Westminster Abbey, officially known as the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, is a Gothic church in Westminster, London, just west of the Palace of Westminster. Since the coronation of William the Conqueror on Christmas Day in 1066, Westminster Abbey has served as the venue for the coronation of almost all English monarchs.
History of Westminster Abbey
Legend holds that a shrine was initially erected at the present site of Westminster Abbey in 616, in an area then known as Thorney Island. Around 1040, King Edward I chose a nearby piece of land to build his royal palace and decided to enhance and endow the existing monastery. His vision included the construction of a substantial Romanesque-style stone church dedicated to St. Peter the Apostle. By December 28, 1065, the newly built church, known as St. Peter’s Cathedral, was completed. To differentiate it from St. Paul’s Cathedral, another significant London church referred to as the “East-minster”, the new church received the name of “West-minster”.
Between 1245 and 1517, a gradual reconstruction took place in the English Gothic style led by Henry III. This rebuilding initiative aimed to create a shrine in honour of Edward the Confessor and provide an appropriately regal setting for Henry’s tomb, positioned beneath what would become the highest Gothic nave in England. The “new” cathedral was officially dedicated on October 13, 1269.
Unlike many other English abbeys, Westminster Abbey was spared from destruction during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1534 due to its royal connections. Henry VIII claimed it, and the expression “robbing Peter to pay Paul” may have originated from this period when funds intended for the abbey were diverted to St. Paul’s Cathedral. In 1579, Elizabeth reinstated Westminster as a “royal peculiar”—a church directly accountable to the sovereign, with the designation of the Collegiate Church of St. Peter.
Throughout the tumultuous 1640s, the abbey suffered damage from Puritan iconoclast attacks but found protection through its close ties to the state during the Commonwealth period. In 1658, Oliver Cromwell received an elaborate funeral there, only to be disinterred in January 1661 after the monarchy’s restoration. His empty tomb remains visible inside.
Guided by architects Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, the abbey’s two western towers were constructed between 1722 and 1745, showcasing an early example of Gothic Revival design using Portland stone. Further rebuilding and restoration occurred in the nineteenth century under Sir George Gilbert Scott.
Until the nineteenth century, Westminster was the third centre of learning in England, following Oxford and Cambridge universities. It was the site where the first third of the King James Bible Old Testament and the last half of the New Testament were translated. In the twentieth century, the New English Bible was compiled at the abbey.
The Abbey Today
Throughout the centuries, Westminster Abbey has played a central role in the coronation ceremonies of British monarchs. With the exceptions of Edward V and Edward VIII, who were never crowned, every monarch since William the Conqueror has been formally coronated within the walls of Westminster Abbey. The church has witnessed 40 coronations, with the most recent being that of Charles III on May 26, 2023.
Moreover, Westminster Abbey has become the resting place for numerous monarchs, among them Henry III, Edward III, Richard II, and Henry V, and hosted royal funerals, including Queen Elizabeth II’s in 2022. The church boasts over 600 wall tablets and monuments, with more than 3,000 individuals interred within its sacred grounds. The renowned Poets’ Corner stands out, featuring burial crypts and memorials dedicated to illustrious writers and artists such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, and the Brontë sisters. Another notable memorial is the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, housing the remains of an unidentified soldier who perished in World War I. In Britain, this tomb serves as a symbol of remembrance for those who sacrificed their lives in service to their country.
Beyond its role as a venue for royal coronations and burials, Westminster Abbey has been the location of 17 royal weddings, including the highly publicized 2011 union of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. The ceremony, together with the wedding of King Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, was watched by millions of people around the world.
Despite its role as a tourist attraction and a venue for significant ceremonies, Westminster Abbey remains an active place of worship. The abbey hosts regular weekly church services every Sunday and during religious holidays, maintaining its status as a working house of worship.
- british monarchy
- great britain
- united kingdom
- edward i
- henry iii
- charles iii
- elizabeth ii
- royal weddings
- royal funerals