Westminster Abbey: a royal church with national significance

Westminster Abbey has been Britain's coronation church since 1066.(Photo: Unsplash/Max Kukurudziak)

The royal funeral for Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey on Sept. 19, 2022, was a public ceremony on a truly global scale. In the days before, long snaking queues of mourners waited to file past her coffin as it lay in state in Westminster Hall. Hundreds of the world's leaders descended upon London for the event while international media covered the pageantry with seemingly endless interest.

After the funeral at Westminster, the late queen's body was taken to Windsor Castle for burial. Yet Elizabeth's death added a remarkable new chapter to the long relationship between English sovereigns and the complex of buildings at Westminster that form the seat of the modern British state.

The sight of scores of sailors pulling the queen's coffin on a gun carriage and the distinctly Tudor-style red uniforms of the Yeomen of the Guard were among the many details of the royal funeral that evoked powerful ties to Britain's imperial past. However, many aspects – including the sailors – are by no means ancient. Despite their emphasis upon tradition, royal ceremonies have always been somewhat fluid and reflective of the politics of their day.

As a historian of early modern England, I am conscious that the public rituals of monarchy in the 16th and 17th centuries sought to project reassuring elements of continuity amid dramatic changes. Modern royal weddings and funerals at Westminster Abbey have been similarly adapted to contemporary needs, and are largely products of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Westminster Palace, dominating the skyline with Big Ben and the Victoria Tower, is of a similar vintage. Built to replace the ramshackle old medieval and Tudor Westminster Palace which burned down in 1834, the current Westminster Palace complex was designed to provide a suitably historic-looking new home for the Houses of Parliament.

However, nearby Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall, the major surviving section of the old structure, hark back to England's medieval past. They offer genuinely ancient settings for the modern rituals of monarchy, often televised for a global audience.

Projecting power

Westminster Abbey became a church of royal importance in the 1040s, when Edward the Confessor, one of the last Anglo-Saxon kings of England, replaced an older monastery dedicated with a new construction of suitably royal proportions. The project was so important that Edward and his new royal abbey were featured in the famous, 70 meter-long Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the Norman conquest of England in 1066 after Edward's death.

Edward himself was buried within the Abbey, and canonized as a saint a century later, turning his tomb into a royal shrine. Westminster also served as the venue for the coronation of Edward's eventual successor on the throne, William the Conqueror. William's crowning began a tradition of coronations in the abbey that will presumably continue with Charles III some time in 2023.

Edward's Westminster Abbey was replaced in the mid-1200s with the modern-day building, although the two great towers that now loom above the abbey were not added until the early 18th century. This rebuilding was carried out during the long and tumultuous reign of Henry III, whose father King John had famously been forced to agree to the Magna Carta, which put limits on the monarch's power.

Henry endeavored to rebuild authority in response to royals' troubles during his father's reign, not to mention his own. Part of this plan involved trying to bring Westminster Abbey even greater fame, especially since he regarded Edward the Confessor as his patron saint. Henry presented its monks with a crystalline vial of what was supposedly Christ's own blood, brought from Jerusalem by Crusaders. Matthew Paris, a monk and chronicler in the 13th century, describes how the king himself carried the dubious relic on foot from St. Paul's Cathedral in London to Westminster Abbey on the feast day of St. Edward the Confessor in 1247.

A more enduring addition by Henry III was the so-called Cosmati Pavement, a mosaic installed by craftsmen from Rome in 1268 to 1269. Laid in front of the abbey's high altar, the pavement ensured that subsequent kings of England would not only be crowned while seated upon the throne of Edward the Confessor, but also within a 24-foot square artwork which symbolically represents the cosmos and represented the new sovereign as the motivating force of the universe.

King, queens and poets

Westminster Abbey has also been a frequent venue for royal funerals and burials. Since the early 19th century, almost all British sovereigns have been buried at Windsor Castle, including Elizabeth II. However, most earlier kings and queens were interred in tombs and vaults at Westminster.

Perhaps the most spectacular contribution to this tradition was the new chapel at the eastern end of the abbey, which was built in the early 1500s by Henry VII. The first of the Tudor sovereigns, he had a tenuous dynastic claim on the throne and, by the end of his life, a heavy burden of tyranny and illegality – and the chapel was a way to atone. It became the final resting place for most of the Tudors, arguably England's most famous and glamorous royal dynasty.

Westminster Abbey was never solely a burial place for monarchs and their families, however. For centuries, aristocrats and favored commoners have also been interred there. One part of the abbey is known as Poets' Corner, where a selection of illustrious literary figures have been buried, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer, author of "The Canterbury Tales," in 1400. In 1599, he was joined by Edmund Spenser, whose allegorical poem "The Faerie Queene" included elaborate praise for Elizabeth I. Spenser's coffin was accompanied to his grave by the leading poets of Elizabethan London, including William Shakespeare.

When Shakespeare himself died in 1616, he was buried at his hometown church in Stratford-upon-Avon, but a memorial in his honor was installed at Westminster Abbey in 1740. Other illustrious individuals interred there include scientists Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking.

Over the centuries, Westminster Abbey has endured a variety of dangers: everything from 17th-century Puritans trying to destroy religious images inside, which they considered idolatrous, to a homemade nail bomb planted by a suffragette in 1914, to the bombs dropped by the German Luftwaffe during the Second World War.

Westminster Abbey has done more than recover; the church has effectively become a kind of national cathedral. It offers a deep sense of historical continuity, which reassuringly obscures the relative modernity of many public rituals of monarchy – the same ones millions of people around the world have watched play out this week.

Paul Hammer is Professor of History at the University of Colorado Boulder. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.