westminster abbey history

The Story of the Royal Peculiar | Westminster Abbey History

The history of Westminster Abbey can be traced back to its creation in 1050 when Edward the Confessor began building his church on the west end of Thorney Island. The foundation was laid by King Edgar around 1090 and it became an abbey during the late 1100s under Henry II.

Read further to know more about how the famous Westminster Abbey came into being and then grew to be what we know today.

History of Westminster Abbey

westminster abbey history

The Birth of Westminster Abbey

A young fisherman named Aldrich had a vision of Saint Peter on the banks of River Thames near the site of where Westminster Abbey stands today. When Aldrich shared his vision with others, they all responded positively. Saint Dunstan and King Edgar installed a Benedictine monks community on the site. 

King Edward wanted to build a place for his tomb and he decided to combine the Benedictine monastery and build a larger church dedicated to St Peter the Apostle. This was the first church in England and it was built in Romanesque style. Only one week after the construction was completed, King Edward passed and he was buried in the abbey, his wife Edith was buried alongside him 9 years later.

westminster abbey history

Construction of the Present Church

King Edward's Abbey survived for nearly 2 centuries until King Henry III decided to rebuild the building in the new Gothic architecture. The demolition of the old abbey and the construction of what we know today as Westminster Abbey started in the middle of the 13th century. Under King Henry's reign, Westminster Abbey not only became a great monastery and a place for worship for everyone but also became the place for all future British coronations and a resting place for many monarchs to come after him.

The new abbey building was consecrated on 13th October 1269. However, due to the passing of the king, the nave remained incomplete and the old nave was attached to the new building for more than 100 years. It was later rebuilt in the late 14th century with a similar design as the previous nave. 

westminster abbey history
westminster abbey history

Dissolution and Restoration

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII took over the control of the abbey and gave it the status of a cathedral in 1540. This allowed the abbey to escape the fate of dissolution that most other churches suffered at the time. 

After the Westminster diocese was dissolved, Westminster Abbey was recognized at the second church of the Diocese of London. The abbey was then restored under the Benedictines under Mary I, which Elizabeth I changed when she took to the throne. Queen Elizabeth established the title "Royal Peculiar" to Westminster Abbey and also made it the Collegiate Church of St Peter, allowing the abbey to function as a regular Church of England, except it would be responsible only to the Sovereign rather than to the Diocese of London. 

westminster abbey history

Terrorist Bombing in 1914

On 11th June 1914, the suffragettes of Women's Social and Political Union planted a bomb within Westminster Abbey as a part of their arson and bombing attacks towards women's suffrage. They targeted the churches as they believed that the Church of England played a hand in opposing women's suffrage. 

The bomb damaged a lot of historical artifacts in the abbey, including the Coronation Chair and the Stone of Scone. The House of Commons was close-by at the time when the bomb exploded, allowing them to discover a similar bomb planted in St Paul's Cathedral just two days after and averting another disaster.

westminster abbey history

Damage During Second World War

The Blitz caused some minor damage to Westminster Abbey on 15th November 1940. However, more significant damage from WW2 was done on the night of 10th/11th May 1941. Firebombs were dropped on the abbey roof and other nearby precincts. While most fires were put out easily, one firebomb that fell on the lantern roof burned through the wood and melted the lead that then fell into the abbey. 

Flames arose almost 40 feet into the sky, but luckily, the burning timbers fell mostly into the open area below the roof, allowing it to be put out easily without causing much damage. The ARP (Air Raid Precaution) wardens helped put out the fires easily.

westminster abbey history

Abbey After War

It was at Westminster Abbey where churchmen led by the Dean of Westminster translated the Bible into English, creating the King James Version of the Bible in the 17th century. The Committee working on the New English Bible would also meet at the abbey between the 1950s and 1960s. 

In 1997, the abbey began charging visitors for entry, and in the same year, the abbey conducted a funeral for Princess Diana. In 2010, Pope Benedict became the first pope to ever set foot in Westminster Abbey. On 29th April 2011, Prince William got married to Kate Middleton at Westminster Abbey. 

Coronations at Westminster Abbey

westminster abbey coronations

Burials at Westminster Abbey

westminster abbey burials
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Westminster Abbey Today

Even to this day, Westminster Abbey continues to follow a daily worship pattern along with conducting some special and annual services, from weekly Sunday organ recitals to celebrations of the victory in the Battle of Britain in 1940. 

After the outbreak of Covid-19, Westminster Abbey also contributed by conducting a vaccination drive in the Poets' Corner on 10th March 2021. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Westminster Abbey History

Q. Why was Westminster Abbey created?

A. In the initial years, Westminster Abbey existed as a Benedictine Monastery, after which it was turned into an abbey in the 1100s. It is said that a fisherman had a vision of Saint Peter on the banks of River Thames, soon after which the abbey was constructed at the spot. 

Q. How has Westminster Abbey changed over time?

A. This is a question which cannot be answered easily, as Westminster Abbey has gone through many changes of its own. The West End of Westminster Abbey was completed during the coronation of Queen Victoria in the year 1838 and ever since then, more renovations have been made to Westminster Abbey, including a west tower which was built in the early 20th century.

Q. What is Westminster Abbey's history?

A. In 1066, Westminster Abbey became a coronation church following the crowning of William the Conqueror as King of England. In 1245, Westminster Abbey was officially declared a church and this is where the abbey's history formed. Since then, Westminster Abbey has been open and continues to hold services for people even to this day.

Q. What is Westminster Abbey used for?

A. Today, apart from everyday and weekly services, Westminster Abbey is also used for conducting British Coronations, burials and memorials for famous people, and other joyous occasions like Royal weddings. 

Q. What happened in Westminster Abbey's past?

A. Westminster Abbey has gone through many changes, especially when it comes to renovations and restorations. One of Westminster Abbey's most recent renovations was the west end of Westminster Abbey which was completed in 1838, the coronation of Queen Victoria. The abbey has also been bombed in WW2 and been the burial place for many kings of queens of England.