjects’ expenses because he used the revenues of the kingdom. He spent probably about two years’ annual revenue, which could have built three, four or even five of the great castles Edward I built in Wales.
- Watch now | David Carpenter on history of Westminster Abbey
Who designed Henry III’s abbey and do we know anything about who built it?
Although quite probably English in origin, the abbey's master mason was called Henry of Rheims, and the design certainly owed much to Rheims cathedral and other great French churches.
It was thus French style flying buttresses that enabled the abbey to achieve its great internal height. It is 104 feet from the floor to the top of the vault, some 20 or so feet higher than England's great churches. Henry's subjects would have thought the abbey stunningly new.
A French architect might have been more critical because – high as the Abbey was – the great French churches reached much higher. Probably the constricted site at Westminster prevented foundations for any greater height, but Henry would have had an answer to the critique. For if not as high, his abbey, he would have said, was far more magnificent than the French churches: magnificent in its use of Purbeck marble, its highly decorated vault, and in the diaper (little carved roses) covering much of what would otherwise have been bare surfaces. In this decorative splendour, the abbey was far more an English style church than a French.
- Read more | A brief history of Westminster Abbey
The abbey's basic design came from Henry of Rheims, but he worked closely with King Henry, who urged on the work (ensuring wages were paid so as to prevent strikes) and was constantly thinking of how to make the abbey yet more sumptuous.
Of course, the two Henrys were not alone. Accounts from the 1250s show between 400 and 500 people working on the abbey every day, including stone cutters, stone layers, polishers (of the Purbeck marble), glaziers, painters, plumbers, carpenters and labourers. The daily wage of a labourer, at one and a half pennies, was about enough to buy his daily food and drink. A skilled craftsman might receive four times as much.
Accounts from the 1250s show between 400 and 500 people working on the abbey every day, including stone cutters, stone layers, polishers (of the Purbeck marble), glaziers, painters, plumbers, carpenters and labourers
Henry spent tens of thousands of pounds on the construction, yet it was not fully completed by the time of his death in 1272. It would not be until the 14th century that work on the rest of the nave began.
One of the great tributes was that the new nave imitated the design of Henry’s abbey, which was unusual. Normally speaking, a nave in the 14th century would have been built with 14th-century architecture, like seen at Canterbury and Winchester, but at Westminster it was deliberately not brought up to date.
When and why was Westminster Abbey chosen as the place of coronations?
The tradition goes back to 1066, following Edward the Confessor’s death and the Norman Conquest. The crowning of William the Conqueror on Christmas Day launched a still-unbroken line of kings and queens of England staging their coronation at Westminster Abbey.
How many coronations have taken place at Westminster Abbey?
In 2023, Charles III will be the 40th monarch to be crown at Westminster Abbey. The only exceptions were the two monarchs who were never crowned, Edward V (one of the Princes in the Tower) and Edward VIII.
The importance of the tradition is well demonstrated by Henry III. When he came to the throne in 1216 in the middle of a civil war, his enemies were in control of Westminster so he could not be crowned there. He was actually crowned at Gloucester, but that was thought somehow wrong; there was a second coronation in 1220 at Westminster Abbey.
The design of Henry's abbey was itself very much influenced by its being the coronation church. From Rheims came not merely the flying buttresses but also the forms of the windows (two lancets surmounted by a rose) and the rounded east end. Why? It was not just that the master mason had come from Rheims.
It was also that Rheims was the French coronation church and hence the design seemed right for its English counterpart. But the needs of the coronation also caused Henry to go beyond the Rheims design both in the great length of the transepts and in the building (hugely costly) of a gallery at triforium level. Both were there to allow crowds of people to attend the coronation as well as other principal services.
Meanwhile, as the art historian Claudia Bolgia has argued, the famous Cosmati pavement, installed in 1268 from materials brought from Italy, resembled the pavement of Old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, where emperors were anointed. Henry was offering the abbey, and the Confessor, to his people, and he knew this would be a church for the great services of the kingdom.
