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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.

Architecture and design of Westminster Abbey

Official Name: The Collegiate Church of St Peter

Function: Cathedral

Location: Dean's Yard, London SW1P 3PA, United Kingdom

Opened in: 1269

Area: 32,000 sq.ft

Architectural style: Gothic

Main Architects: John of Gloucester, Henry of Reyns, Robert of Beverley, and Ptolemy Dean (there are many more architects involved but these are the primary ones)

Architectural style of Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey is a true testament to Gothic architecture. The magnificent structure has undergone multiple constructions over the years and bears the mark of the various architectural styles that were prevalent in Europe. Westminster Abbey’s interiors are as breathtaking as its exteriors. The church boasts of having a gothic architectural style that arose in the late 12th century in Europe. Flying buttresses, ribbed vaulted ceilings, pointed arches, and rose windows, all indicators of the Gothic style, can be found exquisitely incorporated in Westminster Abbey’s architecture.

Who designed Westminster Abbey?

While many architects are involved in the abbey's construction, the following four are the primary ones who contributed to the making of Westminster Abbey:

John of Gloucester
Henry of Reyns
Robert of Beverley
Ptolemy Dean

John of Gloucester, a distinguished master mason, was instrumental in supervising Westminster Abbey's transformation under King Henry III in the 13th century. He skillfully integrated Gothic elements such as pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, and flying buttresses, drawing inspiration from French cathedrals to shape the Abbey's iconic architectural style.

Henry of Reyns, a pivotal figure in the history of English architecture, was one of the master masons who oversaw the 13th-century reconstruction of Westminster Abbey during King Henry III's reign. Influenced by the High Gothic styles of Reims, Amiens, and Chartres, he significantly shaped Westminster Abbey's iconic Gothic design.

Robert of Beverley, the lead master mason, played a significant role in constructing Westminster Abbey. With prior experience from his work on the choir and the transept of Beverley Minster around 1260, he brought invaluable Gothic expertise to the Abbey. His contributions significantly shaped this iconic structure's architecture, enhancing its grandeur as a premier cultural landmark in England.

Ptolemy Dean, appointed as the Surveyor of the Fabric at Westminster Abbey in 2012, plays a crucial role in preserving and enhancing this historic Gothic structure. Dean designed the Weston Tower, the Abbey's first significant architectural addition in over 270 years. This modern structure, blending "steampunk gothic" with traditional elements, facilitates access to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries and displays innovative adaptation within the Abbey's framework.

Stages of construction

westminster abbey architecture

The New Abbey Building

Early in his reign, in 1220, Henry III laid the foundation for a new Westminster Abbey but soon faced funding shortages that halted construction. Devoted to St. Edward the Confessor, he later resumed building in the grand Gothic style, employing master masons Henry of Reyns, John of Gloucester, and Robert of Beverley. Their work incorporated Gothic elements like pointed arches and flying buttresses while integrating distinctive English features such as single aisles and polished Purbeck marble columns.

westminster abbey architecture

The New Nave

Only one nave had been completed when Henry III died in 1272, and construction paused for nearly a century. Later, Abbot Nicholas Litlyngton resumed work on the western section of the nave, adhering to the original design for architectural unity, though with less elaborate details. The effort spanned 150 years, culminating with Abbot John Islip adding the Jesus chapel and completing the nave vaulting, though the upper sections of the west towers remained unfinished.

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.

Structure of Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey has been constructed using various high-quality materials that have ensured its durability and grandeur through the centuries. The foundation was laid using robust Reigate stone, while the walls and elegant columns were crafted from Caen stone, a fine limestone imported from France. The Abbey's soaring vaulted ceilings, characteristic of Gothic design, are supported by ribbed arches that reach heights of nearly 102 feet, contributing to the building's spiritual and architectural majesty.

Westminster Abbey's structure has evolved over time, with notable additions such as the 18th-century West Towers, a design masterpiece by Nicholas Hawksmoor using Portland stone. This addition, contrasting with the unique Perpendicular style of the Henry VII Lady Chapel, adds a touch of diversity to the predominantly Gothic features of the Abbey. 

Westminster Abbey exterior

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.

Westminster Abbey interior

  • Gothic Grandeur: Westminster Abbey's interior is a masterclass in Gothic architecture, characterized by its towering pointed arches and elaborate ribbed vaulted ceilings that ascend nearly 102 feet. Decorative stone carvings embellish these structures, instilling a profound sense of awe and spiritual elevation, drawing everyone's gaze heavenward.
  • Stained Glass Windows: The Abbey's windows, resplendent with rich ruby and sapphire stained glass, are set against a backdrop of subtle grisaille patterns. This configuration bathes the interior in a mystical light, transforming the space with a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors and enhancing the heraldic-inspired designs that contribute to the Abbey's ethereal ambiance.
  • Coronation Theatre: At the heart of the Abbey lies the historic Coronation Theatre, the hallowed ground where British monarchs have been crowned since 1066. It is adorned with intricate medieval wood carvings and the venerable Coronation Chair, enveloping the space with the weight of centuries of history.
  • Shrine of St. Edward: Positioned behind the high altar, the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, the Abbey's 11th-century founder, stands as a poignant testament to his legacy. The shrine's ornate sculptural work and the sanctity of the saint's relics endow this sacred space with an intense spiritual profundity.



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Frequently asked questions on Westminster Abbey architecture

When was Westminster Abbey constructed?

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

What is the architectural style of Westminster Abbey?

Westminster Abbey is known for its sharp, Gothic architecture style.

Who is the architect of Westminster Abbey?

Westminster Abbey was built, torn down, rebuilt, and upgraded many times by many architects since it was founded in the year 960. Its primary architects include John of Gloucester, Henry of Reyns, Robert of Beverley, and Ptolemy Dean.

How big is Westminster Abbey?

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

How old is Westminster Abbey?

The earliest records of the Abbey date back to the 960s, making it over a 1000 years old.

What materials were used in Westminster Abbey’s construction?

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

Where can I buy tickets to Westminster Abbey?

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.