Westminster Abbey or, correctly, St. Peter’s Church in Westminster is a large Catholic church complex in central London that serves both a ceremonial function and a popular historical attraction.
The history of the church goes back more than 1,000 years, and it was used as a royal tomb and a place for coronations and marriages of monarchs – a role it retains to this day. Moreover, the abbey can be visited by anyone who wishes, either for a guided tour of the site or to attend church services. But recently the balance has shifted very much in the direction of attracting tourists, so that today Westminster Abbey is first of all a tourist attraction and only then a Catholic church.
The historical role of London Abbey is difficult to overestimate, as practically since the beginning of its millennial history all English and then British monarchs were crowned here.
Founding and early history
The official date of construction of the temple is considered to be 960, but it could have been built later, though no later than the 970s. The founder was Bishop Dunstan, a close associate of King Edgar, who granted the abbey to the Benedictine monks. A number of researchers think that church on this place existed since VII century, but in 960 it was only enlarged or rebuilt.
There is also an ecclesiastical legend that on this spot a young fisherman had a vision of St. Peter, which was the reason for founding the church. This version was widely used, as London fishermen brought rich gifts to Westminster Abbey. It has now remained as a tradition, with the Abbey receiving a gift of salmon every year.
Westminster Abbey received its important role in the life of the rulers in 1042, when Edward the Confessor ordered to establish a church for his own future burial and worship. The abbey building, which was in close proximity to the Palace of Westminster, where the king was then living, was taken as the basis.
A new church building was not completed until 1090, but Edward was buried in an already consecrated unfinished abbey in 1065. It is not known exactly, but it is likely that Harold II had already been crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1066. But it is absolutely certain that the tradition of receiving the English crown in Westminster Abbey was founded by William I the Conqueror, who, after defeating Harold, sat on the throne that same year, 1066.
The Abbey in the Middle Ages
Since William all future monarchs were crowned in Westminster Abbey, but they were buried elsewhere. Thus, only the graves of Edward the Confessor and his wife were in the church, and the place itself became an iconic place, as this king was canonized for his services to the Catholic Church and pilgrims flocked to his grave.
This is the image of Westminster Abbey on the Bayeux tapestry
The original “Edward Abbey” has not survived, we only know its schematic appearance, which is on the famous Bayeux tapestry. And the new church building was laid in 1245 by Henry III, who wanted to be buried in it. The renovated building became the basis for the further expansion of Westminster Abbey, and parts of it have survived to this day.
Meanwhile, the monks from the abbey, which was so owned by the Benedictines, were actively involved in the secular life of London, and many abbots served directly in the royal service in various capacities.
But the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey only began in 1245, then, stretching over several centuries, was officially completed only in 1517, although most of the work was completed in the fourteenth century in the reign of Richard II. Toward the end of construction, in 1503, the building now known as the “Lady Chapel” was also erected.
During the Middle Ages, several royal weddings were also held in this abbey. For example, Henry I married here in 1100 and Richard II in 1382. But it was not until the twentieth century that this church became the main church for weddings of members of the royal family. The last wedding many remember, it was the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, which took place on April 29, 2011.
Times of Trouble in the Renaissance
The Abbey was very profitable in the sixteenth century, but by the middle of the century problems began. First, under Henry VIII a persecution of the Anglican Church began, but he decreed to preserve the abbey by giving it the status of a cathedral. Secondly, after this, in the 50s of the XVI century, the money received by the abbey, were sent to the treasury of the Cathedral of St. Paul, which led to a certain decline of the church.
Also in the 16th century, not only aristocrats but also poets began to be buried here. Although the first person to be buried in the abbey building was Chaucer back in 1400, Spenser was next in 1599. And today Westminster Abbey holds the ashes of more than three thousand people, including public figures, writers, scholars, royalty, aristocrats, and politicians.
In the following years of that century, the status of the abbey changed. Mary I restored the Benedictine monastery, but soon afterwards Elizabeth I reassigned it to the status of church, which is directly subordinate to the monarch. This status is now retained for Westminster Abbey. The church also suffered in the 17th century, when it was attacked by iconoclasts. But then royal intervention allowed to protect the abbey from destruction and looting.
