Since the coronation of William the Conqueror in 1066, British monarchs have been crowned in Westminster Abbey, barring two: Edward V (murdered) and Edward VIII (abdicated). The throne – King Edward’s Chair – is housed in the abbey’s St George’s Chapel ready for the next coronation. But why here at Westminster?
Westminster Abbey is a Royal Peculiar, meaning it doesn’t come under the authority of the Church of England and its archbishops, but directly under the Queen. Technically it is neither an abbey or a cathedral, although it has been both in the past. Westminster Abbey’s origins began in the 960s when Saint Dunstan installed a community of Benedictines by the river Thames in what is now the City of Westminster (the City of London is actually next door and has its own cathedral, St Paul’s). The site was chosen because young fisherman saw a vision of St Peter nearby. Every year the Thames fishermen present a gift of salmon the Abbey. The Fisherman’s Company still do.
Edward the Confessor between 1042 and 1052 rebuilt the abbey church to provide himself with a royal burial site. He died a week after it’s consecration in 1065 and was buried there while the building work was still incomplete. Neither this, nor the earlier Saxon one are the Abbey you see today – this one was built in 1245 by Henry III who was a follower of the cult of the Confessor. He built the abbey in a Gothic style including the unique Cosmati pavement in front of the high altar.
Henry VIII assumed royal control of the abbey following the Dissolution and gave it the status of a cathedral. By doing this, Henry presented the abbey a get out clause from the destruction vented on monasteries and abbeys.
Heard of the expression ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’? This comes from the fact that money meant for the abbey (St Peter’s) was given to St Paul’s treasury when Westminster Abbey became part of the diocese of London.
Mary I, a Catholic, returned the abbey back to the Benedictines, who in turn were ejected by Elizabeth I in 1559. It was Elizabeth who solved the problem of the abbey’s future by granting it the status of Royal Peculiar and making it the Collegiate Church of St Peter – a non-cathedral church with canons and deans, not a bishop.
During the Civil War it was threatened by Puritans, who disliked religious icons and there were plenty in the abbey, but the church was too important to suffer greatly. Oliver Cromwell, the Protector of the Realm, was given a funeral and buried there. Charles II during the restoration of the monarchy, dug him up and hanged his body from a gibbet in Tyburn as a traitor.
Being buried or given a memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey is a significant achievement – there are 3000 plus of them. Most of the Plantagenent kings, Tudors and Stuarts are buried there, but after George II, the practice stopped when monarchs were buried at Windsor Castle. Aristocrats didn’t want to be left out and they were buried in the chapels, while monks and other people associated with abbey, such as Chaucer, who was employed by the abbey as Master of the King’s Works, were buried in the cloisters. The memorials to the poets, writers and musicians gathered in the abbey is known as Poet’s Corner. It looks a little cluttered!
The most important ceremony conducted in the abbey is the coronation. When the Queen was crowned, she sat upon Edward’s Seat and underneath it was the Coronation Stone or Stone of Scone. This red sandstone block was kept in the abbey beneath the throne from 1301 to 1996, apart for a brief time when it was stolen in 1950 by Scottish nationalists. The stone came from Scotland, where it was used in the coronation of Scottish kings, and was captured by Edward I and brought to England. There it remained even after James VI of Scotland became King of England. It was eventually returned in 1996 to Edinburgh Castle and will be brought down specifically for the next coronation.
The last coronation happened in 1953 – long before I was born – and was the first to be broadcast live on television in colour. The pageantry and rituals of initiation remain unchanged. The Queen, bearing the weight of a heavy crown and all the responsibilities of the monarch, looks especially young. Since that day, her children and grandchildren have been married in the abbey, the last being the Duke of Cambridge.
The abbey has to balance its role as a historic church, a place of worship, and hoards of tourists visiting everyday. It’s quite a tall order for so old a building.
The abbey has the first symbolic tomb of the unknown soldier. Buried on 11/11/1920 having been exhumed from the battlefield in France.