As a symbol of London's religious heritage, you don't get much grander than Westminster Abbey. It's as British as Alan Bennett or the BBC — who incidentally teamed up to make a documentary about the building in 1995 — and so iconic that it has staged every royal coronation since 1066. But where did the name Westminster come from? And does it mean that there was once an Eastminster?
Most church-going Londoners will have a sense of the Abbey's etymology. It began life around 960AD as a small monastery outside the City of London on a cluster of marshland known as Thorney Island. Upon the arrival of Edward the Confessor 80 years later, this area became what Pernille Ahlström, chair of the City of Westminster Guide Lecturers Association, calls a "monastic community" and as such, the monastery was developed into a much bigger "minster".
So that's minster sorted — now what about the 'West'? This is where the problems start. The Abbey’s own website suggests it was called Westminster to "distinguish itself from St. Paul’s Cathedral (the east minster)" – an assertion previously made by Jonathan Carver, an 18th century explorer who even said that 'East-Minster' was the previous name of St Paul’s.
However, some faults in this theory are highlighted by Judy Pulley, a Blue Badge London Walks guide who has led tours around St. Paul's for two decades. "St Paul's was to my knowledge never known as the 'East-Minster'," she says. "The thing about something being called a minster is that it can refer to a church of Anglo-Saxon origin, which St Paul's once was. But it's usually to do with being a monastic church (a church used by monks), and St Paul's was never a monastery."
It is more likely that Westminster Abbey's name relates simply to being west of the old City of London, and Ahlström suggests that Thorney Island's otherwise unremarkable identity naturally meant it took on the Abbey's name.
There may, though, have still been an Eastminster. According to British History Online, in 1350, St. Mary of Graces monastery — often known as Eastminster, New Abbey — was built by King Edward III in the ancient parish of St. Botolph without Aldgate. Although this abbey served as an important base for London's monks during the reign of Pope Boniface IX, its influence dwindled over two centuries and it became the longstanding site of the Royal Mint in Tower Hill. Last December, the soon-to-be-redeveloped building was inhabited by squatters trying to hold a New Year rave — truly a far cry from King Edward’s monument to the Virgin Mary.
As a footnote, does any of this have any connection to Upminster? Much further out east, in the London borough of Havering, the only commonality appears to be that, like Westminster, Upminster was once a 'monastic community', set up by St. Cedd after he had travelled to spread religion to Essex in 653AD. Most believe the Parish Church of St. Lawrence to be the original minster in the town, but no real records of the church exist until it was rebuilt in the 12th century.
Like much of London’s early monasterial history therefore, the truth is that God only knows.