View of the west façade before the towers were built and the general view of the abbey
In the 18th century, the architectural appearance of Westminster Abbey changed and between 1722 and 1745 two Neo-Gothic towers were added, which today dominate and define the appearance of the church building.
The Abbey in the nineteenth century to the present day
Westminster Abbey was no longer seriously altered during the nineteenth century, but restoration and renovation work was carried out. Then another restoration took place in the twentieth century after the end of World War II – the church was damaged during the German bombing raids. Also in the twentieth century, Westminster Abbey became not only a coronation site, but also the main church for the wedding of monarchs, although before that it was only third on the list.
Coronation ceremony of Elizabeth II in 1953
Nowadays the abbey operates as a church, services are held every day, and parishioners can talk to the priest. But in parallel there are also regular guided tours for individual tourists and organized groups.
In 2009, the first major redevelopment plan in 250 years was proposed, but after a year of exploration it was abandoned. In 2012, work was completed on a 14th-century room that the monks used as a grocery store – now a restaurant. The main project waiting for visitors in the near future is the Diamond Royal Jubilee Gallery, which will open in 2018. It will be an exhibition of the abbey’s treasures and will be housed in the triforium, the gallery above the nave arches that has been closed to the public all the time the church has existed.
Attractions of Westminster Abbey
General plan of the church and adjacent buildings at Westminster Abbey
Many people, even those who have not been to London, know what the Abbey looks like. Usually the west side with its two large Gothic towers is memorable. But, in fact, it’s not even the main entrance to the church, but the complex itself consists of several objects.
The church building
The cathedral, or rather the abbey church, is built in the shape of a cross and has two entrances: the west and the north. Entering through the west door, the visitor to the abbey enters the central part, which is called the nave, it was completed in 1517, although laid long before the date of the end of construction. The nave is 31 meters high, making it the largest in England. The nave is bounded by columns that form arches, above them is the triforium, which is now closed to visitors, but will open for the first time in 2018 with an exhibition of treasures. Here is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in honor of those who died in World War I, as well as the Scroll of Honor in honor of civilians who died in World War II. The memorable part of the nave of Westminster Abbey is the stained glass west window.
The nave is followed by the part of the church where the church choir and organ are located. The choir has been located in this part of the abbey for a long time, but it has been rebuilt several times, most recently in the mid-19th century during the Victorian era.
Farther away, beyond the choir, is the main altar of Westminster Abbey Church. It was created in 1867, and the statues of the older altar are now in the park. Here are the seats of the priests, the altar itself and the images above it, and the door to St. Edward’s Chapel, where his ashes rest.
General view of the nave (left), choir and central altar (right)
In front of the chancel is an ancient marble floor with expensive inlays, dating from the mid-13th century, most recently restored and preserved.
At the end of the main building is the chapel of Edward the Confessor, the king who was canonized by the Catholic Church. In fact, inside the nave of the abbey is another small church, which used to be very richly decorated, but it was dismantled in the 16th century. It was then rebuilt, even using the original materials kept by the monks, but the decorations and elements with beautiful carvings were taken away when it was dismantled. Today it contains the ashes of the king, to which pilgrims have been coming for centuries to read prayers for their own health or the recovery of loved ones, their knees left notable indentations on the slab at the altar.
In Edward’s Chapel is the coronation throne on which all British monarchs assume their rights. It is available for inspection by tourists.
Further inside the building is the so-called Lady Chapel, added in 1503-1517 by Henry VII. It is distinguished by its unusual and original style of late English architecture. It contains the graves of the King and his wife, Elizabeth of York, statues of saints, and the chapel of the Royal Air Force.
A photo with a general view of the Lady Chapel (Henry VII)
Flanking the chancel are the North and South transepts. The North has one of the two entrances, now considered the main entrance – tourists and parishioners enter the church through it. Also here is the so-called “scientists’ corner”, where the ashes of Newton, Darwin and other scientists who contributed to science are buried. In the South is the famous “poets’ corner,” where the graves and monuments of many English literati are located.
