Westminster Abbey History

By Harshitha Jagathiesh

From a small monastery to its transformation into a grand abbey, we’ll uncover the pivotal moments and influential figures that have shaped its destiny.

Through the centuries, it has witnessed coronations, weddings, and burials that reflect the changing tides of politics, culture, and society.

But Westminster Abbey is more than just a repository of history.

We’ll delve into the coronation ceremonies that have taken place within its sacred walls, where kings and queens have been anointed and crowned.

Westminster Abbey history

In the heart of London lies Westminster Abbey, a magnificent architectural masterpiece that is a testament to centuries of history, spirituality, and cultural heritage. 

From its humble Anglo-Saxon beginnings to its role as the coronation and burial site of British monarchs, the abbey weaves together the threads of time.

Anglo-Saxon Origins (7th to 11th Centuries)

The origins of Westminster Abbey can be traced back to the 7th century. 

In the 7th century, it was presumed that a small Anglo-Saxon monastery, known as the West Minster, was established on the site. 

Here, a community of monks lived a life of prayer and contemplation, nurturing the seeds of spirituality that would later blossom into an architectural marvel.

Norman Conquest and Construction (11th-12th Centuries)

The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 brought about profound changes.

These changes include the transformation of the West Minster into the grand Norman-style abbey we know today. 

Under the patronage of King Edward the Confessor, construction of the abbey commenced. 

The abbey was completed around 1090, featuring a cruciform layout with a central tower, transepts, and a nave. 

The sheer scale and opulence of the abbey were a testament to Norman’s architectural prowess. 

The Abbey symbolized the newfound power and authority of the Norman kings.

Gothic Splendor (13th to 16th Centuries)

During the Gothic period, Westminster Abbey underwent significant transformations that solidified its status as an architectural masterpiece. 

Under the patronage of King Henry III, a fervent supporter of Gothic architecture, the abbey underwent a remarkable metamorphosis. 

Construction of the eastern part of the abbey commenced, including the Lady Chapel, renowned for its ethereal beauty and intricate stonework. 

The choir, presbytery, and eastern transepts were rebuilt in the elegant Early English Gothic style.

This included soaring pointed arches and expansive stained glass windows that bathed the interior in celestial light.

The Henry VII Chapel and Tudor Legacy (15th to 16th Centuries)

A jewel within Westminster Abbey’s architectural crown, the Henry VII Chapel, stands as a testament to Tudor opulence and artistic achievements. 

Commissioned by King Henry VII, this magnificent chapel was completed in 1519. 

Its exquisite Perpendicular Gothic style is adorned with intricate fan vaulting, delicate stone carvings, and stunning stained glass windows.

The chapel serves as the final resting place for Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York, symbolizing their pivotal roles in the Tudor dynasty.

Restoration and Modern Transformations (19th to 21st Centuries)

In the 19th century, Westminster Abbey underwent significant restoration to preserve its historical and architectural integrity. 

The restoration, led by architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, aimed to revive the abbey’s medieval splendor and address structural concerns. 

This extensive project breathed new life into the abbey, ensuring its continued existence as a cherished national treasure.

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, Westminster Abbey has remained a vibrant symbol of British heritage and spirituality. 

Royal Connections

Westminster Abbey has long been intertwined with the rich tapestry of the British monarchy, serving as a focal point for royal ceremonies like burials and coronations. 

With its grandeur and historical significance, the abbey is a testament to the relationship between the British Crown and this iconic place of worship. 

Join us as we delve into the royal connections that have shaped the history of Westminster Abbey.

Coronations

Since the Norman Conquest, Westminster Abbey has been the traditional venue for the coronations of English and British monarchs. 

Each coronation ceremony held within the abbey’s sacred walls signifies the solemn transfer of regal authority. 

From the coronation of William the Conqueror in 1066 to the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, Westminster Abbey has witnessed generations. 

The most recent coronation was King Charles III and Queen Camilla on Saturday, 6th May 2023.

Burials

Westminster Abbey has been the final resting place for monarchs and royal family members for centuries. 

The abbey’s hallowed halls and chapels bear witness to the grandeur of royal burials, becoming sites of pilgrimage and remembrance. 

Notable royal tombs and burials in Westminster Abbey include those of:

  • Edward the Confessor, the only king of England to be canonized as a saint
  • Henry III
  • Edward I
  • Henry VII.

Royal Weddings

Royal Weddings
Image: Brides.com

Westminster Abbey has witnessed numerous royal weddings, capturing the imagination of the nation and the world. 

