London'S Westminster Abbey
Learn the history of London's Westminister Abbey.
The historical record of Westminster Abbey begins in time of Edward the Confessor, but there are glimpses of its existence even before then. The name Westminster Abbey occurs in 10th century documents where it is described as a terrible place that was said to be awesome. This points to the previous foundation of a monastery that, according to legend, was attributed to Sebert, King of the East Saxons who died in 616 A.D.
Even earlier Romance, which was shaped by Mallory in his Morte d' Arthur tells of King Arthur holding a tournament close to Westminster Abbey and Queen Guinevere going "a- maying into the fields aside." This document also speaks of the corpse of Elaine the fair maiden being rowed in a barge up and down the Thames at Westminster and then being richly interred although no grave has been found in the Abbey.
What is known for certain is that by a supreme but probably unconscious act of statesmanship, Edward the Confessor made Westminster Abbey the cradle of a future empire. On an island in the River Thames, which was already called Westminster Eyot, he set about to build a great monastery to promote the glory of God and the prosperity of his kingdom in England. He took up residence nearby to watch the progress of the building, thus separating the seat of government from the City of London. In addition, by placing the palace and the Abbey side by side he strengthened the bond between the Church and State for some centuries.
From the 11th to the 16th century the palace at Westminster was the reigning king's place of residence. During this period eight kings and queens of England were buried in the Abbey. After the 16th century the king ceased to live at Westminster Abbey, which led to new events. Although the church was completed in Edward the Confessor's time and later completely demolished by Henry III, the rest of the monastery had hardly been worked on during his life time. With Henry III's resolve to build a more beautiful church, masons set to work at the east end. By his death in 1272 the Sanctuary, transepts, choir and two bays had been completed.
The main piers of the church are of solid Purbeck marble, with the floors paved with a lighter variety of the same. Structurally today, the church is as Henry III planned it, although the outside has been re-faced. There are carvings and statuary throughout the building. The monument that was built for Henry III came from Italy and was richly adorned with mosaic that is surmounted with a golden feretory. It is still one of the greatest wonders of the Abbey.
The High Alter, west of Henry III's tomb, are the tombs of Queen Eleanor, Edward I, Queen Philippa, Edward III and Richard II. At the end of this shrine is the Lady's Chapel topped with an upper chapel. Underneath the tomb of Henry V's father is a complete memorial of the French wars.
Until the Reformation, the upper chapel was used to exhibit the chief relics of the Abbey including the head of St. Benedict, a tooth of St Anthanasius, some vestments of St. Peter and a girdle of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The entire design of Westminster Abbey is a monument to the men of Agincourt and the king who led them. The High Alter stood with no screen behind it so that from the body of the church the shrine was visible beyond the Alter. But after the erection of Henry V's Chapel, monks erected a carved stone screen and completed the long nave which today has twelve bays.