The first poet to be buried in Westminster Abbey was Chaucer. But he was not buried here as a writer, but as a clerk and clerk of the Palace of Westminster. Almost 200 years later, during the Renaissance and the heyday of literature, Spenser was buried in the abbey, and a monument was erected to Chaucer. This was the beginning of the tradition of burying famous writers in the church.
Further on from the abbey church you can go to other buildings that are not part of the church itself, but which are part of the general complex and are included in the tour itinerary.
A square of four galleries, also called cloisters, adjoins the south wall of the church. Today they look like open galleries, but in the past they were used for monks’ lives: the galleries were glazed and heated. The monks studied, ate, prayed and even washed their clothes in them.
View of the cloister inside and out (including the courtyard)
The galleries provide access to other buildings including the museum, the Chapter House, etc. They also form a large courtyard-garden of the abbey.
The East Cloister provides access to an octagonal building known as the Chapter House or Chapter House. It was built in the thirteenth century for the needs of the monks, who met there daily for prayer and “planning”. Then English parliamentarians gathered here, and then the archive was located.
The building is in the form of an octagon with a high ceiling supported by thin columns in the center of the hall. The floor is decorated with preserved original slabs, also the building is believed to be the oldest door in Britain, which was made in 1050.
Interior of the Chapter House
Next to Chapter House is a small building built in the eleventh century. Presumably it was part of the crypt, which was then separated from the cloister. The room was used as a sacristy, and then samples of minted coins were stored there.
They were needed for an important procedure called Pyx (which can be translated as “punching”). This procedure has been carried out once a year since 1282, the essence of which is to check minted coins for size and quality of silver. The head of the Mint is required to select a random proportion of minted coins, which, until recently, were sent to this room in Westminster Abbey.
This former cellar held samples of coins
A similar room next door to the Pyx chamber was also part of the crypt, but today is converted into a small museum of Westminster Abbey. It tells the history of the abbey and has many historical exhibits: statues, frescoes, death masks and so on.
There are also three gardens as part of Westminster Abbey. The largest is in the courtyard, which is enclosed by large cloisters. The monks used it for rest and contemplation, it had no practical function.
The smallest garden belonged to the infirmary, where fruit, vegetables and medicinal herbs were grown. This one itself is also fenced with so-called “little cloisters”.
Westminster Abbey’s most famous garden, College Garden.
Nearby is the third and most famous garden of the abbey, the College Garden. It is more than 900 years old and now, besides the trees planted in the 19th century, you can see statues from the old chancel and a fountain installed in 2002.
Westminster Abbey has a full-fledged café, partly located in a 14th century room that was used by monks to store food. There is also a summer terrace.
The café is ordinary, without any ecclesiastical flavor. Visitors are offered British breakfasts, lunches and afternoons, burgers, and also sell alcohol – wine, beer, cocktails.
St. Mary’s Church (Margaret)
An ordinary Catholic church located near the abbey. It was built because only monks, kings, etc. were allowed into the abbey itself, and for the needs of the ordinary London population the adjacent church functioned, which has not changed much in its original appearance of the XI-XII centuries.
St Margaret’s Chapel (Church)
Where is Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey’s popularity among tourists was also influenced by its very convenient location in the center of historic London. The Abbey is located very close to the Palace of Westminster (Parliament), only 200 meters from Big Ben Tower to the west entrance.
There are many other famous attractions within walking distance: Ferris wheel (700 meters), Buckingham Palace (900 meters), Hyde Park (1.5 km).
9:30-15:30 is the standard opening time of St Margaret’s Abbey and Church for tourists. However, other parts of the complex (cafes, Chapters House, cloisters) may operate on a different schedule and usually close later.
Westminster Abbey is closed for tourist visits on Sundays. Also, opening hours may change depending on visits of officials, festive services, etc. It is best to plan your trip in advance by checking the official website.
Daily services are held in the abbey church.
- 7:30 am – morning service;
- 8:00 – communion;
- 12:30 – communion;
- 17:00 – evening prayer and choir.
- 8:00 – communion;
- 10:00 – morning prayer and choir;
- 11:15 – liturgy;
- 3:00 p.m. – evening prayer;
- 5:45 p.m. – organ;
- 6:30 pm – evening service.
