The Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, almost always referred to as ‘Westminster Abbey’, stands just to the west of the Palace of Westminster. It is the traditional coronation and burial church for English, and later British, monarchs. The abbey’s foundation dates from 960, when St Dunstan established a group of 12 Benedictine monks on ‘Thorney Island’, a marshy spot by the River Thames. King Edward the Confessor began rebuilding the monastery in 1045 and was buried there after his death – he was canonised in 1161. St Edward’s shrine later became the focus for religious ritual and royal burials.
In 1245, Henry III started building the present church. The design is based on the continental models, but its English features include single rather than double aisles and a long nave with wide projecting transepts. the abbey has the highest Gothic vault in England, at 31 metres (nearly 102 feet), and it was made to seem higher by making the aisles narrow. The sculptured stonework – which came from Caen in France, Reigate in Surrey and the Isle of Purbeck – would have originally been brightly coloured. The walls were adorned with fine paintings and brilliant ruby and sapphire glass, with heraldic shields filling the windows. Most of the medieval decoration has disappeared and today the abbey is filled with later monuments and works of art.
The abbey briefly became a cathedral between 1546 and 1556, after which it was made collegiate, governed by a Dean and four Canons. The abbey is also a ‘Royal Peculiar’, a church directly responsible to he sovereign, rather than a bishop. It has become one of Britain’s most significant honours to be buried or commemorated in Westminster Abbey, alongside Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.
The abbey has a long tradition as a venue for royal weddings. The first was the wedding of King Henry I and Matilda of Scotland on 11 November 1100. King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia married at Westminster on 20 January 1382, after which the abbey fell out of fashion as a venue for over 500 years. Royal weddings started again at the abbey in 1919, including the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on 20 November 1947. At the forthcoming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton tomorrow, the Dean of Westminster, the Dr John Hall, will conduct the service while the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, will marry the royal couple