The Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster (famously known as Westminster Abbey) is among the most remarkable historical and religious sites in the United Kingdom, one of the most important Gothic buildings in the country, as well as the most impressive single collection of monumental sculpture. It has served as the traditional place for royal coronations since 1066 and as a burial site for monarchs, politicians, scientists and artists. Every year, it attracts over one million curious visitors to its grounds, presenting the interested with audio guides in seven languages.
Its history dates back to the 1040s with King Edward (later known as St Edward the Confessor) establishing his royal palace on Thorney Island. Enlarging an already-existing Benedictine monastery, he built a big stone church to honour St Peter the Apostle. It became known as the “west minster” to be distinguished from St Paul’s Cathedral (the east minster) in the City of London. The king became ill and died a couple of days after the church was consecrated. Only traces of the monastery have survived up until this day – the only representation of the original building being shown on the Bayeux Tapestry.
The most important ceremonies that took place in the abbey then were the coronation of William the Conqueror and the moving of King Edward’s body to a new tomb after his canonisation. In the mid-13 century, King Henry III rebuilt the abbey in the new Anglo-French Gothic style of architecture to honour St Edward. The church was consecrated in 1269 but the older structure stood attached to the new one for many years. Later, the magnificent Lady Chapel built by King Henry VII and receiving his name was an outstanding new addition to the abbey.
After that, a further addition was made – the western towers were finally completed. The youngest part of the abbey is the North entrance, completed in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, almost all of the original medieval stained glass of the building has been lost. Since 1560, the building is no longer an abbey, nor a cathedral. By Royal charter of Queen Elizabeth I, buried in Henry VII’s chapel, it was established as a Collegiate Church governed by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, a “Royal Peculiar” – a church responsible directly to the sovereign.
The practice of burying national figures in the abbey began with the burial of Admiral Robert Blake in 1657. It soon spread to include politicians, doctors and the like such as the famous Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and William Wilberforce who was the leader of the movement against slavery in the UK. To add, in the centre of the nave (England’s highest) is the tomb of The Unknown Warrior, a nameless World War I soldier killed on European ground, and nearby one can see a marble memorial stone of Winston Churchill. There is also a memorial chapel to the airmen of the RAF, as well as memorials to Shakespeare, Brontë and Jane Austen in the Poets’ Corner.
The heart of the abbey holds the beautiful sanctuary, used for the coronations, royal weddings and funerals, and the most sacred spot is the shrine of St Edward, generally restricted to visitors. Some parts of the complex are free for tourists, for example the Cloister and the 900-year-old College Garden.