*Service schedules are subject to change on certain church holidays or other circumstances.
Not church services admission is free, no need to book a seat, but in the church of the abbey is placed a limited number of people, it is recommended to come in advance.
Dress code and rules of conduct
Westminster Abbey does not require a strict dress code, but as it is a functioning church, visitors are encouraged to come in modest clothing and inside the Abbey to remove their hats.
Children are allowed to visit the abbey and a special children’s guide has been created for them, and they can try on the monk’s clothes in the museum. But it is not recommended to take children of preschool age to Westminster Abbey.
Inside the abbey church any kind of photography is forbidden and cell phones must be turned off. In the cloisters, museum, gardens, etc., you may take pictures for personal use and talk on the phone.
Westminster Abbey – the ancient church of St. Peter’s in London
Westminster Abbey is the name of the current church of St. Peter’s in the historic center of London. The full name of the city’s largest cathedral is St. Peter’s Collegiate Church of Westminster. The unrivaled beauty of the religious complex is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Britain’s main church
Popular landmark of the Kingdom, an example of early Gothic architecture and a symbol of the British nation. Coronations, weddings and funerals of royalty are held here.
A temple steeped in British history
The peculiarity of the building is that it is closely connected with the life of English royal families: 38 monarchs were crowned here. In and around the building there are 3,300 burials and hundreds of busts of scientists, politicians and economic figures.
Westminster Abbey has become a pantheon where the nation honors its heroes and great men:
- Robert Burns was a Scottish poet and folklorist whose famous quote reads, “A king can make his subject a knight, a marquis, a duke, and a prince, but not even a king can make him an honest man.”
- Martin Luther King (Jr.) – American Baptist preacher, leader of the black civil rights movement in the United States.
- Charles Darwin – British naturalist, author of the theory of evolution and founder of the doctrine of “Darwinism.
- Edmund Spencer – English aristocrat, politician and military man, father of Diana, Princess of Wales.
- Henry Irving – English theatrical actor, performer of tragic roles.
- Rudyard Kipling – English writer, the first Englishman to win the Nobel Prize.
- Walter Scott – Scottish poet and novelist, historian and lawyer, founder of the historical novel.
- Jane Austen – English writer, satirist.
- Oscar Wilde – Irish writer and poet, considered the wittiest Briton.
- William Shakespeare – British poet and playwright, actor, national pride of England.
- Isaac Newton – mathematician and physicist, astronomer and mechanic who formulated the law of universal gravitation.
- John Moses Browning, designer of firearms.
- Israel Amyot – Jewish poet and novelist who wrote poems in Hebrew.
Interesting! All the rulers of England and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, the older sister of Nicholas II’s wife, also found rest here.
The creation of St. Peter’s cathedral
The church of St. Peter was born long and not easy. With great interruptions the building was built for 500 years (1242 – 1745 years). In ancient times on the left bank of the Thames, where St. Peter’s Cathedral stands, there was a pagan temple.
In the VII century there appeared a building called Westminster – that is, the “Western Church”. The wooden structure sometimes disappeared in turbulent times, then was rebuilt again.
In the early XI century, after another destruction, King Edward the Confessor erected a stone building in the form of a cross. The kings took a liking to the temple and “took patronage” over it. The abbey received generous donations and privileges.
In 1065, the monastery became the coronation seat of the English rulers. The first person to be crowned here was Harold II.
The initiator of the great rebuilding of the cathedral was Henry III. The king ordered the construction of a building in the Gothic style, worthy of monarchs, which would be a place for services, coronations and burials of monarchs. So in 1245 the modern cathedral of London was founded.
Interesting! The church spent most of its life in a state of reconstruction, the complex changed, and in 1512, with the creation of the tomb of Henry VII, the work of the architects ended.
The area of the church is 7000 square meters, the capacity is 2000 people.
The building was designed in the form of a cross, to which the side galleries and chapels were added. The external appearance is completed by two towers 68 meters high. Between them there are four statues symbolizing Law, Truth, Peace and Mercy. Above are ten niches with figures of Christian martyrs of the XX century.
