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Westminster Abbey, an architectural accomplishment from the thirteenth century on, gives an illustrative display of British history. While daily worship still exists, it isn’t a cathedral or a parish church (Internet Westminster). The elaborate Lady Chapel, the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, as well as tombs and memorials for kings, queens, the famous and great, allow the Abbey to be considered a “Royal Peculiar”, which means that it falls under direct control of the British monarch (Internet Westminster). While every king or queen is significant, a small number have made an impact on the Abbey. Nobility of which include St. Edward the Confessor William the Conqueror Henry III, Richard II, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Mary I, Elizabeth I, James I, Charles I, George VI and Elizabeth II.
With minimal amounts of historical documentation, it is difficult to determine whether a church survived prior to Westminster Abbey (Internet Chronology). While the Venerable Bede provides no records of a pre-existing church, folklore attributes the establishment to King Serbert of the East Saxons (Internet St. Edward). He is also recognized for founding St. Paul’s Cathedral in London (St. Edward). King Serbert built the Benedictine church in 616 AD, after a fisherman is said to have been on the Thames river when he witnessed a vision of St. Peter (Internet Saint Peter). St. Peter is given credit for allegedly consecrating the church himself (Internet St. Edward). One of the Twelve Apostles, the Gospel mentions that he was the first to profess his faith believing Jesus was the Son of God (Internet Chronology). Charters found in the Abbey support the existing folklore (Chronology). Records prove that King Offa made a grant for the monastery in 785 ‘to St. Peter and the needy people of God in Thorney in the terrible, awful place which is called “act Westmunster”’ (Chronology). The charter was also significant in first naming Westminster, setting it apart from its brother to the east, St. Paul’s Cathedral (Internet St. Edward). From Glastonbury to Westminster, St. Dunstan, Bishop of London, brought twelve monks to the Abbey around 960 AD (St. Edward). A charter granting land to the church in 961, by King Edgar, refers to a church existing in the area (Internet Chronology). However a place of worship originated there, it is Edward the Confessor who is credited with the establishment of Westminster Abbey.
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Last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, Edward was born in 1004 to King Ethelred and Queen Emma (Internet St. Edward). He had a brother, Alfred, and was also the half-brother of both King Edmund Ironside and King Hardicanute (St. Edward). Edmund was Ethelred’s son from his first wife, while Hardicanute was from Emma’s second marriage with King Canute (St. Edward). In 1013 Danish invasions of England forced Emma to move her sons and herself to Normandy to live with their uncle, the Duke of Normandy (St. Edward). It was during his time living in the court of his uncle that Edward familiarized himself with the country and it’s leaders (Internet Edward). This kind of exposure later led to influence his reign (Edward).
When King Canute passed away in 1035, his illegitimate son, Harold Harefoot, seized the throne (Internet Edward). Returning to England in 1036, Alfred and Edward made an attempt to gain the crown (Internet St. Edward). However, when Alfred was captured and put to death, Edward returned to Normandy (St. Edward). It wasn’t until 1041, that Edward was called back to England to spend his time co-ruling the nation with Hardicanute (Internet Edward). In 1042, at the death of his half-brother, Edward was crowned king. The ceremony took place at Winchester Cathedral (Edward).
Due to his life spent in Normandy, Edward sympathized greatly for the country, thus angering the nobles of Danish and Saxon dissent (Internet Edward). This then led to anti-Norman opinions among the people and nobility (Edward). Godwin, Earl of Wessex, was among those who held this attitude. Ironically, he was also Edward’s father-in-law (Edward). Edith, Godwin’s daughter, was wed to Edward on 23 January 1045 (Edward). While exiled to Normandy in 1036, prior to this co-ruling with Hardicanute, Edward had made a promise to the Pope. He had vowed that should he regain his throne, he would make a pilgrimage to Rome to St. Peter’s shrine in gratitude (Internet London). Previously declaring a vow of chastity, as well as a promise of pilgrimage, Edward was forced to marry Edith in a spiritual wedding (Internet Edward). Unable to make the trip, the Pope excused Edward with the understanding that he would restore the monastery of Westminster (Internet London).
