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 Abbey.
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 recent years. 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 glided.
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 mid-nineteenth century. 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 misericords. 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 chapel.
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.
One of the most well-known parts of Westminster Abbey, Poet’s Corner can be found in the south Transept. It was not originally designated as the burial place of writers, playwrights and poets; the first poet to be buried here, Geoffrey Chaucer, was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey because he had been Clerk of Works to the Palace of Westminster, not because he had written the Canterbury Tales. However, the inscription over his grave, placed there by William Caxton - the famous printer whose press was just beyond the transept wall - mentioned that he was a poet. Over 150 years later, during the flowering of English literature in the sixteenth century, a more magnificent tomb was erected to Chaucer by Nicholas Brigham and in 1599 Edmund Spencer was laid to rest nearby. These two tombs began a tradition which developed over succeeding centuries. Burial or commemoration in the abbey did not always occur at or soon after the time of death - many of those whose monuments now stand here had to wait a number of years for recognition; Byron, for example, whose lifestyle caused a scandal although his poetry was much admired, died in 1824 but was finally given a memorial only in 1969. Even Shakespeare, buried at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1616, had to wait until 1740 before a monument, designed by William Kent, appeared in Poet’s Corner. Other poets and writers, well-known in their own day, have now vanished into obscurity, with only their monuments to show that they were once famous. Conversely, many whose writings are still appreciated today have never been memorialised in Poet’s Corner, although the reason may not always be clear. Therefore a resting place or memorial in Poet’s Corner should perhaps not be seen as a final statement of a writer or poet’s literary worth, but more as a reflection of their public standing at the time of death - or as an indication of the fickleness of Fate. Some of the most famous to lie here, in addition to those detailed on the next two pages include BenJonson, John Dryden, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and John Masefield, among the poets, and William Camden, Dr Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy among the writers. Charles Dickens’s grave attracts particular interest. As a writer who drew attention to the hardships born by the socially deprived and who advocated the abolition of the slave trade, he won enduring fame and gratitude and today, more than 110 years later, a wreath is still laid on his tomb on the anniversary of his death each year. Those who have memorials here, although they are buried elsewhere, include among the poets John Milton, William Wordworth, Thomas Gray, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Burns, William Blake, T.S. Eliot and among the writers Samuel Butler, Jane Austen, Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Walter Scott, John Ruskin, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte and Henry James. By no means all those buried in the South Transept are poets or writers, however. Several of Westminster’s former Deans, Archdeacons, Prebendaries and Canons lie here, as do John Keble, the historian Lord Macaulay, actors David Garrick, Sir Henry Irving and Mrs Hannah Pritchard, and, among many others, Thomas Parr, who was said to be 152 years of age when he died in 1635, having seen ten sovereigns on the throne during his long life.
Coronation have taken place at Westminster since at least 1066, when William the Conqueror arrived in London after his victory at the battle of Hastings. Whether or not Harold, his predecessor as monarch, had been crowned in Edward the Confessor’s Abbey is uncertain - coronations do not seem to have had a fixed location before 1066, though several monarchs were crowned at Kingston-upon-Thames, where the King’s Stone still exists - but William was determined to reinforce his victory, which gave him the right to rule by conquest, with the sacred hallowing of his sovereignty which the coronation ceremony would give him. He was crowned in the old Abbey - then recently completed and housing Edward the Confessor’s body- on Christmas Day 1066. The service to-day has four parts: first comes the Introduction ,consisting of: the entry of the Sovereign into the Abbey; the formal recognition of the right of the Sovereign to rule - when the Archbishop presents the Sovereign to the congregation and asks them if they agree to the service proceeding, and they respond with an assent; the oath, when the Sovereign promises to respect and govern in accordance with the lows of his or her subjects and to uphold the Protestant reformed Church of England and Scotland; and the presentation of the Bible to the Sovereign, to be relied on as the source of all wisdom and low. Secondly, the Sovereign is anointed with holy oil, seated on the Coronation Chair. Thirdly, the Sovereign is invested with the royal robes and insignia, then crowned with St Edward’s crown. The final ceremony consists of the enthronement of the Sovereign on a throne placed on a raised platform, bringing him or her into full view of the assembled company for the first time, and there he or she receives the homage of the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the congregation, representing the people of the realm. The service has changed little - English replaced Latin as the main language used during the ceremony following Elizabeth Ist coronation, and from 1689 onwards the coronation ceremony has been set within a service of Holy Communion although indeed this was a return to ancient custom rather than the creation of a new precedent). Coronations have not always followed an identical pattern. Edward YI, for example, was crowned no less than three times, with three different crowns placed in turn upon his head; while at Charles I’s coronation there was a misunderstanding and, instead of the congregational assent following the Recognition Question, there was dead silence, the congregation having finally to be told to respond - an ill omen for the future, as it turned out. Charles II’s coronation, following on the greyness of the puritan Commonwealth, was a scene of brilliant colour and great splendour. As the old regalia had been destroyed, replacements were made for the ceremony, and the clergy were robed in rich red copes - the same copes are still used in the Abbey George IY saw his coronation as an opportunity for a great theatrical spectacle and spent vast sums of money on it. He wore an auburn wig with ringlets, with a huge plumed hat on top, and designed his own robes for the procession into the Abbey. After the coronation, because Queen Caroline had been forcibly excluded from the ceremony, the crowds in the streets were extremely hostile to him and he had to return to Carlton House by an alternative route. In complete contrast, William IY took a lot of persuading before he would agree to have a coronation at all, and the least possible amount of money was spent no it - giving it the name the «penny coronation». Despite his dislike of extravagant show and ceremony, he still brought a slightly theatrical touch to the scene by living up to his nickname of the «sailor king» and appearing , when disrobed for the Anointing, in the full-dress uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet. The last three coronations have demonstrated continuing respect for the religious significance of the ceremony and recognition of the importance of such a public declaration by Sovereign of his or her personal dedication to the service of the people. At the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 , for the first time the service was televised and millions of her subjects could see and hear the ceremony taking place. It is possible that few watching realised just how far back into history the roots of that historic ceremony starched, and how little fundamental change had occurred over the centuries.
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