With the Royal Wedding, I thought it would be good to take a look at the Abbey Church of Saint Peter in Westminster. Perhaps at a future time we can even do a series on its history in the Middle Ages with a look at monastic life in that period.
There had been a community of monks at Westminster, then an island in the Thames River, probably since the seventh century, but it was only in the late tenth century that a Benedictine community was installed on the site by Saint Dunstan, himself a monk of the ancient Abbey of Glastonbury and at the time Bishop of London. King Saint Edward the Confessor decided to appropriate their Abbey Church as the Chapel Palatine for the palace he was building at Westminster—a place that would later become the home of Parliament—and for this end King Edward built a fine Abbey Church of stone in the Romanesque style. It was consecrated at Christmas 1065, only a week before the King’s death. Edward was buried in his new abbey Church.
Edward’s succession was a problem. Edward had no direct heirs and on his death-bed he allegedly commended the Kingdom to Harold Godwinson, Earl of Essex. The Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot—a sort of early form of Parliament—confirmed this and elected Harold King. William, the Duke of Normandy wanted the throne as well and he had some claim to it as King Edward’s mother, Emma, was his aunt. It was a tenuous claim. William was not in the line of the Blood Royal but only happened to be the great-nephew of a queen consort. However, Edward has spent time in exile in Normandy as William’s guest during the the Danish Cnut’s invasion of England and reign (1018-1035) and William claimed that Edward had promised him the throne during William’s 1052 visit to England. William also claimed that Harold, for his part, had sworn fealty to him (William) and thus was his vassal. Harold, to preserve his claim, lost no time in arranging his coronation—less than a week after Edward’s Death—and to stress his legitimacy as Edward’s successor held the coronation in Edward’s new abbey and at Edward’s tomb. It was in vain, however. Within the year, William of Normandy had organized an invasion of Harold’s realm and defeated Harold on October 12, 1066. William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066. Again, to establish the legitimacy of his reign, William—like Harold before him—insisted being crowned at the tomb of Edward the Confessor and thus in Westminster Abbey. It then became customary for the Coronation of the English King to take place in Westminster Abbey. Eventually it came to be that Kings were not only crowned there, but buried there when they died. Between Henry III (1272) and George II (1760) most—but not all—English monarch were buried in the Abbey. Among the exceptions is Henry VIII who is buried in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.
Being the site of coronations and royal burials made the Abbey central to the life of the nation and the legitimacy of the monarchy. At its peak there were about eighty monks. The community was exceptionally well endowed both the monarchs and those courtiers who wished to curry the royal favor. A community of eighty monks—many scholars, some royal employees, and all gentlemen required an army of employees and servants and the Abbey was the economic foundation of the surrounding village of Westminster that grew up around it. The Abbot sat in the House of Lords and indeed, parliament often met in the Abbey Chapter House—the large and elegantly vaulted octagonal room where the monks gathered each day for their monastic business and decision making. In 1540, four years after the final separation of the Church of England from the Roman Communion, Henry VIII abolished the monastic community and made the Abbey a Cathedral of a new diocese which the King cut out of the London Diocese. The Abbot, William Benson (also known as William Boston) was named Dean of the new cathedral and several of the monks were retained as canons. The other monks were pensioned off, being provided with revenues from the former Abbey lands. Ten years later, Henry’s son, Edward VI, suppressed the Diocese and the former Abbey Church became a “collegiate church,” a church used for Divine Service under the administration of a Dean and Chapter (of secular canons). Henry’s Catholic daughter, Queen Mary, refounded the Abbey at considerable expense to the Crown, but when Protestant Elizabeth ascended the throne the Abbey was suppressed once again and the Church became once more “The Collegiate Church of Saint Peter in Westminster” with its Dean and Chapter. Its subsequent history was not pretty. Ignored for the most part except when needed for a coronation or royal funeral, the Church was poorly maintained. Daily services (Morning Prayer and Evensong) continued except during the Puritan Commonwealth when the church was given over to Reformed (i.e. Presbyterian) worship. Nicholas Hawksmoor built the matching towers between 1722 and 1745, doing a fair work in a period that did not favor the medieval style of architecture. (A close look reveals many neo-classical details in his design.) Finally in the nineteenth century with the influence of the Romantic Revival (and to some extent the Oxford Movement) Sir Gilbert Scott did a thorough restoration which gives the Abbey its modern look.
Today the Abbey—or more properly the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter in Westminster—is served by a Dean and six canons. In addition to the rare royal wedding, the even more rare royal or state funeral, and the rarest of all—a coronation—the Abbey has a round of daily services: Morning and Evening Prayer, Daily Eucharist, and special events and ceremonies. Tourists flood the Abbey every Day and some ask for religious or personal guidance. The Abbey is known for its superb music and solid preaching.