As one of the most recognized buildings in Europe, and one of the most recognized religious buildings in the world, (BBC) Westminster Abbey sees great amounts of attention. However, to the country of England, and to its peoples, it is far more than a finely crafted building – even more than a house of worship. For the United Kingdom, Westminster Abbey is a landmark that symbolizes nearly one thousand years of royal history, great human achievement and a testimony to the lasting presence of the British crown. Westminster Abbey is the home of:
[…] the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, the tombs of kings and queens, and countless memorials to the famous and the great. It has been the setting for every Coronation since 1066 and for numerous other royal occasions. Today it is still a church dedicated to regular worship and to the celebration of great events in the life of the nation. Neither a cathedral nor a parish church, Westminster Abbey is a “Royal Peculiar” under the jurisdiction of a Dean and Chapter, subject only to the Sovereign. (Dean and Chapter of Westminster)
The religious history of the area that is now home to the Westminster Abbey predates the abbey itself. Before the abbey was built, the site was home to one of the first Christian churches in England. According to the New Advent, the Catholic encyclopedia, as early as 616 AD, there was a church on the same grounds as the current abbey. Previous to the building of the abbey, the sit was home to a Benedictine monastery for several hundred years. Even though Christianity itself, only landed on England’s shores in 596 AD, there has been some religious service performed on the land which would become Westminster since 604.
(Britain Express) The first historical mention of Westminster came during the reign of King Ofa, in 785 AD (Alston) and was “miraculously consecrated by St. Peter”. (Encyclopedia Britannica) However it would be nearly three hundred years later that the abbey would finally begin construction. In 1055, King Edward the Confessor called for the building of an official monastery. Meant to house seventy monks, the order never grew over fifty. (Alston) Up to and beyond the death of Edward the Confessor, there were several additions made to his early monastery.
A choir hall and lady’s chapel were added between 1110 and 1220, to meet the growing needs of the community. The changes that the abbey saw continued over the centuries. In the thirteenth century, King Henry III demolished most of the original monastery in favor of rebuilding it is a more contemporary style – Gothic. One of his successors, King Henry VII further improved upon the abbey by building the addition of a new Lady Chapel – which still bears his name. In 1539, the monastery “was suppressed”. (Alston) The monks who had been living there were forced to disperse.
The monastery then took the role of a cathedral church, the following year. In 1560, Queen Elizabeth I reformed the monastery as a collegiate church. A Royal Peculiar exempt from the jurisdiction of bishops and with the Sovereign as its Visitor. In place of the monastic community a collegiate body of a dean and prebendaries, minor canons and a lay staff was established and charged with the task of continuing the tradition of daily worship (for which a musical foundation of choristers, singing men and organist was provided) and with the education of forty Scholars who formed the nucleus of what is now Westminster School.
(Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey) This changed also, the local government of Westminster. Queen Elizabeth’s decree was that the Abbey maintain jurisdiction over local civil affairs. Also, the Dean of Westminster then, and is still true today, answered directly to the monarch – effectively making Westminster Abbey the monarch’s own church. (Cross) The current physical Abbey was built in 1840, in a neo-Gothic style. However it is not necessarily the style of the building that encapsulates the importance of the Abbey to the people of Britain – it is its secondary purpose.
Since 1066 and the coronation of King William the Conqueror on Christmas day of that year, the hall of Westminster Abbey has been the location of every successive coronation. (Alston) It is because of this strong tie to the history of England that Westminster Abbey is so important to its people. Culturally, the Abbey serves as a reminder to the populous of the country. The religious symbol is identifiable with not only religion, but in the course history that the country has labored through over the centuries.