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Westminster Abbey is one of the most famous, historic and widely
visited churches not only in Britain but in the whole Christian world.
There are other reasons for its fame apart from its beauty and its vital
role as a centre of the Christian faith in one of the world’s most
important capital cities. These include the facts that since 1066
every sovereign apart from Edward Y and Edward YIII has been crowned
here and that for many centuries it was also the burial place of kings,
queens and princes.
The royal connections began even earlier than the present Abbey, for
it was Edward the Confessor, sometimes called the last of the English
kings(1042-66) and canonised in 1163, who established an earlier church
on this site. His great Norman Abbey was built close to his palace on
Thorney Island. It was completed in 1065 and stood surrounded by the
many ancillary buildings needed by the community of Benedictine monks
who passed their lives of prayer here. Edward’s death near the time of
his Abbey’s consecration made it natural for his burial place to be by
the High Altar.
Only 200 years later, the Norman east end of the Abbey was demolished
and rebuilt on the orders of Henry III, who had a great devotion to
Edward the Confessor and wanted to honour him. The central focus of the
new Abbey was a magnificent shrine to house St Edward’s body ; the
remains of this shrine, dismantled at the Reformation but later
reerected in rather a clumsy and piecemeal way, can still be seen
behind the High Altar today.
The new Abbey remained incomplete until 1376, when the rebuilding of the
Nave began; it was not finished until 150 years later, but the master
masons carried on a similar thirteenth-century Gothic,
French-influenced design, as that of Henry III’s initial work, over that
period, giving the whole a beautiful harmony of style.
In the early sixteenth century the Lady Chapel was rebuilt as the
magnificent Henry YII Chapel; with its superb fan-vaulting it is one of
Westminster’s great treasures.
In the mid-eighteenth century the last malor additions – the two western
towers designed by Hawksmoor – were made to the main fabric of the
THE NAVE was begun by Abbot Litlington who financed the work with
money left by Cardinal Simon Langham, his predecessor, for the use of
the monastery. The master mason in charge of the work was almost
certainly the great Henry Yevele. His design depended on the extra
strength given to the structure by massive flying buttresses. These
enabled the roof to be raised to a height of 102 feet. The
stonework of the vaulting has been cleaned and the bosses gilded in
At the west end of the Nave is a magnificent window filled with stained
glass of 1735, probably designed by Sir James Thornhill (1676-1734).(He
also painted the interior of the dome in St Paul’s Cathedral} The design
shows Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with fourteen prophets, and underneath
are the arms of King Sebert, Elizabeth I, George II, Dean Wilcocks
and the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster.
Also at the west end of the Nave is the grave of the Unknown Warrior.
The idea for such a memorial is said to have come from a British
chaplain who noticed, in a back garden at Armeentieeres, a grave with
the simple inscription: «An unknown British soldier». In 1920 the body
of another unknown soldier was brought back from the battlefields to be
reburied in the Abbey on 11 November. George Y and Queen Mary and many
other members of the royal family attended the service, 100 holders of
the Victoria Cross lining the Nave as a Guard of Honour. On a nearby
pillar hangs the Congressional Medal, the highest award which can be
conferred by the United St ates.
From the Nave roof hang chandeliers, both giving light and in daylight
reflecting it from their hundreds of pedant crystals. They were a gift
to mark the 900th anniversary of the Abbey and are of Waterford glass.
At the east end of the Nave is the screen separating it from the Choir.
Designed by the then Surveyor, Edward Blore, in 1834, it is the fourth
screen to be placed here; the wrought-iron gates, however, remain from a
previous screen. Within recent years the screen has been painted and
THE CHOIR was originally the part of the Abbey in which the monks
worshipped, but there is now no trace of the pre- Reformation
fittings, for in the late eighteenth century Kneene, the then Surveyor,
removed the thirteenth-century stalls and designed a smaller Choir. This
was in turn destroyed in the mid-nineteenth century by Edward Blore, who
created the present Choir in Victoria Gothic style and removed the
partitions which until then had blocked off the transepts
It is here that the choir of about twenty-two boys and twelve Lay
Vicars sings the daily services. The boys are educated at the Choir
School attached to the Abbey ;mention of such a school is made in the
fifteenth century and it may be even older in origin. For some centuries
it was linked with Westminster School, but became independent in the
The Organ was originally built by Shrider in 1730. Successive
rebuildings in 1849,1884,1909,,and 1937 and extensive work in 1983
have resulted in the present instrument.
THE SANCTUARY is the heart of the Abbey, where the High Altar stands The
altar and the reredos behind it, with a mosaic of the Last Supper, were
designed by Sir Gilbert Scott in 1867. Standing on the altar are two
candlesticks, bought with money bequeathed by a serving-maid, Sarah
Hughes, in the seventeenth century. In front of the altar, but protected
by carpeting, is another of the Abbey’s treasures – a now-very-worn
pavement dating from the thirteenth century. The method of its
decoration is known as Cosmati work, after the Italian family who
developed the technique of inlaying intricate designs made up of small
pieces of coloured marble into a plain marble ground.
THE NORTH TRANSEPT, to the left of the Sanctuary, has a beautiful rose
window designed by Sir James Thornhill, showing eleven Apostles. The
Transept once led to Solomon’s Porch and now leads to the
nineteenth-century North Front.
