Westminster Abbey’s long history can be traced back to the community of Benedictine monks established here c. 960 by Dunstan, bishop of London. Almost a century later King Edward established a palace close to this community and built for it a new church, dedicated to St Peter. It was consecrated on 28 December 1065 and when King Edward died a few days later he was buried in front of its high altar. When William the Conqueror arrived in London after the Battle of Hastings he chose to be crowned in the Abbey (on 25 December 1066) and it has been the coronation church ever since.
The monastery flourished. Royal patronage, extensive lands and the presence of the shrine of St Edward the Confessor (King Edward had been canonised in 1161) made it a wealthy and influential religious house. In 1245 King Henry III resolved to build a new abbey church, modelled on French Gothic cathedrals such as Reims and Amiens. By October 1269 the choir, transepts and eastern section were complete, and St Edward’s body was translated to a magnificent new shrine, where it remains to this day. Henry III’s own tomb was subsequently placed near by and the Abbey became the principal place of royal burial until the eighteenth century.
Building work continued at the end of the fourteenth century but in the earlier architectural style, thus giving the church a remarkable unity of design even though the very west end of the nave was not finally vaulted until the early 1500s. By then the construction of the new Lady Chapel of King Henry VII was also well advanced at the east end. This chapel, one of the architectural glories of the Abbey, became the chapel of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath in 1725. An early procession of the Knights of the Order was painted by Canaletto and provides one of the first views of the west towers which were finally completed in 1745.
Preserving the physical structure of this great church and its precincts has always been a challenging task. In the second half of the twentieth century the removal of centuries of dirt both inside and outside the church revealed its full beauty to many people for the first time. The restoration of the exterior (completed in 1995) was made possible by the Westminster Abbey Trust which, under the chairmanship of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, raised more than £25 million to fund the work, but important works of maintenance and repair continue.
The Benedictine monastery at Westminster was dissolved in 1540. Most of the liturgical furnishings were removed, but the Abbey’s status as a coronation church and a royal mausoleum probably protected it from more extreme vandalism at this time. For ten years the Abbey became a cathedral, and then under Mary I the monastery was briefly revived. Mary’s successor, Elizabeth I, established the Abbey as ‘the Collegiate Church of St Peter’, outside the jurisdictions of the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury but instead a ‘Royal Peculiar’, with the Sovereign as its Visitor. The new foundation consisted of a dean and prebendaries (later known as canons), minor canons and additional lay officers. It was charged with two main duties: to continue daily worship (for which an organist, choristers and singing men was provided) and to maintain a school for the education of forty scholars. Both activities continue today, though Westminster School is now greatly enlarged and independently governed. The Abbey’s own choristers are educated at Westminster Abbey Choir School.
In the later sixteenth century the apsidal chapels, stripped of their medieval altars and furnishings, began to fill with tombs and monuments. Edmund Spenser’s burial close to Geoffrey Chaucer’s tomb in the south transept initiated what later became known as Poets’ Corner, and over time large numbers of monuments were also erected in the transepts and the nave. Today, with over 600 such memorials, the Abbey houses the most important single collection of monumental sculpture in the country.
The reform movements of the nineteenth century touched the Abbey in two significant ways: in 1868 Westminster School became independent of the Dean and Chapter’s control, and at about the same time the Dean and Chapter was required to hand over its extensive estates to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The latter change had significant financial consequences for the Abbey which receives no funding from the Church or the State. The Dean of Westminster at this time, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, brought new vigour to the Abbey’s life and wrote extensively about its history. He gave permission for the burial of figures such as Dickens, Livingstone and Darwin, and did much to establish a unique place for the Abbey in the nation’s life. This sense of the Abbey’s national role was reinforced in the early twentieth century by the burial here of the Unknown Warrior in 1920 and continues to be evident in the many special services held each year to mark national events or to commemorate significant anniversaries.