The Garden Guide

Book: London and Its Environs, 1927
Chapter: 5 Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey 2

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Westminster Abbey, more officially the Collegiate Church of St. Peter in Westminster, though built at different periods, is, apart from Henry VII.'s magnificent Perpendicular chapel at the east end and the 18th century west towers, one of the most beautiful examples of Early English architecture in England, the pure beauty of which is perhaps sometimes apt to be overlooked by visitors engrossed in its historic associations. No other building is so intimately or so picturesquely connected with English history. For centuries the early Parliaments of the realm assembled in the Chapter House; within the Abbey every English sovereign since Harold (except Edward V., who never reigned) has been crowned, and countless other national ceremonies have taken place; and here, amid the tombs of kings and queens, repose the illustrious dead of many ages, enjoying the last, and perhaps the highest, honour their country could bestow. The site upon which the Abbey stands was originally an island in the midst of marshes, extending north to about Bridge St., south to Great College St., and west to near Princes St. According to tradition a church built on this Thorney Isle, or Isle of Thorns, by Sebert, king of the East Saxons, was consecrated by Mellitus, first bishop of London, in 616; but there is no authentic record of any earlier church than that of the Benedictine Abbey, founded here probably between 730 and 740, which was dedicated to St. Peter and received the name 'West Minster,' or western monastery, probably from its position to the west of the city of London. Nothing now remains of this building, but its church is known to have stood a little to the west of the present one. In 1050 Edward the Confessor, increasing the number of monks from about a dozen to 70 or 80, began to rebuild the abbey on a larger scale, and at the same time erected or restored a royal residence within its precincts, so that the new abbey church became a royal chapel as well. This Norman church, which was cruciform in ground-plan and had a rounded apse, was consecrated in 1065. Very little of it now remains, but portions of the foundations have been found below the present floor. In 1163 Edward (died 1066) was canonized and his body was placed in a shrine below the crossing of his church, where it became the object of great veneration. In 1220, a Lady Chapel was added at the east end, and shortly afterwards Henry III. decided to honour St. Edward by rebuilding the entire church in a more magnificent style, as we now see it. The new church is much higher than the old one, in this as in several other points resembling French rather than English models. In 1269, when the east end, the transepts, and the five east bays of the nave, as well as the chapter-house, had been rebuilt, the new church was consecratedied St. Edward's body was transferred to a magnificent new shrine behind the high altar, raised on a mound of earth said to have been brought from the Holy Land. From this time onward the Abbey became the royal burial-church. After Henry's death (1272) the work of transforming the Norman nave went on, with longer or shorter interruptions, for over 200 years; but, says Mr. Micklethwaite, 'the story of the rebuilding of the nave is difficult to read because, though it was spread over so many years, the design once laid down was kept to and the details not changed.' Hardly was the new nave completed when the Lady Chapel was pulled down to make way for the magnificent Chapel of Henry VII. (1503-19). The lower part of the west facade, in front of which projects the Jerusalem Chamber, dates from the 15th century, but was altered by Hawksmoor; the incongruous towers (225 feet high) were added by the same architect about 1739. In 1890, the facade of the north transept was entirely remodelled from the designs of Sir Gilbert Scott and J. L. Pearson. At one time it was preceded by 'Solomon's Porch,' a large porch built in the reign of Richard II., now utterly vanished. After the dissolution of the monasteries in Henry VIII.'s reign, Westminster Abbey was for ten years (1540-50) the cathedral of a Bishop of Westminster. Queen Mary reinstated the abbot and monks; but Elizabeth finally placed the church under an independent Dean and Chapter, whose successors rule it to-day. The extant monastic buildings date mainly from the 13th and 14th century, but there are remains of Norman work in the Chamber of the Pyx and the adjoining Undercroft. The Abbey precincts, enclosed by a wall, extended, for some way all round the church, and their independence of the civil authority is commemorated in the name of Broad Sanctuary. In addition, the monastery owned several manors and other property in what is now modern London.