Westminster Abbey was built on the orders of Edward the Confessor and consecrated on 28th December 1065. Small parts of this original Abbey survive, including a door in the Chapter House Vestibule, claimed as the oldest door in Britain. Dating techniques have revealed that timber used to make the door was felled sometime between 1032 and 1064.
Henry III rebuilt Westminster Abbey in Gothic style in the mid thirteenth century, as a symbolic centre of his kingdom. There are many aspects to this symbolism. Since the Norman Conquest in 1066 England had been part of a wider European empire. But by the mid thirteenth century things were different. Henry III's father King John had been the last monarch to rule England while it was part of the old European empire. With the loss of continental holdings to the French king Philip, England became an island country. For a country looking for identity it made sense to celebrate the last king who ruled England as an independent kingdom before the Norman conquest. This was Edward the Confessor, who had died in January 1066. His successor King Harold had of course lost the Battle of Hastings to William the Conqueror. So Edward the Confessor became an idol for the new England. Westminster Abbey was the Confessor's church, hence Henry III's enthusiasm for remodelling the building. And yet the abbey's new styling did not recall old Anglo Saxon England. Instead it was built in the latest and most fashionable French style. This is well illustrated by the great round window over the main door, so reminiscent of Notre Dame in Paris. Westminster Abbey wanted to do two things, recall apparent glories of the past, and also suggest a country striding into the future. Hundreds of years later in the nineteenth century, the rebuilt Houses of Parliament standing next to Westminster Abbey would try to achieve the same trick.
Westminster Abbey was to be a symbol of spiritual security for a new country. But like all great religious buildings there are also many suggestions of a more down to earth kind of security. The building has many elements of military architecture. Battlements are clearly visible in the picture above. It's "gothic" style has been compared with military architecture by G.K. Chesterton who in describing Lincoln Cathedral said: "The truth about Gothic is... that it is on the march. It is the Church Militant.... All its spires are spears at rest; and all its stones are stones asleep in a catapult" (From A Miscellany of Men by G.K. Chesterton, quoted in The Plantagenets by John Harvey P92). The castle parallels would once have been clearer than they are now, since the abbey was built on what was originally a small island. Rivers would have roughly followed the line of the current roads around Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament today, forming a "moat". The island was an area of sanctuary, where not even the king's authority was recognised. So Westminster Abbey, originally built on an island, was a symbol of spiritual and physical security for the new island country of England. And yet with all that said, there is still that fashionable French styling to remember, which suggests that England, inspite of thinking of itself as an island country, was still part of the wider world.
The abbey contains the shrine to Edward the Confessor, tombs of many kings and queens, including Henry III, Edward I, Henry V, Elizabeth I, and that of the Unknown Warrior close to the West Door. There are also tombs and memorials of many famous authors in an area now known as Poet's Corner. Geoffrey Chaucer was the first author to be buried here. As Chaucer's work became more respected his tomb became something of a secular shrine. In 1599 the poet Edmund Spenser was buried within feet of his beloved Chaucer, followed in the sixteenth century by Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson and Abraham Cowley. By 1700 John Dryden's burial confirmed Westminster Abbey as a secular literary shrine. Joseph Addison writing in The Spectator in 1711 now referred to the north transept as "the poetical quarter". Poet's Corner is a striking confirmation of Matthew Arnold's nineteenth century vision that English literature was something close to religion as a "social cement", supposedly holding society together and providing moral fibre. For more on the implications of Matthew Arnold's idea see History of English literature.
The exterior of Westminster Abbey was used during the filming of The Da Vinci Code.
Address: Westminster Abbey, London SW1P 3PA
Opening Times: Please use contact details below. There is no tourist visiting on Sundays.
There is a museum in the undercroft below the former monks' dormitory. This is one of the oldest parts of the abbey, dating back almost to the foundation of the church by Edward the Confessor in 1065. The exhibition in the museum is based around royal effigies.The museum is open Monday to Saturday from 10.30am - 4pm, and it is possible to enter the museum without entering the abbey church. Do check before you visit as some changes to opening hours may be necessary due to State, Royal or special events.
Directions: Westminster Abbey is in central London next to Parliament Square opposite the Houses of Parliament.
Access: Some areas are inaccessible to wheelchairs, so admission is free to wheelchair users and their carers. Disabled visitors should use the North Door where a ramp is available. For those with vision problems many parts of the abbey can be explored through touch. A marshall or volunteer, identified by green and red gowns will be able to help. Large print and Braille versions of the Welcome Guide are available, and there is a Braille diagram of the abbey. A hearing loop system is installed. Documents from the library, reached by a spiral staircase, can be made available to disabled visitors by prior appointment. There are no toilets in the abbey itself. The nearest toilets are in Broad Sanctuary opposite the West Towers of the Abbey.
Tours are available for individuals, families, groups and schools. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
telephone: 020 7222 5152
fax: 020 7233 2072
web site: http://www.westminster-abbey.org/home