When King Edward began the reconstruction of the church in 1055, it was originally meant to house Benedictine monks from the area, and serve as a burial-place for himself (Internet Chronology). Built in the Norman form of new Romanesque style architecture, the only representation of the Confessor’s church is by studying the Bayeux Tapestry (Chronology). It shows that the abbey had a central tower, a lead covered roof and transepts (Chronology). The church was consecrated on 28 December 1065. The ceremony, although, was absent of its founder, as Edward was too ill to attend (Internet Introduction). It was only eight days later that King Edward passed away (Introduction). His body was placed in a tomb in front of the High Altar (Introduction). Ninety-six years later, in 1161, Alexander III canonized Edward (Internet St. Edward). While in the presence of King Henry II, St. Thomas of Canterbury translated the unaltered body of St. Edward on 13 October 1163 (St. Edward). To this day a feast of honor and remembrance is kept every thirteenth day of October (St. Edward).
Harold Godwinson, son of Godwin of Wessex, ascended the throne after Edward’s death (Internet London). It is believed that he is responsible for beginning the traditions of royal coronations (London). Harold’s reign only lasted a short period of time though. At the battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror defeated him (Internet Westminster Abbey). William’s coronation took place on 25 December 1066 (Internet Introduction). Attending his ceremony were both Normans and Saxons (Internet History). During which, both parties vocally expressed their approval (History). Norman soldiers stationed outside the church thought that the commotion was an attempt to assassinate William, and began to set surrounding houses on fire (History). Guests began fleeing the smoke-filled abbey (History). Meanwhile, the coronation was completed in spite of the confusion (History). Regardless of the unpleasant incident, every other noble coronation after, apart from Edward V and Edward VIII, has taken place in Westminster Abbey (Internet Introduction). This idea of noble coronations taking place in the monastery was later supported by King Henry III, who rebuilt the Abbey with a theatre for viewing the formal procedure (Internet History).
In 1216, at the age of nine, Henry III succeeded the throne (Internet History). However, with French control in London, he was instead crowned King of Gloucester Cathedral (History). It wasn’t until three years later, in Westminster Abbey, that he was crowned (History). Being a very religious man and favoring St. Edward the Confessor for his establishment of the Abbey, he believed that Edward was entitled to a more ornate resting place (History). This would also include a burial-place for himself and all those who would succeed him (History). It would also serve as a site for their coronations and burials (History).
It took until the middle of the thirteenth century, nearly two centuries later, during King Henry III’s rule, that The Confessor’s abbey was rebuilt (Internet Introduction). The architects in charge of the renovations were masters Henry ‘de Reyns’, John of Gloucester, and Robert of Beverly (Internet Chronology). He used his design, of incorporating a large central crossing in front of the High Altar, to create an immense space to house the coronation theatre (Internet History). Henry’s death, combined with a disastrous fire in 1298, and in 1349 the “Black Death” plagued the monastery slowed down construction for nearly a century (Internet Westminster Abbey). The “Black Death” took the lives of twenty-six monks and one of the abbots (Westminster Abbey). The Chapter House was built during Henry III’s rule (Westminster Abbey). The tile pavements found inside are considered one of England’s finest (Internet Westminster). One of the largest in England, it was here that the King’s Great Council congregated, and between Edward I and Henry VIII’s reigns it was the frequent location of Parliamentary meetings (Internet Westminster Abbey).
At King Henry III’s death on 16 November 1272 his son, Edward I, oldest of nine, succeeded the throne (Internet Westminster Abbey: History). He is best known for capturing the Stone of Scone in 1296 and bringing it to Westminster Abbey (Internet Coronation Chair). The ancient stone, which Scottish kings were crowned upon, was housed in a coronation chair made specifically for that purpose (Internet Coronation). The oak chair has been the setting of every monarch’s crowning since, of course with the exception of Edward V and Edward VIII, who were not crowned (Coronation).
The next great monarch to gain the crown was Richard II in 1377 (Internet History). The day before his coronation ceremony, he made a procession throughout the streets of London (History). These included entertainers and brightly decorated banners and tapestries (History). Monarchs, until Charles II, continued to organize such processions (History). During his reign, Richard completely renovated the northern entrance as well as several bays of the Westminster Abbey (Internet Richard II) He later died while imprisoned in Pontefract Castle about 14 February 1400 (Richard II). His body was transferred to the Abbey in 1413 by his cousin, Henry IV (Richard II). There he was placed next to his wife, Anne, in a tomb he had established by Richard himself, in St. Edward the Confessor’s Chapel (Richard II).
