Westminster Abbey is one of the most famous, historic and widely visited churches not only in Britain but in the whole Christian world. There are other reasons for its fame apart from its beauty and its vital role as a centre of the Christian faith in one of the world’s most important capital cities. These include the facts that since 1066 every sovereign apart from Edward Y and Edward YIII has been crowned here and that for many centuries it was also the burial place of kings, queens and princes.
The royal connections began even earlier than the present Abbey, for it was Edward the Confessor, sometimes called the last of the English kings(1042-66) and canonised in 1163, who established an earlier church on this site. His great Norman Abbey was built close to his palace on Thorney Island. It was completed in 1065 and stood surrounded by the many ancillary buildings needed by the community of Benedictine monks who passed their lives of prayer here. Edward’s death near the time of his Abbey’s consecration made it natural for his burial place to be by the High Altar.
Only 200 years later, the Norman east end of the Abbey was demolished and rebuilt on the orders of Henry III, who had a great devotion to Edward the Confessor and wanted to honour him. The central focus of the new Abbey was a magnificent shrine to house St Edward’s body ; the remains of this shrine, dismantled at the Reformation but later reerected in rather a clumsy and piecemeal way, can still be seen behind the High Altar today.
The new Abbey remained incomplete until 1376, when the rebuilding of the Nave began; it was not finished until 150 years later, but the master masons carried on a similar thirteenth-century Gothic, French-influenced design, as that of Henry III’s initial work, over that period, giving the whole a beautiful harmony of style.
In the early sixteenth century the Lady Chapel was rebuilt as the magnificent Henry YII Chapel; with its superb fan-vaulting it is one of Westminster’s great treasures.
In the mid-eighteenth century the last malor additions - the two western towers designed by Hawksmoor - were made to the main fabric of the Abbey.
THE NAVE was begun by Abbot Litlington who financed the work with money left by Cardinal Simon Langham, his predecessor, for the use of the monastery. The master mason in charge of the work was almost certainly the great Henry Yevele. His design depended on the extra strength given to the structure by massive flying buttresses. These enabled the roof to be raised to a height of 102 feet. The stonework of the vaulting has been cleaned and the bosses gilded in recent years.
At the west end of the Nave is a magnificent window filled with stained glass of 1735, probably designed by Sir James Thornhill (1676-1734).(He also painted the interior of the dome in St Paul’s Cathedral} The design shows Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with fourteen prophets, and underneath are the arms of King Sebert, Elizabeth I, George II, Dean Wilcocks and the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster.
Also at the west end of the Nave is the grave of the Unknown Warrior. The idea for such a memorial is said to have come from a British chaplain who noticed, in a back garden at Armeentieeres, a grave with the simple inscription: «An unknown British soldier». In 1920 the body of another unknown soldier was brought back from the battlefields to be reburied in the Abbey on 11 November. George Y and Queen Mary and many other members of the royal family attended the service, 100 holders of the Victoria Cross lining the Nave as a Guard of Honour. On a nearby pillar hangs the Congressional Medal, the highest award which can be conferred by the United St ates.
From the Nave roof hang chandeliers, both giving light and in daylight reflecting it from their hundreds of pedant crystals. They were a gift to mark the 900th anniversary of the Abbey and are of Waterford glass.
At the east end of the Nave is the screen separating it from the Choir. Designed by the then Surveyor, Edward Blore, in 1834, it is the fourth screen to be placed here; the wrought-iron gates, however, remain from a previous screen. Within recent years the screen has been painted and glided.
THE CHOIR was originally the part of the Abbey in which the monks worshipped, but there is now no trace of the pre- Reformation fittings, for in the late eighteenth century Kneene, the then Surveyor, removed the thirteenth-century stalls and designed a smaller Choir. This was in turn destroyed in the mid-nineteenth century by Edward Blore, who created the present Choir in Victoria Gothic style and removed the partitions which until then had blocked off the transepts