Westminster Abbey is, says David Carpenter, ‘a great national church, the coronation church and the centre of the nation’. Today packs of visitors, with audio guides clamped firmly to their ears, vie for space with the assembled statuary of the great and the good of Britain’s past. There is so much to see here, so many royal tombs, and so many architectural highlights to enjoy that it perhaps doesn’t do the place justice to focus on just one aspect. Yet there is one particular reason for visiting, and that is to understand what King Henry III was trying to achieve with the abbey in the mid 13th century.
Edward the Confessor, the penultimate Anglo-Saxon king, had a church built here in 1065 and was buried in it a year later. It was called the West Minster to distinguish it from the East Minster – St Paul’s Cathedral. However, much of the current structure dates from 1245 to 1272, when Henry III had the place rebuilt with a specific plan in mind.
First, he was endeavouring to create ‘the most magnificent church in the world’. The abbey is acknowledged as a Gothic masterpiece, and the view as you enter through the great north door is in Carpenter’s opinion ‘one of the most breathtakingly beautiful in the world’.
But his second reason, and the motive for the magnificence, is the interesting one. Henry III had the church built essentially to win the favour of Edward the Confessor, who had been canonised in 1161. ‘Henry III in the 1230s became passionately devoted to Edward and adopted him as his patron saint,’ explains Carpenter.
Henry’s view was that if he won the dead king’s saintly favour by building the magnificent abbey as an offering to him, Edward would support him in this life and shepherd him into the next. All medieval people would have believed that God intervened directly in day-to-day affairs, so Henry was banking on Edward being able to intercede with God on his behalf. It was a very clear statement to everyone who saw the abbey being built, that Henry was backed by his saintly predecessor.
Today, if you look straight across the church into the south transept you can see evidence of Henry’s homage. Underneath the Rose Window, you’ll see four sculptures. The two flanking figures are angels, and the two central figures are Edward the Confessor on the left and a pilgrim on the right. This scene would have been pivotal in Henry III’s designs, as it depicts a story from the life of Edward, where he met the pilgrim, St John the Evangelist, who escorted him up to heaven, leaving Edward’s ring with two pilgrims to take back to England as proof. The story demonstrated to all who entered the building, the power of the saint behind the throne. The sculpture no longer carries such a powerful message because most visitors are no longer familiar with the story, and the sculptures have at some point in the ensuing seven and a half centuries lost their heads.
What hasn’t lost its power is Henry’s shrine to the Confessor. Although public access is restricted, certain tours will allow you entrance and you can catch a glimpse as you pass along the South Ambulatory. Within the shrine is the Confessor’s coffin inside a stone casing and around this are the tombs of several English kings and queens, Henry III included. The stone base of Edward’s tomb would originally have been decorated with Cosmati work, a luxurious, expensive and intricate 13th-century mosaic style. Most of that work has been lost, but happily, on the High Altar, the Cosmati pavement has just been restored, so you can look at that to get a sense of the former magnificence of the tomb.
The stunning pavement depicts the universe with a riddling inscription (of which only part survives) that enables one to work out the date of its end – the Last Judgement. The idea was that anyone who stood in front of the pavement would be alarmed at the threat of judgement to come, then look up to the shrine of the Confessor and realise that through the intercession of the saint one could gain salvation. Sadly, the 15th-century screen now blocks the view so the effect is somewhat lost.
Whilst Henry certainly achieved his quest for magnificence in the abbey, he failed in his larger ambition, which was for all his people to share in the patronage of Edward the Confessor. ‘The whole thing was a flop,’ notes Carpenter, ‘and Edward never became a popular saint.’
Despite this, Westminster Abbey continued to grow and prosper as the coronation church and principal burial place for English monarchs. That, combined with its role as memorial site for centuries of very important people, means that a single trip will not be enough to take it all in. A good place to start, though, is to take a tour into the 13th-century mindset and motives of Henry III.