Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey (79)

This building, a masterpiece of medieval architecture, was mainly built between the 13th and 16th centuries, although in successive centuries it underwent diverse reforms and additions. The abbey still holds regular religious services but the sanctuary is better known for being the place where the English sovereigns began to be crowned in 1066. In fact, with the exceptions of Edward V and Edward VIII, who were never crowned, all the monarchs from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II have been crowned here.

Westminster Abbey is also the spot where the mortal remains of the majority of these monarchs rest, among them those of Edward the Confessor, canonised in 1161. The figure of Edward the Confessor is of vital importance, since he was the one who ordered the abbey to be built in the 11th century over the remains of a Benedictine monastery. Some arches and columns from the Norman temple are preserved in the basement of the current cloister.

In the 13th century, King Henry III decided to rebuild the abbey completely in the Gothic style that reigned in cathedrals such as those of Amiens, Chartres or Canterbury. The monarch expressly stated his intention that this monastery and place of worship would also be the place where coronations and burials of the monarchs would take place.

The abbey is a curious mixture of French and English Gothic. This may be because, although we cannot be certain, Henry of Reynes, one of the master builders entrusted with the work, may have been French. 

On the one hand, the French influences are chiefly reflected in elements such as the use of flying buttresses and pointed arches and in the geometric proportions of the ground plan. In contrast, the mouldings of the arches, the use of Purbeck marble and the long nave with wide cross-aisles underline its English character. Perhaps you would be surprised to know that if you cast your eyes upwards you will be looking at the tallest Gothic vault in England, since the nave is raised to 31 metres height.

In the 13th century the remains of Edward the Confessor were moved to the magnificent sepulchre that today can be seen behind the high altar. It is said that Henry III was greatly devoted to this king who was raised to the category of sainthood. Another of its treasures was added to the abbey in the 16th century: the exquisite Henry VII Chapel, which replaced the old Lady Chapel. This addition has often been extolled for its total perfection.

During the same century, specifically in 1540, the Benedictine monastery was dissolved, and the abbey was given a special status, with independence from the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The new structure, headed by a Dean responsible for presiding over the chapter, received two new missions: to preserve the daily worship and to create a school to educate 40 scholars. Today it continues to carry out both tasks, although nowadays Westminster School is independent and has many more pupils. In contrast, the abbey has maintained a school to educate members of the choir.

The two towers dominating the best façade were unfinished from the medieval era, and were finally built in the 18th century according to a design by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. The stained-glass windows are from the same and the following century. Unfortunately the originals could not withstand the passing of time.

Apart from its obvious architectural merits, the abbey possesses the most important collection of monumental sculpture in the country. Without doubt, though, one of the biggest attractions for visitors is the more than 3,000 figures who are buried here. This is because traditionally, prestigious musicians, scientists, clerics, politicians and poets were buried here, many of whose names you will certainly recall. Also here is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which remembers the dead from the two world wars. 

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