[Wednesday - 11/02/94] An architectural masterpiece of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, Westminster Abbey also presents a unique pageant of British history - the Confessor’s Shrine, 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.
Edward the Confessor, a curious and in some ways a remote English monarch, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings sought to re-endow and greatly enlarge a Benedictine monastery on Thorney Island close to his palace of Westminster. Unfortunately, when the church was consecrated on 28 December 1065 he was not present, and died a few days later. His mortal remains were entombed behind the High Altar.
The only traces of this Norman monastery is to be found in the round arches and massive supporting columns of the Undercroft in the Cloisters. This now houses the exhibition of treasures but was originally part of the domestic quarters of the monks.
Among the most famous ceremonies that occurred in the Norman Abbey were the coronation of William the Conqueror on Christmas day, 1066, a grim proceeding which taxed all his resources of nerve and endurance and the canonization of Edward the Confessor in 1161.
The Norman Abbey was destined to survive for only two centuries. In the middle of the 13th century, Henry III decided to pull down the Norman Abbey and rebuild it in a new architectural design. It was a great age for cathedrals: in France, it saw the construction of Amiens, Evreux, Chartres, and in England Canterbury, Winchester and Salisbury, to mention a few. King Henry III briefed his architect, Henry de Reyns and sent him abroad to study the contemporary developments in architecture. Under the decree of the King of England, Westminster Abbey was designed to be not only a great abbey and a place of worship, but also a place for the coronation and burials of monarchs.
Every monarch, since William the Conqueror with the exception of Edward V and Edward VIII was crowned in the Abbey. It was natural that Henry III should wish to translate the body of the saintly Edward the Confessor into a more magnificent tomb behind the High Altar. Where Edward is buried, kings and their consorts cluster around Henry III, the second founder of the Abbey; Edward I; Richard II; Henry V under his Chantry Chapel, and a galaxy of others. Thus began a process which has continued to this day. Over three thousand people are either buried or memorialized in Westminster Abbey. Notable among these is the Unknown Warrior, whose grave, close to the west door, has become a place of pilgrimage.
A creative new addition to the Abbey was the glorious Lady chapel built by Henry VII which now bears his name. The banners of the Knights of the Order of the Bath which surrounds its walls, together with the Battle of Britain Window by Hugh Easton at the east, give colour to this chapel. The craftsmanship of Italian sculptor Torrigiano is shown in the tomb of Henry, first of the Tudor monarchs. It was not until two centuries later that a further addition was made in the western towers, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.
Little remains of the original medieval stained glass, once one of the Abbey's chief glories. The great west window and the rose window in the north transept date from the early eighteenth century but the remainder of the glass is nineteenth and twentieth century.
History did not cease with the passing of the medieval monastery at the Reformation. Queen Elizabeth I, buried in one of the apsidal chapels of Henry VII, refounded the Abbey as a Collegiate Church, a Royal Peculiar not subject to the rule of any bishop with the Sovereign as Visitor, and laid down its constitution in a charter granted in 1560. Thus the Abbey was reshaped and newly patterned to discharge a distinctive yet worshipful role in a modern age.
In 1965-66, the Abbey celebrated its 900th anniversary, taking as its theme 'One People'. Such a theme seemed to be fitting for a church which, through a long history of involvement with the developing life of the English people, has produced a world-wide outreach, and in this outreach experienced the inevitable tension between the absolute claims of God's kingdom and the relativities inherent in the life of man in society.
Last modified on Wednesday, November 26, 2008|
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