The Westminster Abbey

We all get an idea that the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, now more popularly known as The Westminster Abbey has been an important site for the monarchs of England in many movies like the “Da Vinci Code”, “Stone of Destiny”, “The Young Victoria” and “ The King’s Speech”. And we confirm this to be reality when the whole world watched Prince William of Wales and Miss Catherine Middleton exchange their vows in this church. But not everyone knows that this magnificent structure underwent about seven centuries of construction before becoming the wonder that it is today.


North Side of the Westminster Abbey

In 960AD, a small Benedictine monastery was founded under the patronage of King Edgar and St. Dunstain. And in the early 11th century, King Edward (late St. Edward the confessor) chose this monastery to be greatly enlarged and be a huge stone church in honor of the apostle, St. Peter. And this church became known as Westminster and was consecrated on Dec. 28, 1065. This explains why there are still traces of round arches and massive supportive columns of the undercroft and Pyx chamber in the cloisters suggesting a touch of the early medieval period style.

King Edward’s Abbey lasted for about two centuries until King Henry III, in the year 1245, decided to rebuild it in the new gothic style of architecture, following other cathedrals like Amiens, Eureux, and Chartres in France, and Canterbury, Winchester and Salisbury in England. Henry of Reyns, John of Gloucester and Robert of Beverly were the three masons that supervised the work. And from this reconstruction came most of the gothic features that we see in the abbey such as the pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, rose windows and flying buttresses.


Nave Vaulting of the Westminster Abbey


Rose Window on the South Side of the Abbey

Continental system of geometrical proportion was said to be the basis of the design but still English features prevailed through the use of a single aisle rather than a double aisle and a long nave with wide projecting transepts which helped making the already tallest gothic vaulting in England seem much higher. Adding to the Englishness is the elaborate mouldings of the main arches, and the sumptuous use of polished Purbeck marble for the columns and the overall structural ornamentation.

And since the Westminster has been the venue for coronations of the monarchs since William the Conqueror, they placed a spacious area between the high altar and the beginning of the quire. Bright ruby and sapphire glass along with heraldic shields in a monochrome pattern that covered the windows are also considered remarkable feature of the abbey.

But in 1272, King Henry III’s death resulted in the halt of construction thus leaving the church unfinished. And only a century after was it carried on under the leadership of Abbot Nicholas Litlyngton who insisted to follow King Henry’s gothic design to maintain architectural unity. And the construction was continued by the head mason of the project, Henry Yevele, who made only slight revisions in the architectural design.

After this the next great addition to the structure was already the new Lady Chapel of Henry VII, constructed between 1509 and 1579. It’s believed that Robert Janyns and William Vertue were the architects of this building that has been called “one of the most perfect buildings that ever erected in England” and “the wonder of the world”. The chapel’s splendor lies in its skillfully carved vaulted roof with hanging pendants that were constructed on half concealed traversed arches that resulted from the craftsmanship of Pietro Torrigiano, an Italian sculptor.


Vaulting in King Henry VII’s Chapel

Then finally, two centuries later, the completion of the West Towers in Portland stone in 1745 designed by the abbey’s surveyor, Nicholas Hawksmoor marked the last phase of the building.


The West Towers and the Flying Buttresses

Surely it was a quite long history of planning, financing and constructing until this very important “Royal Peculiar”, where the royal weddings and burial of monarchs takes place, was completed. But this just shows how a single structure can stand as a testimony of the abstract idea of the history of the place where it sets upon.

Minimo, Bighani G. || 2011-20216