Westminster Abbey. Church in London, England

Westminster Abbey

Church in London, England

Westminster Abbey Photo © Greg Sparrow

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Westminster Abbey

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Westminster Abbey - Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey - Westminster Abbey. Photo by Better Than Bacon
Westminster Abbey is a large church in the city of Westminster, London, United Kingdom. Famous for its monarchical connotations, it has been the venue for British coronations for centuries.

Formal Title

Although commonly known as Westminster Abbey, its formal title is the ‘Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster’. Initially known as St. Peter’s Abbey, its association with the saint is likely to have arisen from the legend of a young fisherman who is said to have seen a vision of St. Peter on or near the site.

Location

Situated to the west of the Palace of Westminster, the site used to be an ait on the River Thames (Wikipedia
	Article) called Thorney Island. The surrounding marshy areas have since been reclaimed via a civil engineering project of the 19th century that created the Thames Embankment, and thus the island is now integrated with the mainland.

Previous Churches

It was documented in the 11th century that there had been a church on the site from as early as the 7th century, at the time when Mellitus (Wikipedia Article) had been Bishop of London at St. Paul’s Cathedral. This relies solely on the reports of the Benedictine monk, Sulcard, who was based at the abbey from around 1050 and wrote its first history. The first verified use of the site was when the community of Benedictine monks were installed at the abbey in the latter half of the 10th century.

The rebuilding of St. Peter’s Abbey, as it was then known, commenced in the mid-11th century under the orders of King Edward the Confessor. This construction was in a Norman Romanesque architectural style and was completed in approximately 1090, although it was consecrated in 1065. The king did not live to see the completed structure, and was buried in the church in 1066. The only depiction of King Edward’s church is in the Bayeux Tapestry, which is displayed in Normandy, France, while its full-size replica can be viewed in Reading, United Kingdom.

The Present Building

The Westminster Abbey that can be seen today was constructed between 1245 and 1517 in a predominantly Gothic architectural style. It was commissioned by King Henry III as a shrine in memory of King Edward the Confessor, and was also to provide King Henry’s tomb, which he wanted to be positioned under the highest nave in the country. After his death in 1272, King Henry was buried according to his wishes in front of the High Altar, in the former resting place of his idol, King Edward the Confessor. His body was subsequently moved to a grander tomb in the abbey in 1290, where it remains today.

The ‘Lady Chapel’ was added under the reign of King Henry VII between 1503 and 1519, and the two distinctive towers on the west side of the building were constructed in the 18th century, being completed in 1745. No further additions to the structure were undertaken after this time, although a narthex (Wikipedia Article) entrance area was planned during the mid-12th century and never materialized.

Westminster Abbey -
	Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey - Westminster Abbey. Photo by Juan Salmoral

A Brief Cathedral

Under the reign of King Henry VIII, the English Reformation was introduced, creating the Church of England as a separate body to the Roman Catholic Church. King Henry VIII initiated the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the abolition of the Chantries Acts (Wikipedia
	Article), which meant that all religious property was allocated to the Crown. Under the new legislation, most abbeys faced dissolution and destruction, a fate met by many churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral.

As the king wished to save Westminster Abbey, he granted it the status of cathedral in 1540. His reasons for saving the abbey are not known, but it is possible that he held some affection for it as it was the location of his coronation in 1509 and his marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533. The Diocese of Westminster was dissolved in 1550, although the abbey was still recognized as a cathedral until 1556.

Coronations

The successor of King Edward the Confessor, King Harold II, was likely to have been the first coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1066, but the first documented coronation was that of King William I, more commonly known as William the Conqueror, later in 1066.

Since then, almost all British coronations have taken place at Westminster Abbey, totaling 39. The most recent was that of reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, in 1953.

Royal Weddings

17 royal weddings have been held at Westminster Abbey, with the marriage of Prince William of Wales to Miss Catherine Middleton being the most recent, having taken place in 2011.

Westminster Abbey
	Cloister - Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey Cloister - Westminster Abbey. Photo by Patrick McKay

Visiting Westminster Abbey

This religious landmark is at the heart of British history, and as such it attracts in excess of one million visitors per year. Audio guides are provided on admission, and these are available in 11 different languages. Alternatively, traditional guided tours by church staff members are also available.

Visitors can enjoy the stunning architecture, such as the Gothic vault, which is the highest in the country at just over 30 meters. It has been made to seem even higher through the use of narrow aisles. The lavish use of marble and the spacious coronation area add to the regal feel of the building.

King Henry VII’s ornate Lady Chapel uses a contrasting architecture to the main abbey, and has been described as ‘one of the most perfect buildings’ in England. Despite the original stained glass not being present, this section of the abbey boasts a beautiful fan vaulted roof and displays almost 100 statues of saints in wall niches.

Other fascinating sights include the Coronation Chair, and spectacular panoramic views of London can be experienced by ascending the western towers. As well as the tombs of monarchs, there is a wealth of historic art to peruse, including wall paintings and the exquisite paved floor in front of the High Altar.

Tower - Westminster
	Abbey
Tower - Westminster Abbey. Photo by Dan_Thomas

Opening Times and Entry Charges

Westminster Abbey is open to the public every week from Monday to Saturday. The standard opening times between May and August are from 09:30 AM until 15:30 PM except for Wednesdays and Saturdays, when it stays open until 18:00 PM. From September to April, the standard opening hours are reduced to 09:30 AM to 13:30 PM. Always check the official website before visiting in case opening times are going to be affected by special events.

An admission charge is applicable when visiting Westminster Abbey, and this is £18 ($27) for adults, £15 ($23) for students and senior citizens and £8 ($12) for children aged between eleven and eighteen. Children under eleven are admitted free when accompanied by an adult, and family tickets are also available. Visitors using wheelchairs will be unable to access all areas of the abbey, and as such, wheelchair users and their carers are granted free admission.

Admission includes the use of an audio guide. If a guided tour is required, this costs £15 ($23) for adults, £12 ($18) for concessions and £6 ($9.12) for children aged between six and eighteen.

How to Get There

Based in the center of London, Westminster Abbey is close to Big Ben, Parliament Square and the Palace of Westminster. It can be easily reached by public transport, and the nearest underground stations are Westminster, which is on the Jubilee, District and Circle Lines, and St. James’s Park, which is on the District and Circle Lines.

From Westminster, cross Parliament Square onto Broad Sanctuary, and the abbey will be on the left. From St. James’s Park, turn right onto Broadway, which shortly changes into Tothill Street. Follow Tothill Street, taking a right at the end onto Storey’s Gate and then a left onto Broad Sanctuary. Westminster Abbey will be on the right.

Bus routes serving Westminster Abbey are the 11, 24, 88, 148 and 211. Further information on routes and times can be found on the transport for London website.

Driving to Westminster Abbey is not advisable as there are no parking facilities at the site. However, a public car park can be found on Great College Street, which is a two-minute walk away.

York Minster
York Minster

Similar Attractions You May Enjoy

Whilst in London, be sure to pay a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Bridge. Churches in other parts of the country you might find of interest include York Minster, Liverpool Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral.

Outside the United Kingdom, stunning religious architecture can be found in Europe at the Innsbruck Cathedral in Switzerland and the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain.

The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral is a beautiful church in Mexico, and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine is a spectacular sight in New York, United States.

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Author: Ruth Hayward. Last updated: Jan 07, 2015

Pictures of Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey. Photo by Chuck Siefke

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