Architecture of Westminster Abbey
Article By: Francesca Burke
A church has been on the site of Westminster Abbey for over 1,000 years.
Origins of Westminster Abbey
There seems to have been a church community on the site of Westminster Abbey since about 785CE. In fact, it was once a Benedictine monastery! Edward the Confessor built a large new church on the site in 1065. Henry III, an admirer of Edward the Confessor, pulled down most of the building in 1245 in order to construct the current, spectacular abbey, which was the first Romanesque-style church in England.
Technically, Westminster Abbey isn’t actually an abbey. It was designated a ‘Royal Peculiar’ in 1560 and is responsible directly to the sovereign! Old names die hard, though…
Architecture of the Abbey
The Abbey’s design was strongly influenced by French architecture and then-new French cathedrals in Reims, Amiens, and Chartes. Architectural details include Gothic pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, flying buttresses and round stained glass ‘rose windows’. Construction took decades, and although different parts of the building were added at different times, they are all in a similar style.
Several architects had a hand in the Abbey. Mason Henry Yevele started rebuilding the Norman-style nave in the late 1300s and construction continued for about 150 years! Yevele followed the Gothic style of architecture and it was him who added flying buttresses, which allowed the ceiling to be raised to 31 metres. Additionally, English Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor and fellow architect John James added the western towers in around 1745. The high altar was remodeled by Gothic revival architect Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1867.
The beautiful stained glass in the west window dates from 1735 and was probably designed by Sir James Thornhill and painted by William Price.
Even the pavement outside the Abbey has special significance: the intricate Cosmati Pavement was a 13th-century addition, hidden from public view until a recent renovation project.
There are almost too many architectural details to mention in one post – we really recommend heading to Westminster Abbey’s official website to learn more!
The Cosmati Floor, from Westminster-Abbey.org
Westminster Abbey Today
Every coronation since 1066 has taken place at Westminster Abbey (except for Edward V and Edward VIII, who were never crowned). The Abbey has been the place of many royal weddings, including Elizabeth II to Prince Phillip and Prince William to Catherine Middleton. It has also held state funerals and is quite crowded with tombs and memorials. Sir Isaac Newton is buried there along with several monarchs and aristocrats. Poets’ Corner, in the South Transept, is the final resting place of Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Laurence Oliver and many more.
Today, Westminster Abbey is open to visitors from Monday to Saturday, with tours available. Learn more about visiting the Abbey here.