The Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, popularly known as Westminster Abbey, is a large, mainly Gothic church, in the City of Westminster, London, United Kingdom, located just to the west of the Palace of Westminster. It is the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English, later British and later still (and currently) monarchs of the Commonwealth realms. The abbey is a Royal Peculiar and briefly held the status of a cathedral from 1540 to 1550.
Westminster Abbey is a collegiate church governed by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, as established by Royal charter of Queen Elizabeth I in 1560, which created it as the Collegiate Church of St Peter Westminster and a Royal Peculiar under the personal jurisdiction of the Sovereign. The members of the Chapter are the Dean and four residentiary canons, assisted by the Receiver General and Chapter Clerk. One of the canons is also Rector of St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, and often holds also the post of Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons. In addition to the Dean and canons, there are at present two full-time minor canons, one is precentor, and the other is sacrist. The office of Priest Vicar was created in the 1970s for those who assist the minor canons. Together with the clergy and Receiver General and Chapter Clerk, various lay officers constitute the college, including the Organist and Master of the Choristers, the Registrar, the Auditor, the Legal Secretary, the Surveyor of the Fabric, the Head Master of the Choir School, the Keeper of the Muniments and the Clerk of the Works, as well as 12 lay vicars, 10 choristers and the High Steward and High Bailiff. There are also 40 Queen’s Scholars who are pupils at Westminster School (the School has its own Governing Body). Those who are most directly concerned with liturgical and ceremonial matters are the two minor canons and the organist and Master of the Choristers.
Since the coronations in 1066 of both King Harold and William the Conqueror, coronations of English and British monarchs were held in the Abbey. Henry III was unable to be crowned in London when he first came to the throne because the French prince Louis had taken control of the city, and so the king was crowned in Gloucester Cathedral. However, this coronation was deemed by the Pope to be improper, and a further coronation was held in the Abbey on 17 May 1220. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the traditional cleric in the coronation ceremony.
King Edward’s Chair (or St Edward’s Chair), the throne on which English and British sovereigns have been seated at the moment of coronation, is housed within the Abbey and has been used at every coronation since 1308. From 1301 to 1996 (except for a short time in 1950 when it was temporarily stolen by Scottish nationalists), the chair also housed the Stone of Scone upon which the kings of Scots are crowned. Although the Stone is now kept in Scotland, in Edinburgh Castle, at future coronations it is intended that the Stone will be returned to St Edward’s Chair for use during the coronation ceremony.
Since 1100, there have been at least 16 royal weddings at Westminster Abbey. Only two were weddings of reigning monarchs (Henry I andRichard II), and there were none at all for more than five centuries between 1382 and 1919
Henry III rebuilt the Abbey in honour of the Royal Saint Edward the Confessor whose relics were placed in a shrine in the sanctuary. Henry III himself was interred nearby, as were many of the Plantagenet kings of England, their wives and other relatives. Until the death ofGeorge II in 1760, most Kings and Queens were buried in the Abbey, some notable exceptions being Edward IV, Henry VIII and Charles I who are buried in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Most monarchs and royals who died after 1760 are buried either in St George’s Chapel or at Frogmore to the east of Windsor Castle.
From the Middle Ages, aristocrats were buried inside chapels, while monks and other people associated with the Abbey were buried in the Cloisters and other areas. One of these was Geoffrey Chaucer, who was buried here as he had apartments in the Abbey where he was employed as master of the King’s Works. Other poets, writers and musicians were buried or memorialised around Chaucer in what became known as Poets’ Corner. Abbey musicians such as Henry Purcell were also buried in their place of work.
Subsequently, it became one of Britain’s most significant honours to be buried or commemorated here.The practice of burying national figures in the Abbey began under Oliver Cromwell with the burial of Admiral Robert Blake in 1657. The practice spread to include generals, admirals, politicians, doctors and scientists such as Isaac Newton, buried on 4 April 1727, and Charles Darwin, buried 26 April 1882. Another was William Wilberforce, the man who abolished slavery in the United Kingdom and the Plantations, he was buried on 3 August 1833, Wilberforce was buried in the north transept, close to his friend the former Prime Minister William Pitt.
During the early 20th century it became increasingly common to bury cremated remains rather than coffins in the Abbey. In 1905 the actor Sir Henry Irving was cremated and his ashes buried in Westminster Abbey, thereby becoming the first person ever to be cremated prior to interment at the Abbey. Since 1936, no individual has been buried in a coffin in Westminster Abbey or its cloisters; the only exceptions to this rule are the Dukes of Northumberland, who own a private vault in the Abbey.
In the floor, just inside the great west door, in the centre of the nave, is the tomb of The Unknown Warrior, an unidentified British soldier killed on a European battlefield during the First World War. He was buried in the Abbey on 11 November 1920. There are many graves on the floors of the Abbey, but this is the only grave upon which it is forbidden to step.
In 1998 10 vacant statue niches at the West Gate were filled with representative 20th century martyrs.
Westminster School and Westminster Abbey Choir School are also in the precincts of the Abbey. It was natural for the learned and literate monks to be entrusted with education, and Benedictine monks were required by the Pope to maintain a charity school in 1179.
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