Westminster Abbey is one of the most famous religious buildings in the world, and it has served an important role in British political, social and cultural affairs for more than 1,000 years. In spite of its name, the facility is no longer an abbey, and while it still hosts important religious activities, it no longer houses monks or nuns. Westminster Abbey has been the site of royal coronations since 1066, and has been a working facility for religious services since the 10th century.
‘West-Minster’ Versus ‘East-Minster’
Benedictine monks first built a house of worship in or around 960 A.D. on the banks of the River Thames, the river that bisects the city of London, in an area that was then known as Thorny Island.
In 1040, King Edward I, who later became known as St. Edward the Confessor, built his royal palace on a nearby tract of land. A religious monarch, Edward I decided to endow and expand the monastery.
He commissioned the construction of a large, Romanesque-style stone church in honor of St. Peter the Apostle. Twenty-five years later, in December, 1065, the new church was completed, although Edward I was too ill to attend the dedication ceremony and died a few days later.
The new church, St. Peter’s Cathedral, became known as the “West-minster” to distinguish it from St. Paul’s Cathedral, another notable London church that was called the “East-minster.”
The ‘New’ Westminster Abbey
The original Westminster Abbey survived for nearly two centuries—until the middle of the 1200s, when the monarch of the time, King Henry III, decided to rebuild it in the gothic style popular in that era. Still, pieces of Edward I’s design remain, including the round arches and the supporting columns of the undercroft, or the original monks’ quarters.
With new and notable churches being built across Europe—including Chartres Cathedral in France and, closer to home, Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England—King Henry III wanted to construct a church fit for the coronation and burial of monarchs.
The “new” cathedral was dedicated on October 13, 1269, and this structure, albeit with some modifications, remains in place today.
Every monarch since William the Conqueror—except for Edward V and Edward VIII, who were never crowned—had a coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey. In all, 39 monarchs have been crowned in the church.
Royal Interments and Memorials
Under the orders of King Henry III, Edward I’s remains were removed from a tomb in front of the high altar of the old church into a more impressive tomb behind the high altar in the new one.
In the centuries since, multiple royals have been laid to rest nearby, including Henry III, Edward III, Richard II and Henry V. In all, the church has more than 600 wall tablets and monuments, and more than 3,000 people have been buried there.
In addition to royals, Westminster Abbey has a famed Poets’ Corner, which includes burial crypts and memorials for legendary writers and artists including Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, William Shakespeare, W. H. Auden, Jane Austen, Laurence Olivier, Lewis Carroll, T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas, Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily and Anne).
Notable additions to the original structure include the “Lady Chapel,” which was built in 1516 and has since been renamed in honor of King Henry VII, who was interred there. Architect Nicholas Harkmoor oversaw the completion of the western towers, which had been unfinished since the 1200s. The towers were dedicated in 1745.
A ‘Royal Peculiar’
Westminster Abbey stopped serving as a monastery in 1559, at roughly the same time it became an Anglican church (part of the Church of England) and formally left the Catholic hierarchy.
In 1560, the church was granted “Royal Peculiar” status. This designation essentially means that it belongs to the ruling monarch, and is not governed by any diocese of the Church of England.
Since it received the Royal Peculiar designation, Westminster Abbey’s official name has been the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster.
Westminster Abbey Today
In addition to serving as a site for royal coronations and burials, Westminster Abbey has famously been the location for 17 royal weddings—including the 2011 marriage of Prince William to Catherine Middleton.
That ceremony, as with the wedding of William’s parents, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, was watched by millions of people around the world.
Tourists flock to marvel at Westminster Abbey’s gothic design, including its fan-vaulted ceilings and the magnificent pipe organ, installed for the coronation of King George VI in 1937. The organ contains some of the original piping of its predecessor instrument, which was built in 1848.
There is also the Grave to the Unknown Warrior. This tomb contains the body of an unidentified soldier who lost his life in World War I and was laid to rest in 1920. In Britain, the Grave remains a symbol honoring those who have lost their lives fighting for their country.
The last coronation performed at Westminster Abbey was that of Queen Elizabeth II, the present monarch, in 1953. The church is also known as the site of the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997.
Despite its role as tourist attraction and site of important ceremonies, Westminster Abbey is also still a working house of worship. The building hosts regular weekly church services every Sunday, as well as during religious holidays.