A Brief History of Westminster Abbey

By M@
A Brief History of Westminster Abbey

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Westminster Abbey, The end of a cathedral with a rose window
Rose window of the Abbey. Image creative commons, by Amandajm

It's one of London's most historic buildings, scene of coronations and the final resting place of great artists, writers and scientists. To help get your head around a millennium or more of happenings at Westminster Abbey, we've distilled its unique history into a lighthearted, readable timeline.

Prehistory: There is no Abbey. There is no Houses of Parliament. There aren't even any humans (probably). The future blessed site is nothing more than an undistinguished island between two arms of the River Tyburn. The island would come to be known as Thorney, for the guessable reason that it was a bit thorny.

Early 7th century: Nobody knows when Thorney Island was first cleared of brambles and claimed for Christ. One dubious origin myth has St Peter himself appearing on the Thames during the reign of King Sebert of Essex (~604-616), all keen to consecrate this unlikely speck of land. Sebert is an historically attested king, but there is no strong evidence to link him to the early Abbey (although some random bones found in the Abbey in medieval times were said to be his).

785: Thorney Island is described as a "terrible place" in a Charter of King Offa. Probably. No one is certain how reliable or authentic these ancient documents are.

960s: A community of Benedictine monks have made a home on Thorney Island — the first (probably) reliable record of something a bit churchy in the 'hood.

1042-1052: The Abbey as we know it has its origins within this date range, when Edward the Confessor began work on what would become the first cruciform church in England.

1065 (28 December): The completed Abbey is consecrated.

1066 (5 January): Talk about timing. Edward the Confessor dies, about a week after his Abbey is born.

1066 (25 December): After a year of political turbulence that school kids would learn about for a millennium or more to come, William the Conqueror becomes the first documented king to be crowned in Westminster Abbey (King Harold might have had the honour, but the historical record is not clear).

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry showing the church with a funeral procession approaching
Edward the Confessor's funeral approaches the newly built Westminster Abbey in this scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. It is also the earliest surviving image of medieval London.

1163: Edward the Confessor's remains are moved to a new shrine. By this time, he'd been canonised, thanks to a miraculous inability to rot.

1245: Work begins to reconstruct the Abbey into a grand shrine to the Confessor. We can thank Henry III, who wanted a grand church to rival continental masterpieces. Henry's Abbey forms the nucleus of the building we see today.

1269 (13 October): The rebuilt Abbey is consecrated. Edward the Confessor is shifted again, taking his final final final resting place behind the High Altar. Henry would die three years later and would himself be buried inside the Abbey.

1296: The Coronation Chair, used by new monarchs to this day, was commissioned by Edward I. It is sized to accommodate the Stone of Scone, which Edward had nicked from Scotland.

1303: Karma would catch up with King Eddie. In this year, thieves make off with much of Edward I's wealth, while he's campaigning in Scotland. Monks are initially blamed for the theft (and go to the Tower of London for it), but Richard Pudlicote of Oxfordshire is later blamed and executed. The remaining jewels are moved to the more secure Tower of London, where they remain today.

1413 (20 March): Henry IV dies in the Jerusalem Chamber of the Abbey. Deaths in the Abbey are very rare, and this is the last known occasion until the 20th century.

1495: Henry III's Abbey had been consecrated more than 200 years before, but the rebuilding is only completed in this year.

1535: Edward the Confessor's restless bones must take another walk to avoid agents of Henry VIII. The increasingly corpulent villain strips the Abbey of many of its treasures and monuments as part of his Reformation purges.

1540: Thanks to Henry's meddling, the Abbey is no longer an abbey but, in this year, it is granted cathedral status. The bragging rights last until 1556, when it's downgraded to a mere church. The church briefly houses monks again under Catholic Mary I, but these soon clear off when Elizabeth I takes the throne.

1560: Elizabeth declares the former abbey as a "royal peculiar", meaning it is controlled directly by the Monarch rather than a bishop or other ecclesiastic. Its official name ever after is the Collegiate Church of St Peter. Everyone normal still calls it Westminster Abbey.

1669: Samuel Pepys visits the Abbey. His diary records: "This was my birthday, thirty-six years old and I did first kiss a queen." That's because he leaned into the coffin of the 230-years-dead Queen Catherine de Valois and had a peck at her extremely thin lips.

A bust of Samuel Pepys outside
Corpse-smoocher Samuel Pepys. Image Matt Brown

1685: Poor old Edward the Confessor. A scaffolding pole pierces his tomb during preparations for James II's coronation. Rest in pieces.

1698: Sir Christopher Wren is best noted for designing St Paul's and dozens of City churches, but he also got his busy mitts on the abbey. In this year, he is appointed Surveyor of the Fabric (a kind of architect-in-residence). One of his unrealised plans for the building would have seen a lofty spire over the central crossing. It never got built, but you can inspect his wooden model in the Diamond Jubilee galleries.

A black and white illustration of Westminster Abbey, with a spire rising over the crossing
Wren's plans for a central spire. Early versions of the towers added by his pupil Nicholas Hawksmoor can be seen on the right.