The architecture of St. Peter’s Church has no solemn and richly decorated portals; there are no sculptures on the facade of the building. The facade is decorated with lancet arches and exquisite stone carvings that form a lacy grid with large rectangular cells on the surface of the walls.
The end walls of the northern and southern aisles have large round rose windows decorated with a beautiful stone binding. The main entrance is on the northern side.
From the south the building is adjoined by ancient monastic constructions and grouped around a square yard, enclosed by open arched galleries.
The galleries, laid out of light stone, with projecting dark ribs of lancet arches, are very picturesque. The graceful stone bindings of the arched spans are as if silvered by frost, so airy and light.
The interior of the cathedral is stunning. Inside there is space and light pouring in through the huge windows. Above the head is a magnificent tent, formed by the huge height of the ribs of the vaults.
The Hall of the Chapter
At the eastern part of the gallery one can see the entrance to the hall of the Chapter, arranged in a shape of a polyhedron. This was the name of the room where the monks would gather. The huge, full-wall lancet windows, framed in thin marble columns, are filled with bright stained glass.
The mosaic floor, 800 years old, is lined with tiles. Since 1282 the House of Commons sat here. In the underground is the royal treasury.
The eastern part is occupied by tombstones and sarcophagi. Here is the monumental tomb of King Edward the Confessor. The base of the tomb is dressed with mosaics of smalt, in the upper part decorated with gold – a sarcophagus with a two-tier arcade with pilasters.
Further on – the tombstones of English kings and queens, the English nobility. On the monumental sarcophagi lie gilded figures, executed in bronze, which immortalize the dead.
Above the sarcophagi are high stone baldachins, pointed arches, turrets and niches with sculptures – all richly decorated with carvings of plant ornamentation.
Henry VII Chapel
The peculiarity of the chapel, created in the 16th century, is the giant windows with a pattern of vertical and horizontal lines and tracery vaults 20 meters high. A forest of stone leaves and flowers covers the turrets above the supporting pillars, the carved thrust arches turn the surface into a solid lace of stone. Around the perimeter of the building are sculptures and paintings .
The openwork bindings of the windows are so light that the line between the windows and the wall is blurred. The main advantage of the chapel is the fan vaults with pendants: it seems that huge stone stalactites are hanging in the air, in defiance of the laws of physics.
There are stone patterns on the walls. On the sarcophagi of King Henry and his wife is an image of a crown lying in the grass. The crown belonged to Richard III, whose battle Henry won. He picked up the abandoned crown and was crowned here, on the blood-stained battlefield.
The central nave and chancel
The central nave of Westminster Abbey is the tallest in England at 31 meters. In the west window are stained glass windows depicting Isaac, Abraham, Jacob and the 14 prophets. Decorating the nave are crystal chandeliers.
Interesting! In 1990 a memorial stone was laid here to honor the innocent victims of repression, violence and war.
The altar, built in 1867, is made of marble, terracotta and bronze. The main decoration of the altar is a mosaic on the theme of the Last Supper. The floor of the altar is made of 30,000 tiles of limestone, onyx, glass and porphyry.
Coronation ceremonies for monarchs ascending the English throne were held on the grounds of the abbey.
On the day of the coronation ceremonies, Westminster Abbey is transformed. Along the length of the cathedral, covering the statues, are rows of ornate boxes. The coronation procedure is performed in front of the altar.
An ancient wooden throne with gilding and painting, made in the fourteenth century, is placed on the elevation. At the bottom of the coronation chair there is a stone from Scone, an incredibly valuable item for Britain.
This seemingly insignificant reddish piece of sandstone was brought to London in 1296 by King Edward as a trophy after his conquest of Scotland. The trophy, a symbol of victory that served as the headstone of the patriarch James, the English called the Stone of Destiny. The last time Queen Elizabeth II visited the coronation chair was in 1953.
The Abbey Garden
Not far from the abbey is a garden laid out 900 years ago. Herbs grew here. Vegetables and fruits. Since 1849, there are long-lived trees, sycamore trees.
In the garden are statues of saints, a Crucifix sculpture and a fountain. Westminster Abbey’s tower clock is the oldest tower clock in the world.