Westminster Abbey Architecture

How Was Westminster Abbey Built? | Westminster Abbey Architecture

Shaped by many architects over the years, Westminster Abbey’s architecture features an awe-inspiring blend of mainly Gothic and traces of Romanesque styles. The church that you see today was built during King Henry III’s reign. Read on to discover the architectural journey the abbey has undergone to reach its current status as the most notable religious building in the United Kingdom.

Westminster Abbey Architecture

westminster abbey architecture

Westminster Abbey Architectural Timeline

westminster abbey architecture

The New Abbey Building

The foundation stone for the new building was laid in 1220 by Henry III early on in his reign. However, due to a lack of funds, the rebuilding of the entire church was halted. Henry III, a devout follower of the cult of St Edward the Confessor, later took it upon himself to rebuild a bigger and better church in the newest Gothic style.

The masons involved in the work were Henry of Reyns, John of Gloucester, and Robert of Beverley. Pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, rose windows and flying buttresses, all serve as prime indicators of Gothic architecture in the abbey. However, some elements of the English design were included as well. The single aisles, elaborate moldings on the main arches, use of polished Purbeck marble for the columns are all English elements that can be found in the Abbey. 

westminster abbey architecture

The New Nave

There was only one nave that was completed by the time Henry III died in 1272. The work was halted for almost a century. Abbot Nicholas Litlyngton carried out the construction of the western section of the nave and the work continued for a good hundred and fifty years. To maintain architectural unity, the construction was carried out in Henry III’s masons’ general design. Although similar, upon a closer look, you can identify that the details are not as elaborate as the older work. Abbot John Islip added his own Jesus chapel and the nave vaulting was finally completed. However, the top parts of the west towers were left incomplete.

westminster abbey architecture
westminster abbey lady chapel

The Lady Chapel

Built between 1503 and 1516, the Henry VII Chapel was paid for by the will of King Henry VII. The Henry VII Lady Chapel, also known as the Lady Chapel was the next big addition to the abbey. Historians believe that Robert Janyns and William Vertue were the architects of this beauteous building. The unique perpendicular architecture of the Lady Chapel sets it apart from the rest of the abbey. The chapel’s delicately carved fan-vaulted roof, high stained glass windows, and Tudor emblems such as the rose and portcullis add to the Lady Chapel’s splendor.

westminster abbey west towers
westminster abbey architecture

Newest Additions

Westminster Abbey is constantly getting updated with new additions. The newest addition is an exterior turret that includes an elevator and stairs. This turret was designed by Ptolemy Dean and is known as the Weston Tower - named after a donor. The turret is located near the Chapter House and allows access to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. A new building - Abbey Welcome Center - is in the works to accommodate welcome, security, and ticketing facilities.

Westminster Abbey Exterior Architecture & Restorations

westminster abbey architecture

Exterior Restorations

The exterior of Westminster Abbey has undergone restoration and renovation multiple times in different types of stones over the years. The most recent restoration was carried out from 1973-1995. A time capsule was embedded in the south side of the Abbey in 1989 to mark the completion of that side of the church. It included details of the work, photos of the workmen, and coins.

westminster abbey architecture

Modern Martyrs

Statues of ten modern martyrs were erected above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey. The martyrs represent those who have been oppressed or persecuted for their faith and beliefs. The space above the Great West Door, where the statues now reside, had been lying empty since the Middle Ages. Carved from limestone, these statues were unveiled at a service attended by HM Queen Elizabeth II in the year 1998. The modern martyrs include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

westminster abbey lady chapel
westminster abbey architecture

Chapter House

Octagonal in shape, the Chapter House features tiered seating for up to eighty monks and a central pillar that branches out to a marvelous vaulted ceiling. The construction of the Chapter house was completed around 1255 as a part of Henry III’s rebuilding of the abbey. The Abbey's Surveyor Sir George Gilbert Scott modified and reconstructed the stone vault and roof and re-instated and re-glazed the windows. 

westminster abbey architecture

The North Door

The Great North Door features various sculptures. The figures depict Christ in Majesty blessing the Church and the World surrounded by Angels. Seated figures of the Apostles and figures in procession, representing professions like music, sculpture, history can be seen here. The central pillar at the north door features a striking sculpture of the Blessed Virgin Mary with a Crowned Christ in her arms.

westminster abbey architecture

Rose Window

The rose-shaped window, commonly filled with stained glass, is a prominent feature of Gothic architecture. Picturesque rose windows can be found in Westminster Abbey’s south and north transepts. The window in the south transept, designed by Sir James Thornhill, features 11 of the 12 apostles. Some of its dark glass was replaced with new glass in 1902. The north transept rose window was also designed by Thornhill and depicted Christ and the Apostles. However, the design and stonework of the window were altered in the 19th century by John L. Pearson.

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FAQs on Westminster Abbey Architecture

Q. When was Westminster Abbey constructed?

A. The construction of the church, as it stands today, was begun by Henry III in the year 1245.

Q. What is the architectural style of Westminster Abbey?

A. Westminster Abbey is known for its sharp, Gothic architecture style. Most of the structures are made out of stone.

Q. Who is the architect of Westminster Abbey?

A. Westminster Abbey was built, torn down, rebuilt, and upgraded many times by many architects since it was founded in the year 960. The Surveyor of the Fabric of Westminster Abbey serves as the architect and is responsible for its upkeep.

Q. How big is Westminster Abbey?

A. One of the most remarkable religious structures in the United Kingdom, Westminster Abbey occupies an area of 32,000 square feet. 

Q. How old is Westminster Abbey?

A. The earliest records of the Abbey date back to the 960s or early 970s, when King Edgar and Saint Dunstan instated a community of monks to the site.

Q. What materials were used in Westminster Abbey’s construction?

A. The prime building materials used are Caen stone, Portland stone, and Tuffeau limestone sourced from the Loire Valley. 

Q. Where can I buy tickets to Westminster Abbey?

A. Online tickets to Westminster Abbey are available here. We suggest that you pre-book your Westminster Abbey tickets to ensure your entry into the abbey.