About Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is an iconic medieval structure and the site of many historic royal and national events, from coronations and weddings to burials and even deaths. Centrally located in London, Westminster Abbey was first constructed in the eleventh century by King Edward the Confessor, a Saxon king who dedicated this new church to St Peter.
Before the Abbey
In fact, the site on which Westminster Abbey was built was already of religious importance prior to its construction. The earliest record of the site of Westminster Abbey being used for religious purposes dates to the mid 10th century, when St Dunstan arrived at what was then known as Thorny Island to establish a religious house for the Benedictine order. The king built his church near to the existing monastic buildings.
The First Burial, the First Coronation
Westminster Abbey was consecrated in December 1065, a few days before Edward died. Fittingly, the king was the first of a long line of monarchs to be buried there. In 1066, William the Conqueror added to the growing prestige of Westminster Abbey by choosing to be crowned there, becoming King William I on 25th December 1066. From that point onwards, Westminster Abbey would be the site of almost every royal coronation.
By the middle of the 12th century, Edward the Confessor had been canonised and his remains were moved to a magnificent shrine within the Abbey’s sanctuary, where pilgrims would flock to ask for his intercession. They also gave donations to the shrine, making Westminster Abbey rather wealthy. In the 13th century, King Henry III resolved to rebuild Westminster Abbey to make it rival the French Gothic cathedrals of the era. This construction project would eventually form the current incarnation of the Abbey. He also moved the remains of St Edward to an even more magnificent shrine, where he still remains.
Death of Henry IV
One of the most famous events recorded to have taken place in the Abbey was the death of Henry IV in the Jerusalem Chapel in 1413. It had been predicted that he would die in Jerusalem, so, when he collapsed in the Abbey, he knew he was dying when he was taken to the Jerusalem chamber. Shakespeare immortalised the scene with Henry V trying the crown on while his father lay dying.
The 16th century finds the Tudor monarchs influencing the history of the Abbey: Henry VII started to build the Lady Chapel, Henry VIII dissolved the monastery (but spared the Abbey) and Elizabeth I established the Abbey as the foremost cathedral in England (a position it only held briefly).
Over 3,000 people are buried at Westminster Abbey. There are 600 tombs and monuments to see, many of them Royal and open to visitors. Some of the most famous royals buried there are Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I and Henry III. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier is in the Abbey and there is a service each Remembrance Sunday. Funeral services for important figures and royalty are also held in the Abbey and over time prominent funerals at the Abbey have included those of Winston Churchill, George VI, Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth I.
Poets’ corner is one of the main attractions at the Abbey, it being the burial site of many prominent non-royal figures. The first poet to be buried here was Geoffrey Chaucer, and many others have joined him in the succeeding centuries.
The Coronation Chair
In addition to the numerous burial sites and architectural features, one of the most impressive sites at Westminster Abbey is the Coronation Chair, produced in 1300-1301 under the orders of King Edward I (Longshanks). Its purpose was to accommodate the Stone of Scone, which the king had brought from Scotland.
To have an informed visit and to see the most interesting parts of Westminster Abbey, take a tour, as just wandering around can be overwhelming.
Along with Westminster Palace and Saint Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey is a UNESCO world heritage site.