The cathedral of Westminster Abbey has long served as England’s royal church (its official designation is technically a ‘royal peculiar’), and has been an important place of pilgrimage since before the Protestant Reformation. The great majority of England’s monarchs were both coronated and buried here; among the latter being Edward the Confessor, who is recognized by the Catholic Church as being England’s only royal saint. Because of this, Westminster Abbey remains a Catholic pilgrimage site, although it is now under the jurisdiction of the Church of England. Thanks to its location in the heart of London as well as the sheer number of historical celebrities buried here, it is among the most popular pilgrimage churches in the world. Westminster Abbey is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster, or Westminster Abbey as it is more commonly called, began life long before the Church of England broke off from the Papacy in the 16th century. An earlier structure had stood on the site perhaps as far back as the 7th century. It was possibly founded by one Mellitus, the Bishop of London, or by one of his contemporaries. Its completion marked London as the major Christian center in England.
In 1042, Edward the Confessor was crowned King of England. As it turned out, he was the last king of the old Saxon dynasty. Although he would go on to be the only English monarch to be canonized, his religious accomplishments were questionable. Nevertheless he had a reputation as a secular champion of the Church, and he was responsible for rebuilding and enlarging Westminster Abbey. The current structure dates from his reign. It was consecrated in 1065, just in time to witness the end of the Saxon dynasty.
After William I conquered England in the next year, the abbey was effectively appropriated by the Normans and their successors, by whom it has been used for coronations, funerals and other royal occasions ever since. Originally a monastery of the Benedictine order, the abbey’s proximity to the governmental center of England made it both incredibly influential and wealthy, and the position of Abbot of Westminster became one of the most important in the British Isles.
The 16th and 17th centuries were a period of great turbulence for Westminster Abbey. In the 1530s, when King Henry VIII broke the Church of England away from the Papacy, he ordered all monastic orders dissolved, and all monasteries seized, looted and, in most cases, destroyed. However, perhaps due to a sense of history and sentimentality, the king had Westminster Abbey declared a cathedral in order that he could spare it without a loss of face. This proved fortuitous, as Westminster remains one of the world’s most popular and lucrative tourist destinations in London.
Considering its age, the Westminster Abbey is in surprisingly good shape. Despite numerous restorations and a few additions, much of the Collegiate Church dates from the original 11th century construction. Built in the tradition cross layout of the Middle Ages, Westminster is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in England. However, the architectural details of the church, as magnificent as they are, are generally overlooked by the majority of visitors who are simply too awed by the honor role of those buried within.
Sixteen British monarchs are interred here, including Edward the Confessor, England’s only royal saint. A short list of Westminster’s other tombs include those of Robert Browning, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, George Handel, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Isaac Newton, Laurence Olivier, William Pitt and Alfred Tennyson, not to mention many of the abbey’s prominent clergymen.
Westminster Abbey is located in the government area, close to the Houses of Parliament. It is open most days from 9:30am-4:30pm, with late closing (7:00pm) on Wednesdays and early closing (1:30pm) on Saturdays. It is closed on Sundays. Admission is L12.00. Web: www.westminster-abbey.org (official site of Westminster Abbey)
London is home to many historic churches, though the majority of these date from after the Great Fire of 1666. Most of the city’s oldest surviving churches can be found in Southwark, including the Church of St. George the Martyr and Southwark Cathedral; and in the City proper, including the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, St. Ethelreda’s Church and the Temple Church of DaVinci Code fame. The latter was built by the Templar Knights in the 12th century.