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This most famous of all English abbeys is situated within the precincts of the Royal Palace of Westminster, like Holyrood in Scotland and the Escurial in Spain. Its site, on the northern side of the River Thames, a mile or two above the ancient City of London, was formerly known as Thorney or the Isle of Thorns. The date of the foundation of the abbey is quite uncertain. The Venerable Bede (d. 736) does not mention it, but an early and long-received tradition ascribes it to Sebert, King of the East Saxons, who likewise founded St. Paul's, London. The given is 616 and the church is said to have been miraculously consecrated by St. Peter himself. But though this is mere legend, invented probably in the thirteenth century, it is tolerably certain that the monastery existed as early as the eighth century, for it is in a charter of King Ofa, dated 785, that it is first called Westminster, to distinguish it apparently from the minster of St. Paul's to the east. There is also extant a tenth century charter of King Edgar in which the boundaries of the abbey property are defined, and according to William of Malmesbury, St. Dunsan brought twelve Benedictine monks from Glastonbury to Westminster about 960, though the authenticity of this statement has been doubted.
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At any rate, whatever the beginnings may have been, it is quite certain that there was an important church standing, and a community of Benedictines in existence at Westminster, when Edward the Confessor began to build in 1055. Of this first Saxon church and monastery no traces remain, and even its plan and site are for the most part conjectural. During his exile in Normandy Edward had vowed to make a pilgrimage to Rome if he should regain his throne. The pope absolved him from this vow on condition that he built or restored an abbey in honour of St. Peter, and this condition Edward fulfilled at Westminster, his friend Edwin being abbot at the time. The earlier buildings were demolished to make way for the new choir and transepts, which were finished and consecrated in 1065, a few days before the king's death. The monastery was planned for seventy monks, but the actual number seems never to have been more than about fifty. The nave of the church was begun in 1110 and completed about 1163 when the Confessor's relics were translated, on his canonization, to a stately shrine in the middle of the choir. Early in the thirteenth century a large eastern lady-chapel was substituted for the small semi-circular one behind Edward's high altar, and this was consecrated in 1220. The growing needs of the community and the constant stream of pilgrims to the tomb of the miracle-working Confessor soon necessitated further changes, and, aided by the munificence of Henry III, a period of great building activity set in. The demolition of the Norman church began in 1245, and during the next thirty years the whole of the eastern part of the church, together with about half the nave, were rebuilt, and the shrine of St. Edward was moved to its present position in the apse behind the high altar. The abbots during this period were Richard Crokesley and Richard Ware. The death, however, of Henry in 1272, a disastrous fire in 1298 which consumed the whole of the monastic buildings, and the "Black Death" in 1349, which carried off Abbot Byrcheston and twenty-six of his monks, so drained the resources of the abbey that all building operations ceased for nearly a century. Under Abbot Litlyngton (1362-86) the conventual parts were rebuilt, after which the western bays of the nave were taken in hand. Progress was slow, however, and the nave was not finally completed until 1517, whilst the western towers were not added until the eighteenth century. In 1502 Henry VII commenced the beautiful eastern lady-chapel which bears his name and was intended by him to enshrine the remains of his uncle Henry VI. Robert Vertue was the architect and his work is far in advance of any other contemporary building. Its wonderful fanvault has never been surpassed either in beauty of design or in the daring skill displayed in its actual construction. In this chapel stands the tomb of its pious founder who died in 1509.
As regards the internal history of Westminster, it must have been much like any other large and important monastery of the same period and apparently full of life and vigour. The "Customary", drawn up by Abbot Ware (1258-84), supplies us with the details of the daily life of the monks, but, apart from this, the close proximity of the abbey to the royal palace, the fact of its being under direct royal patronage, as well as its possessing a noted shrine much visited by pilgrims, combined to bring it prominently into the religious and civil life of the nation. The abbots were important personages with seats in the House of Lords. Their position enabled them to foster learning and the arts. The first printing-press in England was set up within the monastic precincts by Caxton in 1477 under the patronage of Abbot Esteney. Simon Langham (1349-62) deserves mention because of his being the only Abbot of Westminster to become a cardinal. He was successively Bishop of Ely, Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord High Treasurer, and Lord Chancellor, and finally Cardinal-Bishop of Palestrina. For many years he devoted large annual sums of money towards the building expenses of his old abbey, and, at his death in 1376, he bequeathed the greater part of his fortune for the same purpose. He was buried at Westminster, in St. Benedict's Chapel, where his tomb may still be seen.