After beating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Henry VII was crowned in Westminster Abbey on 30 October of that year (Internet Henry VII). 1503 marked the foundation of the beautiful Lady Chapel at the east end of the Abbey (Henry VII). Built to honor the Virgin Mary, it was richly adorned with carved and painted walls, statues, and medieval glass (Internet Lady Chapel). Furthermore the fan-vaulted roof and Italian Sculptor Torrigiano’s craftsmanship are breathtaking (Internet Introduction). Not to mention the later added Battle of Britain window and banners of the Knights of the Order of the Bath, which encircle the chapel walls (Introduction). Also called Henry VII’s Chapel, the building of the Lady Chapel was contributed to generously by the King, and was furnished by him as well (Hunting 33). Originally meant to hold the body of his uncle, the late Henry VI (33), it would be Henry VII himself who would be the first to be buried there, along side his wife, Elizabeth, who died the same year of its establishment (Internet Abbey Tour). Their ornately adorned tomb is located behind the High Altar (Abbey Tour).
Henry VIII was crowned 24 June 1509 after King Henry VII’s death (Internet Henry VIII). Between 1536 and 1540 he put into effect the Dissolution of the Monasteries (Internet Dissolution). Also know as the Suppression of the Monasteries, Henry VIII announced himself the head of the Church of England, confiscating properties of the Roman Catholic Church (Dissolution). He spent five years coercing the Pope to withdrawal (Dissolution). With no ground being made, he chose to split from Rome (Dissolution). After separating himself from the Pope, Henry used the proceeds he was receiving from his monasteries annual income to help repay the country’s debts (Dissolution). This later led to him taking control of all monasteries with incomes of less than £200 (Dissolution). When this didn’t raise the expected amount of money, the King passed a law in 1539, which gave him every church in England (Dissolution). When abbots refused to sign their abbeys over to him, Henry had them executed (Dissolution). These monasteries, combined with monastic hospitals and schools, had a total property value of around £200,000 (Dissolution). After King Henry VIII sold the abbeys, many of which were back to the townspeople, he averaged around £37,000 annually (Dissolution). Calculations show that Henry’s revenue from the abbeys proved to only be around twenty percent of the amount the monks were capable of obtaining from them (Dissolution). During these times, St. Edward the Confessor’s Shrine was robbed of its valuables and torn down (Internet Castles). Other tombs were being robbed and vestiges were ruined during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (Castles).
At the age of nine, after his father’s death, Edward VI received the crown (Internet Edward VI). Educated by Protestant tutors, he was declared Protestant as well and did away with many Catholic practices and beliefs (Edward VI). Tables replaced altars, priests were kept from wearing intricate vestments and allowed to marry, and Holy Communion took the place of mass; Jesus Christ was represented by the bread and wine, instead of becoming it (Edward VI). Predestination was accepted; an idea in which your eternal life in heaven or hell is predetermined, no amount of good works, donations or prayers may change that (Edward VI). King Edward VI, at the age of fifteen, died and was expected to be succeeded by his daughter Mary (Edward VI). Instead, Lady Jane Grey, granddaughter of Henry VIII’s youngest sister, was announced Queen of England (Edward VI). Her reign lasted a mere nine days, before Mary asserted her rightful place on the throne on 19 July 1553 (Edward VI).
Mary Tudor had always rejected the change of religions her father Edward IV had made, while her brother Edward VI had accepted it (Internet Mary I). Her refusal to be crowned in the same chair as Edward VI resulted in a second coronation chair, the queen’s (Internet History). Prior to the service, the Pope blessed another chair and the original Coronation Chair was then used as the throne (History). During her reign she worked towards returning England to Catholicism (Internet Mary I). Mary used force to carry out this effort by passing a set of Heresy Laws making Protestantism a crime, punishable by death, in England (Internet Monarchs). Her death toll totaled 227 men and fifty-six women who were burned at the stakes (Internet Mary I). Her reputation for this behavior spread and she was nicknamed “Bloody Mary” (Mary I). While more Catholics had died during Mary’s successor, Elizabeth’s, rule than Protestants during Mary’s, Queen Mary’s death toll was greatly higher when the length of their reigns are taken into consideration (Mary I). Under her rule, the Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor underwent partial repair, placing the coffin in the top part of a stone base, with a canopy positioned on top (Internet Edward’s Chapel).
Queen Mary died on 17 November 1554 in London from cancer, and was then buried in Westminster Abbey, under what would afterward become a monument to Elizabeth (Internet Mary I). At the death of her sister Elizabeth I received the crown (Internet History). It was with her coronation on 15 January 1559 that the Latin ceremony was initially introduced to the English language (History). Due to this change, many refusals by bishops, on top of the absence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, left the Bishop of Carlisle to crown the Queen (History).
