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.