These union celebrations unite love and tradition, showcasing the ties between the British monarchy and the abbey. 

Notable royal weddings held at Westminster Abbey are:

  • Queen Elizabeth II to Prince Philip in 1947
  • Princess Margaret to Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960
  • Prince William to Catherine Middleton in 2011

These weddings, steeped in history and pageantry, have become memorable moments for both the abbey and the royal family.

State Funerals and National Mourning

In times of national mourning, Westminster Abbey has played a significant role in honoring and commemorating the passing of monarchs and prominent figures. 

State funerals have been held within the abbey, marked by solemn processions and elaborate ceremonies.

Notable state funerals include that of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 and of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, which captured the attention and grief of the nation.

The Abbey Today

Standing proudly in the heart of London, Westminster Abbey continues to be a vibrant and revered institution cherished for its historical, religious, and cultural significance. 

Today, the abbey serves multiple roles, drawing visitors worldwide and playing an active part in the nation’s life. 

Place of Worship

Westminster Abbey remains an active place of worship, hosting regular religious services, including daily prayers, choral evensongs, and Sunday services. 

It provides a tranquil sanctuary for spiritual reflection and a venue for special religious occasions.

Royal Ceremonies

Continuing its centuries-old tradition, Westminster Abbey remains the coronation site of British monarchs. 

The abbey comes alive with pomp and pageantry when a new monarch ascends the throne.

Burials and Memorials

Westminster Abbey remains the final resting place for prominent figures, including members of the royal family, renowned statesmen, poets, and scientists. 

The Poets’ Corner, located within the abbey, is a revered space where notable literary figures such as William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, etc.

Cultural Landmark

Westminster Abbey attracts millions of visitors yearly, who marvel at its awe-inspiring architecture, historical artifacts and deep history. 

FAQs

1. When was Westminster Abbey built, and by whom?

Westminster Abbey dates back to the 7th century and was originally a small Benedictine monastery on Thorney Island. 

And the most significant phase of construction and expansion took place during the Norman period under the patronage of King Edward the Confessor. 

2. Why was Westminster Abbey not destroyed?

Westminster Abbey has managed to avoid destruction throughout its long history due to several key factors:
– Westminster Abbey has been closely tied to the British monarchy since its inception.

– Westminster Abbey held immense religious importance throughout the ages as a place of worship and a symbol of Christianity. 

– Westminster Abbey is an architectural masterpiece representing various styles and periods of English and European architecture, including Norman and Gothic influences. 

– Westminster Abbey holds a special place in the hearts of the British people and is widely regarded as a symbol of national identity. 

3. Why is Westminster Abbey called an Abbey?

Westminster Abbey is called an “abbey” due to its historical origins as a Benedictine monastery. 

The term “abbey” refers to a complex or institution where monks or nuns live in accordance with a religious order. 

An abbot or abbess typically heads it.

4. Was Westminster Abbey built initially as a Catholic church?

Yes, Westminster Abbey was initially built as a Catholic church.

5. Is Westminster Abbey Catholic or Episcopalian?

Westminster Abbey is an Episcopalian (Anglican) church. 

This Anglican Church, also known as the Church of England or Episcocal Church in some countries, is the national church of England.

6. Who is the most famous person buried in Westminster Abbey?

A few infamous people buried in Westminister Abbey are:
– Charles Darwin
– Charles Dickens
– Rudyard Kipling
– Stephen Hawking
– David Livingstone


Are you looking for the best tickets to explore Westminster Abbey?

Here are some of the best tickets for visiting Westminster Abbey and London. 

Entry ticket: Get the opportunity to tour around the cathedral, bell tower, tombs and more with the Westminster Abbey entry ticket.

Guided tour: Tour the famous Westminster Abbey with an expert guide and gain insights about the famous attraction

St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey: Enjoy St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey with one ticket.

Westminster Abbey and Afternoon Tea: Tour the Cathedral and visit the Cellarium Cafe for an English afternoon tea. 

Westminster Abbey and House of Parliament guided tour: Get a tour of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. 

London Pass: Enjoy access to over 85 attractions, including Westminster Abbey, with just one pass. 

Go City London explorer pass: Visit Westminster Abbey along with 1 to 6 other attractions with this pass. 

Featured Image: Twitter.com

Harshita
About the author

Harshitha’s heart lies where greeny mountains meet stretches of beach. She believes getting lost is the best way to explore