Quickly after becoming Queen, Elizabeth made changes in parliament, affecting the Abbey (Internet Mary I). Her main priority was to resolve all religious conflicts (Internet Elizabeth I). Lacking a religious status, Elizabeth was able to formulate a compromise, essentially re-founding Henrician reforms, where a monarch holding control of the church (Elizabeth I). In 1560 Westminster Abbey was reestablished as the present Collegiate Church of St. Peter under the Queen’s Royal Charter, allotting for a chapter of twelve canons and a Dean (Internet Elizabeth I and Mary I), whom became responsible for part of Westminster’s public government (Internet Introduction). It wasn’t until the twentieth century that this duty was given up (Introduction). She also integrated a school, now called Westminster School, to house forty scholars (Elizabeth I and Mary I). Queen Elizabeth died on 24 March 1603, unmarried and nicknamed the ‘Virgin Queen’ for that reason (Internet Monarchs). Elizabeth was buried in the vault of King Henry VII, her grandfather (Internet Elizabeth I and Mary I). A monument was created in her memory by her successor, King James I (Elizabeth I and Mary I). Her memorial was the last to be erected for any monarch buried in Westminster Abbey (Elizabeth I and Mary I).
James VI of Scotland was left the throne by his cousin, Elizabeth I, when she died (Internet History). The son of Mary Queen of Scots, he traveled to London and was crowned King James I of England (History). James was the first Scottish king in 300 years to be crowned while sitting on the Stone of Scone (History). He also is credited for uniting the English and the Scottish crowns (History). He erected an extravagant tomb in the south aisle of the Lady Chapel for his mother, Mary Queen of Scots (Internet Mary of Scots). Previously buried in Peterborough Cathedral, she was moved to Westminster in 1612 and set to rest there (Mary of Scots). After his death, King James was also buried in the Lady Chapel, next to Henry VII (Internet History).
Charles I’s coronation in February of 1626 marked the first time the anthem “I was glad…” was sung at such a ceremony (Internet History). At the same time, it would be the last time the ancient coronation regalia, or ceremonial dress, would be used (History). The son of James VI, he asked Parliament for money to fund fighting against Irish rebels, but was given none (Internet Stuart Monarchs). Which led to their dismissal in 1629 (Stuart Monarchs). In 1640, Charles was forced to call Parliament back when his financial condition had become severe (Stuart Monarchs).Determined to make certain that their positions had more stability, Parliament passed a set of commands which ordered the powers of the King to be reduced while more powers were given to themselves (Internet Charles I). This guided the way for a civil war in England, between those in support of Charles and those in favor of his parliament (Charles I). This war led to the King’s execution in 1649 (Internet History).
George V gained the throne in 1910 after his father, King Edward VII, passed away (Internet British). During King George V’s supremacy the grave of the Unknown Warrior was built at the west end of the Nave in Westminster Abbey (Internet Library). Established to commemorate all those who fought for Britain in the Great War of 1914-1918, the body of an unidentified soldier was placed in the tomb on 11 November 1920 (Internet People). The body, brought from France, was enclosed in the grave along with soil from whence it came (People). An inscription on the tomb, written by the Dean of Westminster Herbert Ryle, reads:
Beneath this stone rests the body of a British warrior unknown by name or rank, brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the Land. And buried here on Armistice Day 11 November 1920, in the presence of his majesty King George V, his ministers of state, the chiefs of his forces and a vast concourse of the nation; Thus are commemorated the many multitudes who, during the Great War of 1914-1918, gave the most that man can give, life itself for God, for king and country, for loved ones home and empire, for the sacred cause of justice and the freedom of the world; They buried him among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward his house (Internet People).
King George V died on 20 January 1936 at an age of seventy (Internet Facts).
At the death of George V, Edward VIII was to succeed the throne, but as he renounced his succession to marry, his brother George VI became king (Internet Facts). His coronation took place, as usual, at Westminster Abbey on 12 May 1937 (Facts). While king, George oversaw the construction of the Royal Air Force Chapel positioned in the Lady Chapel (Internet Royal). It is devoted to those men of the Royal Air Force whom through the months of July and October of 1940 died at the Battle of Britain (Royal).
When these monarchs are taken into consideration, much of England’s history has revolved around Westminster Abbey. From the thirteenth century on, coronations, burials, ceremonies or parliamentary procedures have taken place at the Abbey. Allowing it to become a central part of British lifestyle and illustrative historical documentation. The Abbey has become famous all over the world for its continuous religious and political involvement in the development of its country’s citizens and sovereign (Internet Introduction). Without the direct involvement from its kings and queens, the Abbey wouldn’t be what it is today; a monastery where pilgrimages are made, ceremonies held, and daily worship is still present.
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