Located to the west of the Palace of Westminster, the gorgeous building of Westminster Abbey, formally titled the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster, is one of the most notable religious buildings in the United Kingdom. It had the status of a cathedral between 1549 and 1556, but since 1560, it had earned the status of a Church of England Royal Peculiar, exempted from the jurisdiction of the diocese and the provincial jurisdiction and only subject to the direct jurisdiction of the monarch.
The Westminster Abbey, an architectural masterpiece of the 13th to 16th centuries, presents a unique cavalcade of British history. Since 1066, it witnessed every Coronation and numerous other royal occasions, including sixteen royal weddings since 1100. Apart from being a place of daily worship with high musical expertise, it is the burial place of kings, statesmen, poets, scientists, warriors and musicians and is the result of a process of development across the centuries.
It started in the 1040s, when King Edward, later St Edward the Confessor, established his royal palace by the banks of the River Thames, on Thorney Island, near a small monastery following the rule of St Benedict and founded under the patronage of King Edgar and St Dunstan around 960 AD. King Edward chose to re-endow the monster and enlarged it by building a large stone church in honour of St Peter the Apostle. The new church was named the West Minster, to differentiate it from St Paul's Cathedral, the East Minster, in the City of London.
Unfortunately, the King was too ill to attend the ceremony, when the new church was consecrated on 28th December 1065 and died a few days later. His mortal remains were entombed in front of the High Altar of the church. However, the only traces of the Edward's monastery that can be seen today are in the round arches and massive supporting columns of the undercroft, which was originally part of the domestic quarters of the monks and the Pyx Chamber, one of the oldest surviving parts of Westminster Abbey, in the cloisters.
The Edward's Abbey survived until the middle of the 13th century, when King Henry III decided to rebuild it in the new Gothic style of architecture. According to the decree of the King, apart from a great monastery and a place of worship, the Westminster Abbey was also designed to be a place for the coronation and burial of the monarchs. The new church was consecrated on 13th October 1269. Unfortunately, as the king died before the nave could be completed, the older structure stood attached to the Gothic building for many years.
The glorious Lady Chapel with its fan-vaulted roof, built by King Henry VII, is a remarkable new addition to the Abbey. It was consecrated on 19th February 1516 and since 1725, it has been associated with the Most Honourable Order of the Bath and the banners of the current Knights Grand Cross surround the walls.
The Royal Air Force Chapel at the east end is decorated with the Battle of Britain memorial window by Hugh Easton. A new stained glass window above that, by Alan Younger and two flanking windows with a design in blue by Hughie O'Donoghue, added more colour to the Chapel. Designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, the two western towers of the Abbey, which were left unfinished since medieval time, were completed in 1745.
The choir stalls in the body of the church are dated from 1847, while the high altar and the reredos, the ornamental screen covering the wall at the back of the altar, were remodeled in the 1880s, by Sir George Gilbert Scott. The north transept façade was restored by Scott and JL Pearson in the 1880s.
Traces of the original medieval stained glass, which was once one of the main attractions of the Abbey, can still be found today. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries are still enriched with some of the remaining 13th century panels. The great west window and the rose window in the north date from the early 18th century, but the remainder of the glass is from the 19th century onwards. The newest stained glass, designed by David Hockney, can be seen in the Queen Elizabeth II Window.
Apart from 600 monuments, memorials and numerous wall tablets, the Westminster Abbey contains around 3,300 burials. The huge Westminster Abbey was heavily damaged in the indiscriminate bombings that ravaged London in WW II, but was restored soon after the war. In 1965-1966 the Abbey celebrated the 900th anniversary of the consecration of King Edward's abbey and in 2010, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI became the first Pope to visit the Abbey.