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The hidden depths of Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey by Canaletto, 1749

Westminster Abbey provided the backdrop to the biggest television event in history in 2012: 2 Billion people worldwide watched the Royal wedding that took place there. This was, of course, not the first historic event the Abbey has seen in its thousand-year history. Westminster Abbey has been the church of coronation for British monarchs since 1066 and seventeen monarchs are buried there, including Queen Elizabeth I. Since the Reformation, the Abbey has become deeply associated with Britain’s Protestant royalty and the Church of England. However, because the Abbey dates back to at least the tenth century, it was in fact a Roman Catholic church for most of its history.

More specifically, it was the Pope’s church. From 1222 until the Reformation, Westminster Abbey was a “Papal peculiar,” meaning that it was outside the control of the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury. It only became a “Royal peculiar” in 1533 when British monarch took over the pope’s jurisdiction over the Abbey. There was therefore no small historic resonance last September 17 when the pope celebrated an ecumenical service of Evening Prayer at the Abbey.

Around 960AD the then bishop of London, Dunstan, established a small monastic community of 12 monks at the site of the current Abbey, which was at the time a small marshy island on the banks of the Thames, known as Thorney Island. A century later, King Edward built his palace on the island and richly endowed the monastery, granting lands to the Abbey and commencing the construction of a large stone church.

At that time, England’s monastic churches were known as ‘ministers.’ Edward’s new church was known as the West Minister, to distinguish it from the East Minister, now St Paul’s Cathedral, which lay further eastward along the Thames. This is how Westminster got its name.

Edward’s new church was dedicated in December 1065. Little did Edward know that he would die the next month, and his death would provoke a battle between his successor Harold and another claimant to the throne, William, Duke of Normandy. William would be crowned king of England in that very church the following year, Harold himself having been killed by the Norman forces at the Battle of Hastings.

The Bayeux Tapestry even depicts the coronation of William taking place in Westminster Abbey, showing the hand of God himself reaching down and anointing the new Norman king. Edward was later canonised in 1161, and became known as St Edward the Confessor.

After the Norman conquest of England, the Abbey continued as a thriving and prominent Benedictine monastery. It is hard to imagine now, but the Abbey was once surrounded by fields, orchards and vineyards, which ran down to the Thames where the Houses of Parliament now stand. The Abbey’s monks often dined on fish and fowl from that river.

The only remnants of those green acres are the Abbey’s private gardens, which claim to be the oldest gardens in England. These peaceful well-tended oases in central London play host to garden parties each summer and are surrounded by the apartments and houses of Anglican clergy.

London’s Covent Garden (“Convent Garden”) was in fact the Abbey’s vegetable garden up until Henry VIII acquired it from the Abbey, before suppressing the monasteries.

The current church was begun by Henry III in 1245 and is one of the most significant Gothic buildings in Britain. A shrine to a medieval Anglo-Saxon saint still lies at its heart. Many of the most well-known people in British history are commemorated here. Amongst the many illustrious names on its many plaques and tombs are Winston Churchill, Gladstone, Disraeli and William Wilberforce, the man who successfully campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Other plaques might fall foul of modern sensibilities about race and ethnicity, such as the one which commemorates, “the members of the British race who served in Malaya.”

Not all of those commemorated are British, however, and the Irish do get their oar in occasionally: For example, one stone plaque dated 1762 is dedicated to the memory of an Irishman, Arthur O’Keeffe, “lineally descended form the Kings of Ireland, the best of husbands and the worthiest of men, deceit and guile he knew not.” Another, from 1709, marks the resting place of “John Coleman esq., borne in the Parish Kilconnell in the County of Galway in the Kingdome of Ireland” (sic.) In “Poet’s Corner” there is a commemoration to Dublin-born poet Oscar Wilde alongside memorials to Wordsworth, Shelly and Keats.

One of the more poignant, and best-known, memorials is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. In the wake of the devastation of the First World War the remains of a single unknown soldier was buried in the Abbey on 11 November 1920, two years after the Armistice. Simultaneously, the remains of an unknown French soldier were interred at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The body for the Westminster tomb was selected in such a way that it could be from any regiment or battlefield. Indeed, given that some 35,000 Irish soldiers died in the Great War, the unknown soldier may even be an Irishman. Upon his burial, a medieval crusader's sword was affixed to the casket and he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Hour and the Victoria Cross.

While the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is a tasteful and moving memorial, consisting of a simple slab of black marble, other memorials are quite militaristic and even include statues of soldiers standing with machine guns, along with regimental colours.

Westminster Abbey embodies the division, and the continuity, of faith in Britain over the past thousand years. The Abbey’s joint Catholic and Protestant heritage is perhaps best encapsulated in a single tomb. The tomb of the protestant queen, Elizabeth I, is shared with her Catholic predecessor and half-sister, Mary I, Queen of Scots. When Mary succeeded to the throne in 1533, she restored England’s religious loyalty to Rome, and also re-established a Benedictine monastery at Westminster, it having been dissolved by her father, Henry VIII. Yet, after only 5 years, Mary’s reign ended and she was replaced by Elizabeth, who ensured that Britain would become a Protestant country.

The Latin inscription on their shared tomb poignantly reads: “Partners both in throne and in grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of one Resurrection.”


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