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Westminster Abbey

Officially known as the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster, this is one of the most important churches in all of the United Kingdom.

western facade
Westminster Abbey, western facade


Soon after assuming the throne of England in 1042, King Edward (later St. Edward the Confessor) established his royal palace near a small Benedictine monastery west of London that was founded under the patronage of King Edgar and St. Dunstan around 960. He then proceeded to re-endow and greatly enlarge the monastery by building a large stone church in honor of St. Peter the Apostle. This church became known as the "west minster" in order to distinguish it from St. Paul's Cathedral, the "east minster." The church was consecrated on December 28, 1065, but King Edward was too ill to attend. He died a few days later, and was entombed in front of the High Altar. William the Conqueror was crowned in Westminster Abbey on December 25, 1066, and every monarch since has been crowned in the Abbey (except for kings Edward V and Edward VIII, neither of whom were ever formally crowned). The Abbey built by Edward the Confessor stood until the reign of King Henry III, who commissioned a new church of the Gothic style. Consecrated on October 13, 1269, this is the Westminster Abbey that stands today. It was King Henry who had Edward's body moved into an elaborate tomb behind the High Altar, where it remains today. King Henry died in 1272, and his tomb stands near Edward's.

Successive monarchs added to and beautified the Abbey, and it had attained most of its present size and exterior appearance by the middle of the fifteenth century. King Henry VII added what is now known as the chapel of the Order of the Bath between 1503 and 1512; the west towers date to 1745; the north entrance was completed in the nineteenth century.

The monastery with which Westminster Abbey was originally associated was closed by King Henry VIII in 1540, and the Abbey became a cathedral church under the direct control of the king. The Abbey was restored to the Benedictines by Queen Mary I, but they were again ejected by Queen Elizabeth I in 1559. On May 21, 1560, Queen Elizabeth chartered Westminster Abbey as a "Royal Peculiar," placing it under the jurisdiction of a Dean and Chapter, subject only to the Sovereign and not to any archbishop or bishop; it maintains that status today.

Layout and Dimensions

The plan of Westminster Abbey is in the form of a Latin cross, with the eastern end of the nave elongated by the chapel built by King Henry VII. Including this chapel, the total length of the church is 511.5 feet, and the length of the transept 203 feet. The breadth of the nave and aisles is 72 feet, and of the transept 84 feet. The height of the nave is 102 feet, making it the highest Gothic vault in England. The west towers are 225 feet high.

Tombs and Memorials

Since Edward the Confessor and King Henry III, over 3,000 notable Britons have been honored with either a tomb or a memorial at Westminster Abbey (either in the Abbey itself or one of the Cloisters). In addition to almost every king and queen through George II, many of England's best known authors and poets, scientists, statesmen, and military leaders are buried in the Abbey. A nearly complete list of tombs and memorials can be found at the source provided below. Westminster Abbey is also "home" to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, which holds the remains of an unidentified British soldier killed in France during World War I.

north entrance
Westminster Abbey, north entrance

Official Website

Westminster Abbey

See Also

Edward the Confessor
King Edward VIII
King Henry VIII
Queen Elizabeth I
World War I

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The Robinson Library >> Religious Architecture

This page was last updated on 12/28/2018.