Crowning Glory: Westminster Abbey

Crowning Glory: Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey in London was the site of William the Conqueror’s coronation in 1066. Since then, every king or queen regnant of England has been crowned there. But, while the history may be continuous, the physical structure of the Abbey has changed over the centuries.

Westminster Abbey seems now to nestle at the very heart of London. At the time of it’s building in the 11th century, however, London had not expanded beyond the boundaries of the “City of London” (today’s financial district).

Its name “West Minster” came from its function as a “minster,” or church attached to an abbey, and its location a mile or two west of the city. Properly named the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter at Westminster, it was built by King Edward the Confessor near the end of his reign. An extremely ambitious undertaking, it was the first church in Saxon England to be built in the Norman style and bigger than any church then standing in Normandy itself!

Edward lived just long enough to see his church consecrated on 28 December 1065. He died a week later on 5 January 1066.

Later that year, William (“the Conqueror”) of Normandy invaded, defeated Harold the Saxon at the Battle of Hastings, and on Christmas Day 1066, was crowned king of England.

He chose Westminster as his coronation site, perhaps to emphasize the continuity of his reign from that of Edward the Confessor. William was the first English monarch to be crowned at Westminster; every subsequent monarch has followed his example.

There are very few pieces of the original abbey of Edward the Confessor left today. William the Conqueror’s great-great-great grandson Henry III thoroughly modernized the Abbey in the 13th century, turning it into the magnificent soaring “Gothic” structure seen today. The Abbey’s museum, located in the undercroft of the monk’s dormitory, is one of the few vestiges from the earlier Abbey that can be seen but, alas, gives little sense of Westminster’s original grand public spaces.

Westminster-Abbey-in-1245Westminster Abbey in 1245, immediately before Henry III begins his transformative workCourtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection

Another Norman abbey, however, still standing, impressive albeit in ruins, can give some clues. Westminster Abbey, in its first incarnation, would probably have been very similar to Jumiege Abbey in Normandy.

William the Conqueror was present at Jumiege’s consecration in 1067, less than two year’s after Westminster’s. It shares its basic form with several other abbeys, including the Abbey of La Trinite at Caen (founded by Mathilda, wife of William the Conqueror, ca. 1060, and the site of her tomb) and the Abbey of St. Etienne at Caen (founded by William the Conqueror after 1066 and the site of his tomb).

William-the-Conqueror-greets-monks-at-the-entry-to-Jumiege-AbbeWilliam the Conqueror greets monks at the entry to Jumiege AbbeyCourtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection

In each of these abbeys, the entrance is through a projecting porch flanked by tall towers (at Jumiege, the towers are 141 feet high).

The visitor then enters a long center interior nave with two rows of columns creating a narrower aisle on each side. The columns consist of strong square pillars alternating with clusters of slender columns. The long nave is broken by a cross bar, the “transept,” and then the chancel, a rounded area at the far end of the church with an “ambulatory” going around and in back of the chancel.

Some of these same characteristics can be found in several later English cathedrals, although they have all been significantly altered. The cathedrals at Ely (1083-1109), Norwich (1096) and Peterborough (1118-1175) all have long, high and grand Norman-style naves, which lend themselves to grand processionals.

The-interior-of-Jumiege-Abbey,-now-in-ruinsThe interior of Jumiege Abbey, now in ruins

Stern strength and lofty grandeur, all the better to frame the true center of the coronation’s attention – Henry and, of course, his Eleanor – no doubt providing all the glitter and glamour needed, her sparkly jewels and robes of luxurious velvet and ermine testifying to her status as duchess of Europe’s wealthiest and most sophisticated duchy, with perhaps her most appreciated asset her seven-months pregnancy, drawing all eyes to this visible representation of the vigor and youth of England’s new king, the first Plantagenet.