A brief history of Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey has been in existence for more than a thousand years. A church of outstanding architectural merit and an unrivalled national mausoleum, its close relations with parliament and government are unequalled by any other church in any other nation. Its history, however, is not a simple story – as David Cannadine reveals

Westminster Abbey, London

The history of Westminster Abbey is full of contradictions and unexpected turns. It is among many monasteries that were founded in Catholic Christendom, although it was later repurposed as a powerful symbol of Protestant national identity. Although much of its architecture is French in origin, the abbey is widely regarded as quintessentially English.

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One of its greatest claims to fame is its ties to the monarchy. There is no church in Europe that maintains such a strong connection with its country’s royal family; with only two exceptions, every monarch since 1066 has been crowned in Westminster Abbey.

Uniquely the abbey has never had a bishop, except a brief spell during the 1540s (before then, it was presided over by an abbot). On its re-founding by Elizabeth I in 1560, it was established as a royal peculiar, and ever since, it has been outside the hierarchy and jurisdiction of the Church of England.

Although its royal tombs and monuments are unsurpassed, it is the grave of an ordinary man – the Unknown Warrior, which has come to represent the millions who lose their lives in wars and conflicts – that in modern times has become its most resonant burial place and tourist attraction. And, while the abbey has been a Catholic monastery and a bastion of Anglicanism, it has also been in the forefront of multi-faith dialogue and ecumenicalism since the Second World War – for instance, the annual Commonwealth Service, a multi-faith gathering which began in 1965.

Early history and construction

There are meagre sources for Westminster Abbey’s early history, though it may have been founded by a group of monks in AD 604. Its story begins properly with its re-founding by Bishop Dunstan of London and King Edgar, probably in 959. It was, however, the subsequent interventions of two very different kings that significantly transformed the abbey’s status and fortunes.

The first was Edward the Confessor, who rebuilt the abbey in the 1050s on a lavish scale. He was buried in the abbey, canonised in 1161, and later magnificently entombed and enshrined there. The second king was William the Conqueror, who famously defeated Harold at the battle of Hastings in 1066 and who followed him in being crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day of the same year. Thus, the tradition of crowning our monarchs in the abbey was established, enduring to the modern day.

William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Royal associations

The Confessor and Conqueror were the first sovereigns to associate themselves so closely with the abbey; they made Westminster their place of residence and the seat of government, thereby connecting church and state in a bond that has lasted and evolved. The Confessor’s splendid Romanesque church was later replaced by an even more magnificent Gothic building, constructed by Henry III – the abbey’s greatest architectural patron. Although the west front would long remain uncompleted, Henry’s church was dedicated on 13 October 1269.

King Richard II [r1377–99] oversaw the construction of the northern entrance and several bays of the nave, while Henry VII [r1485–1509] created the extraordinary Lady Chapel at the east end. These energetic and expensive royal interventions transformed the original monastic foundation into one of the most significant churches in Catholic Christendom. This was partly due to its new size and scale – and its innovatively cosmopolitan architecture and decoration – and partly because of the uniquely close connection established between the English monarchy and the abbey. Indeed, from the time of Henry III, it had become the established burial place for monarchs, their consorts and often their children as well.

From the time of Henry III, it had become the established burial place for monarchs, their consorts and often their children as well

The 14th and 15th centuries witnessed royal indifference and neglect, especially during the Wars of the Roses. Yet even during these troubled and uncertain times, the monastic life of the abbey endured. It was as a monastery (presided over by an abbot) rather than as a royal church (where the sovereign was crowned) that the abbey obtained its freedom from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London in 1222. It was, thereafter, answerable only to the pope himself.

Turbulent times

This independence was successively redefined, rescinded and eventually reasserted during the turbulent and traumatic 16th century: Henry VIII converted the abbey into a cathedral – meaning that it was no longer under papal jurisdiction – and replaced the abbot and monks with a Dean and Chapter (and, briefly, a bishop). Edward VI, meanwhile, re-founded Westminster as a subordinate cathedral to neighbouring St Paul’s – although Queen Mary later reversed these changes and temporarily restored the Benedictine monastic community. Queen Elizabeth I re-established the abbey as a Protestant church, and as a royal peculiar directly under the monarch’s control (governed once more by a Dean and Chapter).

The 16th century was the hinge era for the abbey. The burial of Queen Elizabeth (1603); the reburial of Mary, Queen of Scots (1612); the coronation and burial of James I and VI (1603 and 1625); and the coronation of Charles I (1626) linked together the abbey, the old Tudor and the new Stuart dynasties and the recent Protestant settlement.