THE HENRY YII CHAPEL, beyond the apse, was begun in 1503 as a burial
place for Henry YI, on the orders of Henry YII, but it was Henry.YII
himself who was finally buried here, in an elaborate tomb. The master
mason, who designed the chapel was probably Robert Vertue his
brother William constructed the vault at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, in
1505 and this experience may have helped in the creation of the
magnificent vaulting erected here a few years later.
The chapel has an apse and side aisles which are fan-vaulted, and the
central section is roofed with extraordinarily intricate and
finely-detailed circular vaulting ,embellished with more Tudor badges
and with carved pendants, which is literally breath-taking in the
perfection of its beauty and artistry.
Beneath the windows, once filled with glass painted by Bernard Flower of
which only fragments now remain, are ninety-four of the original 107
statues of saints, placed in richly embellished niches. Beneath these,
in turn, hang the banners of the living Knights Grand Cross of the
Order of the Bath, whose chapel this is. When the Order was founded in
1725, extra stalls and seats were added to those originally provided.
To the stalls are attached plates recording the names and arms of past
Knights of the Order, while under the seats can be seen finely carved
The altar, a copy of the sixteenth-century altar incorporates two
of the original pillars and under its canopy hangs a fifteenth-century
Madonna and Child by Vivarini.
In the centre of the apse, behind the altar, stand the tomb of Henry YII
and Elizabeth of York, protected by a bronze screen. The tomb was the
work of Torrigiani and the effigies of the king and queen are finely
executed in gilt bronze.
In later years many more royal burials took place in the chapel. Mary I,
her half-sister Elizabeth I and half-brother Edward YI all lie here The
Latin inscription on thetomb – on which only Elizabeth Ist effigy rests
– reads: «Consorts both in throne and grave, here rest we two sisters,
Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of one Resurrection».
In the south asle lies Mary Queen of Scots, mother of James Yi and I,
who brought her body from Peterborough and gave her a tomb even more
magnificent than that which he had erected for his cousin Elizabeth.I.
In the same aisle lies Henry YII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, Countess
of Richmond. Her effigy, a bronze by Torrigiani, shows her in old age.
She was known for her charitable works and for her intellect – she
founded Christ’s and St John’s Colleges at Cambridge – and these
activities are recorded in the inscription composed by Erasmus. Also
in this aisle is the tomb of Margaret, Countess of Lennox.
THE CHAPEL OF ST EDWARD THE CONFESSOR, containing his shrine, lies
east of the Sanctuary at the heart of the Abbey. It is closed off from
the west by a stone screen, probably of fifteenth-century date, carved
with scenes from the life of Edward the Confessor; it is approached from
the east via a bridge from the Henry YII Chapel.
The shrine seen today within the chapel is only a ghost of its former
self. It originally had three parts: a stone base decorated with
Cosmati work, a gold feretory containing the saint’s coffin, a canopy
above which could be raised to reveal the feretory or lowered to protect
it. Votive offerings of gold and jewels were given to enrich the
feretory over the centuries. To this shrine came many pilgrims, and the
sick were frequently left beside it overnight in the hope of a cure. All
this ceased at the Reformation The shrine was dismantled and stored by
the monks; the gold feretory was taken away from them, but they were
allowed to rebury the saint elsewhere in the Abbey.
It was during the reign of Mary I that a partial restoration of the
shrine took place. The stone base was re-assembled, the coffin was
placed, in the absence of a feretory, in the top part of the stone
base and the canopy positioned on top. The Chapel has a Cosmati floor,
similar to that before the High Altar, and a blank space in the
design shows where the shrine once stood; it also indicates that the
shrine was originally raised up on a platform, making the canopy
visible beyond the western screen. The canopy of the shrine has
recently been restored, and hopefully one day the rest of the
shrine will also be restored.
And within the chapel can be seen the Coronation Chair and the tombs of
five kings and four queens. At the eastern end is the tomb and Chantey
Chapel of Henry Y, embellished with carvings including scenes of
Henry Y’s coronation. The effigy of the king once had a silver head and
silver regalia, and was covered in silver regalia, and was covered in
silver gilt, but this precious metal was stolen in 1546.
Eleanor of Castle, first wife of Edward I, lies beside the
Chapel. Her body was carried to Westminster from Lincoln, a memorial
cross being erected at each place where the funeral procession rested.
Beside her lies Henry III, responsible for the rebuilding of
the Abbey, in a tomb of Purbeck marble. Next to his tomb is that of
Edward I. Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, Edward III and Philippa of
Hainnault, and Catherine de Valois, Henry Y’s Queen, also lie in this
THE SOUTH TRANSEPT is lit by a large rose window, with glass dating
from 1902. Beneath it, in the angles above the right and left arches,
are two of the finest carvings in the Abbey, depicting sensing angels.
In addition to the many monuments there are two fine late
thirteen-century wall-paintings, uncovered in 1936, to be seen by the
door leading into St Faith’s Chapel. They depict Christ showing his
wounds to Doubting Thomas, and St Christopher. Beside the south wall
rises the dormer staircase, once used by the monks going from their
dormitory to the Choir for their night offices.
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