As well as coronations, what other ceremonies are held at Westminster Abbey?
Westminster Abbey is a thriving Anglican church, and so services are held there on a daily basis. Various royal ceremonies have been, and continue to be, held there, from jubilee celebrations (starting with Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887) to the Maundy Thursday service in which the monarch distributes alms, in the form of ‘Maundy money’.
The abbey has hosted royal weddings throughout its history, although the majority have been in the 20th century. The most recent was the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011. Royal funerals too are a feature, as recently as 2022 with the funeral service of Elizabeth II.
But while the abbey has thus always been a royal church, it has also very much been a church for the people. The coronation service itself is a pact between the monarch and his people – hence the need for the space for the people to attend.
At the start, the archbishop of Canterbury asks those present whether they will accept the new monarch as their ruler. And after, with 'loud and repeated shouts' they have said 'yes', the monarch takes an oath to rule his people with justice and mercy. The theme for the 900th anniversary celebrations in 1966 of Edward the Confessor's abbey was 'One People'.
How many kings and queens are buried at Westminster Abbey?
A total of 30 kings and queens are buried at the abbey, the last being George II in 1760, while a vast number of notable figures – such as statesmen, scientists, artists and, of course, those interred in Poets’ Corner – have been interred, or at least their ashes, and memorialised there.
How has the Westminster Abbey changed since Henry III?
The main external change was the addition of two great white towers at the west end, which are in a sense the abbey’s most iconic visual representation. They were built in the 1720s-30s.
The famous Henry VII Chapel replaced the former Lady Chapel in the early 16th century, but the building is being changed to this day. One of the most important things that’s happened in recent years has been the opening up of the triforium galleries, where the abbey’s museum is now, as that gives the public a wonderful view.
- Read more | How did Henry VII spend his money?
How was Westminster Abbey affected by the Dissolution of the Monasteries?
Although Westminster Abbey was dissolved and its relics and treasures removed, the building itself escaped unscathed. While the shrine of Edward the Confessor was dismantled, his bones were hidden away and the shrine base restored under the brief return to Catholicism under Mary I in the 1550s, which allowed it to survive in its current form.
- On the podcast | Dr Hugh Willmott responds to listener questions on Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries
Greater damage has been done by the addition of the tombs in the abbey, since they destroyed large parts of the wall arcade. The exterior is also much different to what would have existed in Henry III’s day, with the sculptures having been lost or refaced due to the ravages of time and decay.
It was untouched by the great fire of London in 1666, but during the Blitz in the Second World War, a bomb struck the lantern tower over the central crossing (where the coronation takes place). The whole ceiling collapsed and fell to the ground, but fortunately burnt out there without doing further damage, so the Abbey escaped the recent fate of Notre-Dame in Paris.
How is the upkeep of Westminster Abbey funded?
English churches, abbeys and cathedrals are owned by the Church of England, which receives no subsidy from the state in maintaining them. This is in contrast to France, where religious buildings are owned by the state. In England, they have to get money, so there is a necessary emphasis on payment to go in and look around. Nearly all preserve a place for private prayer and you don’t have to pay to go to services.
The question is: do you want to pay more taxes so the state will own the churches and cathedrals, and then perhaps you can go in for free, or do you want to pay less taxes and the church has to charge for going in?
Professor David Carpenter was speaking with David Musgrove on the HistoryExtra podcast, discussing the long history of Westminster Abbey as part of our Everything You Wanted To Know series. Hear more from this conversation in the full the audio episode, or watch the whole video interview.
David Carpenter is a leading historian of Britain in the central Middle Ages and professor of medieval history at Kings College London. His father was former dean of Westminster Abbey. His books include Henry III: The Rise to Power and Personal Rule, 1207–1258 (Yale University Press, May 2023), which fully covers the final consecration of Henry's abbey in 1269.
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