1722: Nicholas Hawksmoor begins work on the two western towers (earlier versions had been attempted but never completed). The magnificent Portland stone structures would take until 1745, and were the last major structural additions to the Abbey until 2018 (see below).

Two western towers of Westminster Abbey with a nearby helicopter
Hawksmoor's towers. Image Matt Brown

1760: George II becomes the last monarch to be buried in the Abbey.

1904: Architects John Seddon and Edward Lamb propose an attention-grabbing tower (below), to house the Abbey's growing collection of monuments. Known as the Imperial Monumental Halls and Tower, this last word in trophy cabinets would have soared some 167 metres into the Westminster skies. Note also the smaller gothic tower intended for the Abbey's crossing point. The edifice was never built, but we did get a statue of George V on the site, so that's something. See other unbuilt plans for the Abbey.

THe houses of parliament and westminster abbey, overshadowed by a huge gothic tower

1904: A service in the Abbey goes off with a bang when an unknown culprit throws lit fireworks into the nave, provoking a scene "unparalleled in the annals of the venerable edifice". After the fireworks are doused, a note saying "Lying priesthood", "Friends of the Brewers", and "Vengeance for the death of Kensit" (perhaps this one?) is discovered.

1906: Richard II's jaw is returned to the Abbey. It had been stolen by a schoolboy 90 years previously. The young scamp had spotted a crumbling part of the tomb and forced his arm through the gap, straight into the diminished maw of King Richard. The august mandible, which had once negotiated with Wat Tyler and the revolting peasants, was sneakily withdrawn, and then passed down through the boy's family. Eventually, the guilt must have got too much. It was sent to the king with an explanatory note. The jaw was finally replaced, along with a piece of parchment relating the curious story. At least, this is the story told anonymously to the press. Perhaps, one day, an exhumation will reveal the truth or otherwise.

1906: A Reverend Shepherd of West Kensington has the unenviable distinction of being the first person to die in Westminster Abbey since Henry IV (see 1413). According to press reports, he stumbled to the ground after making an address at an ecclesiastical meeting, and died immediately.

1914 (11 June): A bomb planted by Suffragettes explodes inside the Abbey. Nobody is injured but the Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone are damaged.

1917: The Abbey receives six pounds of lard in an unexpected delivery. The confused driver should have been dispatched to a Welsh port, where the steamer called Westminster Abbey was expecting the foodstuff.

1920: "The Unknown Soldier", an unidentified British casualty of the first world war, is buried in Westminster Abbey. The soldier's grave is the only one that visitors may not step on.

1941 (10-11 May): Part of the Abbey is left open to the elements when the roof is hit by incendiaries during an air raid. The crossing point is badly damaged.

Westminster Abbey roof looking up
The crossing point, which was left open to the skies after an air raid. Long since repaired. Image creative commons, amandabhslater

1953 (2 June): The coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the first to be televised. It would be almost 70 years before the next one.

1955: A gigantic shapeless mass of combined animal and plant tissue with distended nodules, and tentacle-like fronds filled with spores is cornered in Westminster Abbey. The creature is eventually electrocuted. At least, that's if we're to believe The Quatermass XPeriment.

A man looks up at a shapeless creature on some scaffolding within Westminster Abbey
Terror in the Abbey, in the 1955 film The Quatermass XPeriment

1987: Westminster Abbey is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the Palace of Westminster and St Margaret's church.

1997: The Abbey decides to charge entrance fees to visitors.

1998: The Abbey gets its first external alteration in decades, when 10 statues are added to the west gate. Each one represents a martyr who fought repression. Among their number is one Martin Luther King.

Sandstone statues built into Westminster abbey
The 10 new(ish) statues of Westminster Abbey. Image Matt Brown

2005: The Abbey refuses filming permission for the Da Vinci Code movie, saying it would be inappropriate. Lincoln Cathedral is happy to stand in, for $180,000.

2010: Benedict XVI becomes the first Pope to set foot within the Abbey.

2011 (29 April): Wills and Kate tie the knot in Westminster Abbey. Despite a thousand years of association with the ruling class, this is only the 16th royal wedding known to have taken place in the building.

2016: Can't afford the entrance fee, or face the queue? Then head over to Google Street View, which now includes interior visualisations of the church.

2018: The ashes of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking are interred within the Abbey, squeezed in between Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton.

2018: The Queen's Diamond Jubilee galleries open on one of the upper levels, offering stunning views of the nave. They are packed with historical objects, many with a royal bent. As we noted at the time, "Fans of royal history will swoon; some will wet themselves." The opening also coincides with a whole new bit of Abbey, as the Weston Tower is added to provide access. It's the first new structural element since 1745.

Jubilee Galleries in Wesminster Abbey showing artefacts and costumes
Image Matt Brown

2021: London's most impressive Covid vaccination centre opens in Poets Corner, within the abbey.

2023: King Charles III becomes the 40th monarch to be crowned within the Abbey.

Last Updated 17 October 2023

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