Westminster Abbey is perhaps the most important church in England. It is traditionally the one most associated with the monarch, as royal coronations have been held here since the arrival of William the Conqueror from Normandy in 1066. It has also held at least 16 royal weddings, including the recent nuptials of Prince William and Kate.
The church of Westminster had already existed prior to the Norman Conquest, as the Abbey of St. Peter. According to legend a fisherman witnessed a vision of St. Peter on Thorny Island (the old name for the site) and a church was built in his honour. To this day, the Fishmongers Company traditionally gives a salmon to the Abbey every year. St. Dunstan is said to have set up an order of Benedictine monks at the abbey in the 900s and this church was rebuilt by the sainted Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor in the 11th century for his burial.
Henry III, idolising the Confessor, had the church rebuilt once more in 1245 as a lavish shrine to Edward. While additions and alterations have been made, the imposing Gothic building we see today is Henry’s original 13th century abbey. Many of the earliest English churches were dismantled and destroyed during the Reformation of Henry VIII; however, given the long-standing and ritual association of the Abbey and the Crown, the King granted Westminster Abbey temporary cathedral status in order to avoid sacking this particularly special site. His daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, later established the Abbey as a ‘Royal Peculiar’ and until the 19th century it was the third seat of learning in the country after Oxford and Cambridge; it was here that the first third of the King James Bible was translated.
The interior of the building is awesome in size and grandeur. The ceiling of the nave is an incredible 100 feet high, and the many chapels and sanctified spaces are richly decorated with architectural embellishments and religious objects. The West Window is the oldest in the Abbey and depicts Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with 14 other prophets as well as the coats of arms of some of England’s most prominent monarchs, including Queen Elizabeth I.
Underneath this window is the Grave of an Unknown Soldier in remembrance of the unnamed dead in WWI, and Waterford Crystal chandeliers have adorned the ceiling above since 1965 when they were gifted to the Abbey by Guinness family for its 900th anniversary. Near the entrance to St. George’s Chapel is the oldest known painting of an English King, depicting Richard II in 1395. Inside the Chapel is the ancient Coronation Chair.
In the Sanctuary in the heart of the Abbey is where you will find the High Altar dating from 1867. This is decorated with a Last Supper mosaic and is flanked by four statues of Saints Peter and Paul, Moses and King David. In front of the altar is a fabulous marble pavement decorated with a Cosmati style inlay of precious stone and glass, dating from 1268.
The Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor is in an eastern chapel of the Abbey and screened by a 15th century stone wall carved with scenes from his life. Henry III had the shrine decorated with exquisite Cosmati work, bringing over artists from Italy, and installed a gold feretory to hold Edward's relics. Sadly, the monks dismantled and hid the feretory during the Reformation and thus the shrine lost some of its lustre. Nonetheless, pilgrims would come from all over the country to pray at the Confessor’s shrine. Visitors can still see where the stones have been worn down by their knees.
One of the most spectacular parts of the Abbey is Henry VII’s Lady Chapel. It is a beautiful example of late medieval architecture, lined round with 95 statues and featuring a fan-vaulted carved roof. Here lie the tombs of Henry VII and his Queen Elizabeth of York. Other important royals buried here include Henry’s indomitable mother Lady Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, and Charles II.
The chapel in Poets' Corner is a resting place of renowned poets, artists and musicians. It was established after the famous English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was buried here due to his association with the Abbey. After him many other artists and writers were honoured by being entombed close to Chaucer, or simply commemorated by stone memorials - other famous names include Edmund Spencer, Lord Byron and William Shakespeare.
With an impressive lineage and a royal reputation, Westminster Abbey is one of the most magnificent churches in England. It is packed with grand spectacle and fascinating details alike.