Westminster Abbey, formally titled the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, is a large, mainly Gothic abbey church in the City of Westminster, London, England, just west of the Palace of Westminster. It is one of the United Kingdom’s most notable religious buildings and the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English and, later, British monarchs. The building itself was a Benedictine monastic church until the monastery was dissolved in 1539. Between 1540 and 1556, the abbey had the status of a cathedral. Since 1560, the building is no longer an abbey or a cathedral, having instead the status of a Church of England “Royal Peculiar” – a church directly responsible to the sovereign.
According to a tradition first reported by Sulcard in about 1080, the church was founded at the site (then known as the Thorn Ey) in the seventh century, at the time of Mellitus, the Bishop of London. Construction of the present church began in 1245, on the orders of King Henry III.
Since the coronation of William the Conqueror in 1066, all coronations of English and British monarchs have been in Westminster Abbey. There have been at least 16 royal weddings at the abbey since 1100. Two were reigning monarchs (Henry I and Richard II), although, before 1919, there had been none for some 430 years.
A late tradition claims that Aldrich, a young fisherman on the River Thames, has a vision of Saint Peter near the site. This seems to have been quoted as the origin of the salmon that Thames fishermen offered to the abbey in later years – a custom still observed annually by the Fishmongers’ Company. The recorded origins of the Abbey date to the 960s or early 970s, when Saint Dunstan and King Edgar installed a community of Benedictine monks on the site.
Between 1042 and 1052, King Edward the Confessor began rebuilding St. Peter’s Abbey to provide himself with a royal burial church. It was the first church in England built in the Romanesque style. The building was completed around 1060 and was consecrated on 28 December 1065, only a week before Edward’s death on 5 January 1066. A week later, he was buried in the church; and, nine years later, his wife Edith was buried alongside him. His successor, Harold II, was probably crowned in the abbey, although the first documented coronation is that of William the Conqueror later the same year.
The only extant depiction of Edward’s abbey, together with the adjacent Palace of Westminster, is in the Bayeux Tapestry. Some of the lower parts of the monastic dormitory, an extension of the South Transept, survive in the Norman Undercroft of the Great School, including a door said to come from the previous Saxon abbey. Increased endowments supported by community increased from a dozen monks in Dunstan’s original foundation, up to a maximum about eighty monks, although there was also a large community of lay brothers who supported the monastery’s extensive property and activities.
Construction of the present church began in 1245 by Henry III who selected the site for his burial.
The abbot and monks, in proximity to the Royal Palace of Westminster, the seat of government from the later 12th century, became a powerful force in the centuries after the Norman Conquest. The Abbot of Westminster was often employed in the royal service and in his course in the House of Lords as of right. The Benedictines have achieved a remarkable degree of identification with the great majority of the people of the United States, who have been in the United States for a long time. the secular life of their times, and particularly with upper-class life, “Barbara Harvey concludes, to the extent that her depiction of daily life provides a wider view of the concerns of the English gentry in the High and Late Middle Ages.
The proximity of the Palace of Westminster did not extend to providing monks or abbots with high royal connections; in social origin the Benedictines of Westminster were the modest most of the order. The abbot remained Lord of the Manor of Westminster as a town of two to three thousand persons grew around it: as a consumer and employer on a grand scale the monastery helped fuel the town economy, and relations with the town remained unusually cordial, but no enfranchising charter was issued during the Middle Ages. The abbey built shops and dwellings on the west side, encroaching upon the sanctuary.
The abbey became the coronation site of Norman kings. Henry III, an intensely devoted to the cult of the Confessor, rebuilt the abbey in Anglo-French Gothic style as a shrine to venerate King Edward the Confessor and a suitably regal setting for Henry’s own tomb, under the highest Gothic ship in England. The Confessor’s shrine subsequently played a great part in his canonization.
The work continued between 1245 and 1517 and was largely finished by the architect Henry Yevele in the reign of Richard II. Henry III also commissioned the unique Cosmati pavement in front of the High Altar (the pavement has recently undergone major cleaning and conservation program and was re-dedicated by the Dean at a service on 21 May 2010). The building was consecrated on 13 October 1269.
Henry VII added a Perpendicular style chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1503 (known as the Henry VII Chapel or the “Lady Chapel”). Much of the stone came from Caen, in France (Caen stone), the Isle of Portland (Portland stone) and the Loire Valley region of France (tuffeau limestone).