In 1539 the monastery was suppressed and the monks, then less than thirty in number, were dispersed, being replaced by a dean and twelve prebendaries, who acknowledged the royal supremacy. William, Boston, or Benson, the last abbot, became the first dean. In 1540 the abbey was made the cathedral church of a new see, Thomas Thirlby being the first and only Protestant Bishop of Westminster. Ten years later this bishopric was suppressed. In 1556 Queen Mary restored Westminster to the Benedictines and Dr. John Feckenham, who had been professed at Evesham before the dissolution, was made abbot. He was the last mitred abbot to sit in the House of Lords. On the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1559, the monks were again ejected from Westminster and superseded by a Protestant dean and chapter, which arrangement has continued down to the present day. Westminster Abbey is designated a "Royal peculiar", its officials are appointed by the Crown, and the abbey itself is extra-diocesan, that is, exempt from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London in whose diocese it was situated. This exemption from episcopal jurisdiction was first obtained by Abbot Crokesley (1246-58) and has been perpetuated under the Protestant regime. The right of sanctuary was enjoyed by Westminster from Norman times, and even after the Reformation it lingered on in a modified form until finally abolished by King James I. The greater part of the old monastic buildings are now used as a public school. As was usual in all the larger monasteries, there had always been a school in the monastic cloister, the minute regulations for which may be found carefully detailed in Abbot Ware's "Customary". To replace this, at the Reformation, Henry VIII founded a new school, which was afterwards given collegiate rank by Elizabeth and it now ranks as one of the leading English public schools. The scholars of Westminster still have certain rights and privileges within the abbey itself, such as greeting the sovereign with acclamation, on behalf of the English people, at the moment of his coronation. From its earliest days Westminster has witnessed the coronations of almost all the English sovereigns and their consorts, commencing with Harold, the successor of Edward the Confessor, and William the Conqueror, in 1066. There are two coronation chairs. The first, which stands in St. Edward's Chapel against the back of the high altar screen, contains the stone on which the Scottish kings had formerly been crowned. This stone, according to legend, is supposed to have been the identical one on which Jacob rested his head at Bethel, and to have been taken thence to Egypt and then through Spain to Ireland, about 700 B.C., where it stood upon the sacred Hill of Tara, and it is said to have been removed thence to Scone in Scotland, in 330 B.C., by Fergus, the founder of the Scottish monarchy. But whatever its origin may have been, Edward I in 1297 brought it to Westminster and on it every sovereign of England since Edward II has been crowned, excepting only Edward V. The other chair, the queen's, which now stands in Henry VII's Chapel, was made for Mary, the wife of William III, who was crowned with him in 1689. Besides being the scene of their coronations, Westminster is also the burial-place of many English sovereigns and their consorts, e.g. Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Richard II, Henry V , and six queens, whose tombs are in St. Edward's Chapel, and Henry VII, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth, and Mary Tudor, and Margaret, the widow of Henry V, who lie buried in Henry VII's Chapel. Numerous other celebrities, poets, statesmen, warriors, etc., illustrious in English history, have likewise been buried within the abbey, so that it has become a national honour to be given a resting place there, though unfortunately it cannot be said that their tombs do anything but mar the beauty of the building. The pre-Reformation tombs accord with the medieval architecture of the abbey, but those of later date, though many of them good work in themselves, are completely out of harmony with their surroundings.
The extreme length of the abbey, including Henry VII's Chapel, is 511 ft.; the width of the nave and aisles 79 ft.; and the height to the vaulting 102 ft., which is unusually lofty for an English church. Exteriorly, the want of a central tower detracts somewhat from the general effect, and the eighteenth century western towers are poor compared with the rest of the building, but the grace and beauty of the interior, in spite of the incongruous tombs and monuments, are surpassed by few other Gothic churches in the world. Much judicious restoration of the fabric has been successfully carried out in recent years. Apart from the immediate monastic precincts, the abbey domains were very extensive, comprising numerous manors and other endowments, but most of these have now passed into other hands. The revenues of the abbey at the time of the dissolution amounted to £3471 (equivalent to about £35,000 or $154,000 at the present day), but though shorn of so many of its ancient possessions, the Chapter of Westminster is still a very wealthy collegiate body.