The execution of Charles I
The execution of Charles I ushered a new era for Westminster Abbey. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

There was another change of direction during the 1640s and 1650s, as a number of events ushered in a new era for the abbey. These included the execution of Charles I; the abolition of the monarchy; the disestablishment of the Church of England; and the replacement of the abbey’s Dean and Chapter by a parliamentary committee (who became the governing body). The ‘house of kings’ [a venue for royal occasions representing the close relationship between church and state] was superseded by the ‘house of regicides’, as the abbey was (again) repurposed by those who signed Charles I’s death warrant. The abbey became a republican temple of fame, in which were interred such parliamentary paragons and military heroes as John Pym and Oliver Cromwell.

The abbey resumed its role as the pre-eminent royal and state church following the restoration of the monarchy and the Church of England in 1660; the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688; and the Hanoverian succession in 1714. It was as if the 11-year period of parliamentary rule, the Interregnum, had never happened. Purcell and Handel composed notable coronation anthems, and the west front was belatedly completed, with the construction of two towers designed by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Religious inactivity

George II was the last monarch to be buried in the abbey, in 1760. The ensuing decades were a time of religious and institutional torpor. There were worldly deans holding plural livings, uninspired services and preaching, and more tourists and monuments – but less true religious devotion.

During this time the abbey enjoyed a substantial income from its extensive estates – some of which it had held since early medieval times. It also still played a predominant role in the government of the City of Westminster and of Westminster School, re-founded by Henry VIII and again by Elizabeth I.

The abbey seemed not so much a house of God, but a world of patronage, pensions, sinecures, family connection and self-perpetuating oligarchy

The abbey seemed not so much a house of God, but a world of patronage, pensions, sinecures, family connection and self-perpetuating oligarchy, where the great institutions of church and state were agencies of private benefit rather than vehicles for promoting the public good. This negative impression was confirmed as the Dean and Chapter made money by allowing the proliferation of increasingly ornate monuments, some of which were undoubtedly merited by the stature and contribution of their subjects – but many were not.

Victorian reform

These defects were eventually remedied during the Victorian age of reform: pluralism and absenteeism declined; Westminster School and the City of Westminster were freed from the abbey’s jurisdiction (although some links still remain); and it ceased to be a major landlord.

Between 1864 and 1881, the transformative Dean Arthur Penrhyn Stanley made the abbey a place of broad, liberal and welcoming churchmanship, with services that were reportedly better-sung services and included memorable preaching, and with more grand public funerals and yet more (though better-deserved) monuments. As a result, the abbey again became increasingly central to the nation, especially the imperial nation that Great Britain had progressively become during Queen Victoria’s reign.

Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Dean of Westminster
Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Dean of Westminster. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

However, during the 19th century, the monarchy itself played little part in the day to-day life of the abbey: the great age of royal building and patronage was long since over. George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria rarely visited the place except for their coronations (and Victoria also for her Golden Jubilee service).

 

The First World War and beyond

The reign of Victoria’s son Edward VII may have witnessed the apogee of imperial consciousness and the first authentically imperial coronation, but the king–emperor felt no close affinity with the abbey. Nor, initially, did George V – even as his coronation in 1911 was grander and more imperial than his father’s.

But the First World War was as much a turning point for the abbey and the monarchy as for the British nation and empire. There were new annual services, such as that marking Anzac Day on 25 April each year, which the monarch and the royal family habitually attended. The Unknown Warrior was buried in the presence of the sovereign in 1920, and his grave became a place of popular pilgrimage. Royal weddings returned to the abbey, where they had not been held since medieval times.

This close association between the monarchy and the abbey has been consolidated since the second half of the 20th century. Like all her predecessors since the Reformation, Queen Elizabeth II has been the abbey’s Visitor, in that she exercises supreme authority over it; but she has also attended its services more frequently and assiduously than any previous monarch.

Coronation of Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II walks down the nave in Westminster Abbey after being crowned. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

So, the abbey today is very royal, but also very popular; it is very sacred, yet also very secular; it is very old, but with a constant capacity for renewal. It is the setting for great ceremonials – focused on the monarchy and royal family – yet it is also a place for private devotion and prayer.

Such, indeed, is Westminster Abbey today, 750 years since the consecration of Henry III’s new church. But it cannot be too often stressed that none of this could have been foreseen when a group of monks founded their small monastic community, to the west of the city of London, in what may or may not have been the year AD 604.

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David Cannadine is president of the British Academy, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Westminster Abbey: A Church in History, edited by David Cannadine, is out now (Paul Mellon Centre, £35 hardback).